Jews in Comic Books

How American Jews created the comic book industry.

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Graphic Novels

By the mid-1980s, the novel-length comics narrative, or "graphic novel," was riding its first wave of mainstream popularity in part thanks to Art Spiegelman's groundbreaking work Maus. A memoir in comics form about Spiegelman's father's experiences during the Holocaust, the book also involved a frame story about Spiegelman's dysfunctional relationship with his father in the present day. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Maus is that the characters in the book are drawn as animals: Jews are mice, Germans are cats. In 1992, a year after part two of Maus was released, Spiegelman's work won the Pulitzer Prize, the first such honor for a graphic novel or comic book.

Of course, Spiegelman wasn't the first person to popularize the graphic novel; Will Eisner, creator of the 1940s comic strip The Spirit, created the graphic novel A Contract With God in 1978. A collection of four stories about the Bronx tenement life of Eisner's youth, A Contract With God's title story involved Frimme Hersh, a pious Jew who renounces his faith when his young daughter dies. And Harvey Pekar, an unassuming Jewish file clerk from Cleveland, has spent the past thirty years chronicling the minutiae of his life in the pages of the autobiographical comic book series American Splendor.

Today, Jewish-themed graphic novels are more common than ever before. This wealth of new work includes graphic novels such as James Sturm's The Golem's Mighty Swing, Miriam Katin's We Are On Our Own, Ben Katchor's The Jew of New York, and Joe Kubert's Yossel: April 19, 1943. We can only guess what the future has in store for Jewish comic book creators. But the proverbial writing is on the wall--and in this case, that writing is encased in a word balloon.

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Arie Kaplan

Arie Kaplan is the author of the critically-acclaimed nonfiction book From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books (JPS). He's also a comic book writer and a screenwriter. Recently, Arie wrote the story and dialogue for the upcoming House M.D. videogame. Please check out his website, www.ariekaplan.com.