Jewish Influences and Themes in American Comics

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The sixth floor of Schermerhorn is rarely the place to be seen on a Wednesday night, but on her way up the stairs, Diana Clarke, Bwog’s Book Art Bureau Chief, was almost trampled by eager fans, many clutching comics, hurrying to claim seats. They were rushing to see Chris Claremont and Paul Levitz, the men who had shaped their childhoods.

First to proclaim his childhood obsession was Jeremy Dauber, head of Columbia’s Yiddish program and moderator for the evening. He introduced two men “who, to this crowd, probably need no introduction.” Claremont hails from Marvel Comics, and is responsible for creating the X-Men and about 500 other characters. Levitz was formerly President of DC Comics and the creator of Legion of Superheroes.

The evening’s topic was Jewish Influences and Themes in American Comics. As Claremont pointed out, of all the major comic book heroes, only two were created by non-Jews. Jews got into the comics industry in the early 1900s, when, as new immigrants, the only place they could find in the publishing world was comics, regarded at the time as just a step above pornography. Because there were no expectations in such a poorly regarded field, the writers were free to have fun. Levitz and Claremont regaled the audience with stories of late nights and frantic schemes to deliver freshly inked panels by deadlines in the days before email. When the mail got lost, the publishers would scramble to put out a “special issue” of something else because that unique manuscript was gone forever.

While Levitz and Claremont agreed that the Jewish influence on comics led to a trend towards flawed heroes rather than characters who were all good or all evil, Claremont maintained that Marvel was the more Jewish of the main comic publishers. “Clark Kent worked at a newspaper, but Peter Parker? He lived in Queens! He wore a sweater vest! He lived with his grandparents! He may as well have had a mogen dovid on his forehead!” X-Men, of course, spoke to the Jewish experience of the outsider, but Claremont said that people from every minority seemed to identify with Wolverine and Storm. He told the audience about finding himself on a plane full of Mormon missionaries, thinking he’d have an uncomfortable and isolated flight, only to learn that they all identified strongly with the X-Men story. The same, Claremont said, was true for many readers in the black community. A City College professor working on a book about comics and race asked why the common artistic alliance between blacks and Jews never emerged in the comic book world. Levitz suggested that it was because many of the comic book writers were immigrants themselves, struggling to climb out of poverty, while Claremont added that the whole comics community was so small and nepotistic that only about five new people were taken on the staff of Marvel between 1948 and 1968. It wasn’t until the underdogs got on top that they felt comfortable letting any outsiders into their own group.

Recently, however, comics culture has become more explicit in its promotion of the maligned. Levitz told a story about fending off calls from angry parents after DC published a comic showing two men kissing. This was “around the time of the Matthew Shepard catastrophe,” Levitz added. “I told her we were going to depict the full range of human experience.” Overall, the discussion ended up being about the rise of comics themselves, and the combination of an influential panel and an appreciative and well-informed audience made for a lively evening—much more than a mini Columbia ComicCon.

Photo via Flickr

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  1. Andy Barovick

    You may all know about Michael Chabon's \The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,\ but in case you don't, it is a novel based on the Jewish immigrants who developed our favorite comic book super heroes, and is extremely well written.

    Andy Barovick, Columbia College, 1983

  2. Anonymous  

    diana clarke is a boss

  3. Whoops  

    Okay, I didn't know this was happening and now I'm super bummed. I guess I will read Bwog's giant list of things to do from now on.

  4. Anonymous

    Claremont did not create the X-men.
    he wrote them for a long time, but he did not create them.

  5. Yay!  

    I'm so pleased you covered the event! Good job! It was a fascinating evening--I think everyone in the room could have listened to Paul and Chris talk for another hour or two.

    If the super-bummed person wants to send me his/her email, I will make sure it gets added to my mailing list of Columbia comics-related events.

    Karen Green
    Butler Library
    Graphic Novels Librarian

  6. Officer McGruff

    So interesting because Peter Parker is Protestant and Batman is a lapsed Catholic. I'm from Queens! Go Queens!

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