In our last installment, the X-Men were feared and persecuted—not unlike a certain ethnic group, eh?
Jews in comics, Part 3:
By Larry Wilson
Making matters worse for the young X-Men is that fact that they have an opposite number, a force not so willing to just fit in and help out. The mutant super villain Magneto sees the worst of humanity coming at him and his kind, and deploys his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants to strike back not only at the government, but at Xavier’s students as well.
The result of the clashes between the rival groups of mutants is that despite the well intentioned efforts of the X-Men… no matter how many times they save the day… they are still mistrusted by the general public.
All Wear PJs
The undertones of the Jewish experience and the issue of minority rights are dwarfed by the fact that this is a super hero action story aimed at kids. As played out in the “Merry Marvel Manner” as Lee called it, Xavier and his X-Men are the good guys and Magneto and his gang are the bad guys, and they all wear pajamas.
All that changed however in the mid 1970s when writer Chris Claremont came on board. Despite his non-Jewish-sounding name, this London-born, New York-raised lad is Jewish… he even spent time on an Israeli kibbutz in his youth. (And, hey, with a last name like Wilson… I think I know all the Jews with non-Jewish-sounding last names!)
Claremont took the foundation that Lee, Kirby, and his immediate predecessor Len Wein laid down and dramatically ran with it. He was the hinge on the door that opened the Judaic references from appearing in between the lines… to right in your face. From this moment on Jewish creators were much more open with the Jewishness of their medium and the characters and stories within it.
Claremont wrote the X-Men for an unprecedented 17 years, eclipsing even Lee and Kirby’s long run on Fantastic Four. His Magneto was a Jewish survivor of Nazi concentration camps who believed that the worst of humanity’s prejudices would always prevail, as he had seen in his youth.
He believed if they could come for the Jews, they would certainly come for the Mutants. He was an openly declared radical, looking out only for his people. Claremont’s Magneto had weight, credence… and was scary. Adding to the fright he brought on the illustrated page was the probability that many readers may have actually been rooting for him to attain his goals.
Just Like Malcolm X
Subsequent writers followed in the same vein as Claremont and many of them, and comics fans alike, make the case that the beliefs of Professor Xavier and Magneto are clearly analogous to the real life juxtaposition between the tactics of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. One is a peacekeeper working within the system, while the other is the radical looking to blow it up. While their point is well taken, Magneto’s method of operation may be more closely aligned with the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League.
Rabbi Kahane’s JDL is said to have coined the phrase, “Never Again,” and while many thought his goals commendable, frequently his actions were criminal.
Due to the atrocities performed upon his people by racists, you could say he cared so deeply about them that he was blind to the rights of others. He was a huge supporter of the state of Israel as homeland to the Jews and advocated that all Jews return there to live. But he also felt that all other peoples should get out, and supported force if need be to attain that goal.
Many thought he was becoming the very racist he hated. And if not a racist, he could certainly be seen as a separatist. Kahane also founded an Israeli political party hoping to attain his goals through a leadership position in government, but his party was eventually outlawed and he never rose to power.
Like Kahane’s JDL, Magneto felt his Brotherhood of Mutants were the good guys, carrying out justice on behalf of persecuted Mutants everywhere. He also supported the creation of a homeland for the Mutant race, eventually attaining one in the fictional country of Genosha. But for all his experience and wisdom, a politician Magneto was not. Eventually the country crumbled violently under his feet, perhaps in answer to the question of what might have happened if Kahane’s party ever succeeded in taking power in Israel.
Comic book rule #1: Good guys win, bad guys lose, and tyrants fail… every time.
As time marched on from the 1970’s to the present, more Jewish creators entered the field producing exciting work. Names like Marv Wolfman, Peter David, Judd Winick, John Bogdanove, Brian Michael Bendis, and others kept readers coming back month after month.
Invents Graphic Novel
Stellar work was done by newcomers and old masters alike. One such master was Will Eisner, who created yet another mode of expression in comic form… the graphic novel. His “A Contract with God,” published in 1978, is seen by many as the first. It is a semi-autobiographical account of Jewish life in a Bronx tenement of the 1930s. Graphic novels are now an integral part of modern day publishing as booksellers have sold millions of them since Eisner’s effort.
In the 1980s Art Spiegelman’s classic “Maus” series premiered in the pages of RAW Magazine. It was a dramatic retelling of the Holocaust era experiences of his father, and the difficulties of post war life for his family.
The graphic twist on the very serious subject matter is that the Jews are represented by mice, while non-Jewish Germans are portrayed as cats. This stunning visual tip of the cap to the ‘funny animal’ comics of years past made the presentation true to the art form while being faithful to the story being told.
Readers found these pages even more stark than they would have if the characters were just rendered in human form. In 1992 this seminal work earned Spiegleman a Pulitzer Prize.
Also noteworthy is Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s “Sandman,” re-imagined by writer Neil Gaiman in 1988. This acclaimed series followed the ‘master of dreams’ and often utilized Judaic mysticism. Certainly places Simon and Kirby would never have thought to go.
More Jewish super heroes started to show up as well. Again Chris Claremont paved the way when he introduced the popular Kitty Pryde in the pages of the X-Men in 1980. In 1983 Howard Chaykin launched the influential “American Flagg!” series. Jewish readers were also thrilled to learn that characters like Moon Knight, Doc Sampson, and others were suddenly declared to be Jewish.
In the male-dominated corporate offices that produced the comics, the daughter of a rabbi, Harvard graduate Jenette Kahn, rose to become DC’s publisher in 1976 and president in 1981. Along with the able assistance of editor and executive vice-president Paul Levitz, it was DC Comics that now pushed the creative envelope while at the same time expanding the line into other profitable entertainment vehicles. Kahn left DC in 2002, but not before becoming a champion of creative rights in a business where there was little to none of it before.
Finally, Money Recognition
By the 1970s, Siegel and Shuster had spent decades in the cold wilderness. Long ago their contract expired and they were to never again pen the adventures of their creation. They had many lean years of struggle as they did not own the character they created and received no residuals. This all changed during the Kahn administration as they were finally awarded a $20,000 a year stipend for the rest of their lives.
After years of acrimony with DC’s front office Jerry and Joe felt they had a real friend in Levitz, who would take care of them. I can think of no greater compliment.
It has been said that Levitz pushed for larger amounts for the legendary creators as the years went by, and it has been assumed he achieved that goal. We don’t know because he did it quietly, with no fanfare, in the great Jewish tradition. It is known that whatever Levitz achieved for Superman’s creators, their families continue to receive payments to this day.
Levitz succeeded Kahn as DC’s president in 2002 and held the position until 2009, but he is also a very gifted writer who wrote a memorable run of DC’s first super-team, the Justice Society of America, in the 70s. He’s best loved, however, as the chronicler of DC’s futuristic super-team, the Legion of Superheroes. He first wrote them in in the late 70s, and from 1981 through 1989. When he stepped down as president, he returned to scripting the Legion and continues to do so.
What Happened to Gaines?
But what of Max Gaines, the man who started this story?
Gaines died a premature death in 1947 in Lake Placid when he sacrificed himself by tossing a friend’s son out of the way of a speeding boat, and taking the blow for himself. But as you’ve read, he was no one-trick-pony in the comics business. After leaving DC he formed his own successful EC Comics, which his son William inherited. And what did William do with his father’s legacy?
Why, he only founded MAD Magazine with Harvey Kurtzman in 1952! (A title that continues to be published to this day, as does a Cartoon Network television series of the same name.)
Jews and comic books. Comic books and Jews. Intertwined for so long, heroically persevering no matter what fate befalls them or where they are located. Always adaptable to the times and circumstances imposed on them.
Together they survived the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the next decade, Jews endured Hitler and World War II, while comics raised millions in the War Bonds drive. Comics also went to war with our troops as special inspirational strips were produced for our GIs by some of the very same Jewish creators you’ve read about here.
In the 1950s American Jews endured the inquisition that was the McCarthy hearings, while comic books evolved past Kefauver’s questioning. Overall, comic books and the Jews who create them have flourished and soared as high as their imaginations and abilities could take them.
Today there are new challenges from the internet, netbooks, and whatever technology is just around the corner. But this medium has proven one of the best avenues for visual storytelling, and people love to tell stories… especially the Jewish people.
Oh, and just in case you were concerned, the future is bright for the Jewish people. Or so says Paul Levitz. In one of his Legion of Superheroes tales set in the 30th Century, he asserts that the hero, Colossal Boy, is Jewish. Colossal Boy’s mother also happens to be the president of Earth!
It sure took long enough, don’t you think?