In 1933, Jewish born Maxwell Gaines had an idea that would not only change his life, but alter the course of pop culture forever. He had the idea to make a magazine collection consisting of popular comic strips which would be published in the daily paper. One year after his breakthrough idea, Gaines published the first-ever comic book beginning a reoccurring theme of Jews creating and working within the comic book industry. As a result, Jewish themes became increasingly evident within the comic books themselves and more and more Jewish creators and themes, led to the creation of specifically Jewish comic books. Without Jewish influences, comic books could not have become the fixture in pop culture that they are today.
Maxwell Gaines’ story is like that of many other Jewish creators who were all major influences of the history and development of comic books. Sheldon Mayer, a writer working for McClure newspapers, saw potential in Gaines’ work. When Mayer saw Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original version of Superman in 1938, he decided to champion the idea and kept the project from being thrown away. Both Siegel and Shuster are the children of Jewish immigrants and lived in New York. The fascinating story of how the two New York Jews created the iconic superhero is highlighted in the widely acclaimed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. Although Siegel and Shuster’s influence is undeniable, their collaboration is just one example of the wide array of Jewish influence in the history of comic books.
If there was a Mount Rushmore of comic book creators, undoubtedly, front and center would be Stan Lee. Stanley Martin Lieber was born in New York City on December 28, 1922. Like many other artists of the period, he changed his name to gain acceptance. But he never forgot his Jewish identity. In a period known as the golden age of comics, Lee went on to nourish and grow a stable of comic book heroes that would surpass all others for the renowned publisher, Marvel Comics. The iconic lineup of characters included the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Hulk, Thor and Spiderman.
Alongside Lee at Marvel comics was another Titan of the industry, Jack Kirby. Kirby was born as Jacob Kurtzberg in New York City, but like Lee, decided to adopt a shorter surname in order to seem more relatable to non-Jews. Although Kirby does not receive nearly as much acclaim as Stan Lee, he is every bit his equal. Kirby is credited with creating the “Marvel Method”. The “Marvel Method” revolutionized the comic book industry by allowing artists to work without a script. Dialogue fitting a generalized story path was added later. This process allowed for comic books to be created much faster, which was necessary given the need to expand the supply to meet ever increasing demand for the characters adventures.
Following the influx of Jewish creators, Jewish themes in comic books became more evident over time in the comic book industry. A common theme present in comic books is that of portraying the superheroes as Mensches. In Yiddish, a Mensch is described as, ‘a person of integrity and honor’ and often help other members of their community. Such characteristics can be seen in most superheroes. In comic books, the superheroes is often helping others when they are in their alto egos or “off duty”. Being true Mensches, superheroes go out of their way to help people in times of crisis, or even when they need help on an emotional level. Many comic book creators used the ideal guide of being a Mensch to create an outline for how an ideal superhero should act. In a way, the Mensch in Jewish culture is that of a real life superhero.
Another major theme in comic books is dealing with traumatic loss, especially the death of a parent. Characters face deep moral questions relating to the ideas of their own principles and how to honor the dead. This circumstance can be seen in a multitude of comic book series, some of the most notable being Superman, Batman, and Spiderman. Dealing with death is a very important part of the Jewish religion. Jews undergo special rituals following the death of a loved one which include prayers and other traditions that last far beyond the funeral service. In Fantastic Four No. 56 (Vol. 3), “Remembrance of Things Past’ the character The Thing digs deep into his Jewish roots and recites the Mourner’s Kaddish in Hebrew while kneeling over the body of a dying friend. Jewish comic book creators implemented their religion into the major themes of their comics.
Jewish writers also used the Holocaust as a reoccurring setting for many of their comic books. One of the most well-known comic books set in World War ll was Captain America. Arguments have been presented as to whether or not the character was Jewish himself, but regardless, it is clear he fought against the Nazis. In many volumes of his storyline and the writers intended for Captain America to rally his readers against the Axis Powers. The Nazis were portrayed as evil and Captain America was an American hero doing his country justice by fighting them. This was a very influential piece of how the Jews used comic books as a medium for conveying their political ideas, while at the same time influencing the youth into fighting a war and helping the Jewish cause.
Perhaps one of the biggest signs of Jewish influence in comic books can be seen in the characters themselves. In the Marvel Universe, many characters hint at their religious affiliation, but few fully address it. During the 1960’s, a time where a majority of well-known characters were created, it was still considered taboo to address religion in most forms of entertainment. However, as previously mentioned, one character that does address his religion is Benjamin Grimm, better known as The Thing. The Thing often wrestles with his Jewish past when faced with hurting others. But perhaps a more interesting aspect of the character is his direct relationship with God. Early on in the Fantastic Four storyline, The Thing is brought back to life by God, and this leads the character to open up about his Judaism. He admits that he felt pressured to suppress his religion, a direct parallel with his creators who hid their religious identities behind false names. The Thing effectively erased the stigma of religion, allowed for a population of readers to be more open to the ideas of different religions, and inspired creators to be more experimental in portraying religion in pop culture.
One of the most well-known Marvel comics storylines is that of the X-Men, who are anchored by a predominately Jewish backstory. Two main characters from the X-Men universe are Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Max Eisenhardt (Magneto). Both characters are Jewish and were interned in Nazi camps during World War Two. Their creators did not try to hide their religion, and their Judaism is actually highlighted in the plot of many X-Men comics. This was later followed by film adaptations of the series, X Men (2000) and X Men: First Class (2011). The films did not leave out any details about the characters religious affiliations. Instead, they became essential themes. This shows that it is more culturally acceptable to highlight religion in entertainment during the 21st century. Overall the storyline of X-Men revolves around mutants being singled out and treated as outcasts in society. This has a deeper meaning in that it represents how Jews have been singled out and attempted to be removed by many cultures.
Currently, there is an entire subgenre of comic books that all relate to Judaism. Graphic novels such as Maus by Art Spiegelman take events such as the Holocaust and make them into historical fictions using the comic book style. Graphic novels such as Maus have become popularized when teaching about the Holocaust, and become esteemed in the Jewish community. Maus has received Pulitzer Prize in the Special Awards and Citations. Jews have influenced comic books so heavily that there is an entire subgenre dedicated to Jewish comic books.
Without the subtle inclusion of Jewish themes, culture and characters, comic books may have not survived, let alone flourished. For over five decades, in the mediums of both print and film, comic books have become a colossal force in pop culture. They have won major awards, and their film adaptations are among the highest grossing Hollywood movies ever made. We have to thank those Jewish pioneers that created the modern comic books and who were the driving force behind their massive growth in popularity. Their story of influence represents a larger theme of overcoming diversity barriers. Hopefully, the history and success of Jews in the comic book industry will serve as a beacon for other minorities to be creative and similarly change the world for the better.