You probably know that Superman’s co-creator, Toronto-born Joe Shuster, was Jewish.
However, people may not be aware that Batman, Flash, Green Lantern and Archie comic characters like Betty, Veronica and Jughead, also have Jewish origins.
The Jewish connection to comic books is the subject of a new show at the Beth Tzedec Museum. Zap! Pow! Oy! Jews and the Comic Book Industry showcases the Jewish story tellers, comic book artists and publishers who influenced the comic book industry over the last 80 years.
The exhibit – it runs through March 2019 – was organized by Ron Kasman, a Toronto cartoon artist, and Steven Bergson, a technology specialist at the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. He has considerable expertise in Jewish-themed comic books.
Last winter Dorion Liebgott, the museum curator, said Kasman approached her about mounting a show about Jews and comic books.
Gella Rothstein, co-chair of the Beth Tzedec Museum with Emily Snow, told the 100 visitors assembled for the Oct. 23 opening that a committee member made a “shidduch” with Kasman and Bergson.
“They wrote the scripts, loaned us their treasures, sourced images” and guided us step by step. “They did it all voluntarily,” Rothstein said.
Bergson, an editor of the Jewish Comix Anthology, also writes a blog about comic books with Jewish content. As a former librarian he is able to source contemporary Jewish-themed comic books.
He also does book reviews for the Association of Jewish Libraries.
Bergson said he was particularly interested in the work of Will Eisner, a cartoonist, teacher and publisher, who focused on a longer story-telling format in the late ’70s.
Many of Eisner’s graphic novels such as A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories, The Building and Dropsie Avenue depict the Jewish immigrant experience.
Bergson said his last book, The Plot: the Secret Story of the Protocols of Zion, was an account of the hoax behind the dissemination of the anti-Semitic Protocols of Zion.
He noted that Jewish-themed graphic novels became more prolific after Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for Maus: A Survivor’s Tale.
Kasman, author of the graphic novel, The Tower of the Comic Book Freaks, was a letterer for DC, the artist for Captain Canuck, a Canadian syndicated comic strip, and he created a graphic novel about William Lyon Mackenzie.
In 1972, when he was a student at York University, he was an organizer of Canada’s first comic book convention.
He said comic books were a mass media during his childhood. “Everybody read them, but I never stopped.”
When Marvel Comics began crediting its creators, Kasman noticed that editors, Julius Schwartz, Mort Weisinger, Robert Kanigher and Jack Schiff were Jewish.
Later Kasman discovered that the content creators were also Jewish. Stanley Lee was actually Stanley Martin Lieber and Jack Kirby was Jacob Kurtzberg.
In the ’20s some Jewish owners of small print shops in New York City became publishers of sheet music, Hebrew books, and pulp magazines, like The Shadow.
Newspapers then all had comic sections known as the funny pages and some publishers reproduced that material as comic books, Kasman explained.
“Around 1935 Max Gaines – he was Jewish – came up with the idea of publishing comic books with new material. Max Gaines, was the inventor of the modern comic book.”
Kasman noted that comics became a big fad with the publication of Superman in 1938.
“After Superman people understood that a lot of money could be made with these characters in ‘long underwear.’”
In those days two billion comic books were sold a year. “It was truly a mass media.”
But with the advent of television, comic book readership began to decline. “Sales dropped like a rock. Only 99 million comic books were sold in North America in 2017.”
However, he pointed out there is now a new respect for the art form of comics and graphic novels. “This year a comic book was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. We’ve really come far.”