Books about comics should be good
Books? About comics? Actual prose? What the crap is up with that? It’s like comics are worthy of serious study or something! Let’s check this out!
The New Press has recently published Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Form, which is “edited” by Paul Buhle. I say “edited” because Buhle writes all the prose, and the other contributers are comics artists whose work is featured in the volume. All the “new” stuff in the book is by Buhle. The book retails for $29.95, and I’d like to thank The New Press for sending me a copy. I dig books about comics almost as much as I dig comics themselves, so it was a pleasant surprise to get this.
I’d like to say that the book is a rousing success, but it’s not quite. It’s a very interesting survey of comics by Jewish creators, stretching back to the beginning of the twentieth century and taking us right up to now. Buhle has been very friendly with several comics creators for decades, and therefore he is able to bring his personal experiences to his writing about Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar, among others. He begins with the early stars like Rube Goldberg and Milt Gross (who wrote “arguably the first graphic novel ever,” He Done Her Wrong) and makes his way to Milt Caniff and “Terry and the Pirates.” In the second chapter he arrives at superhero comics, which were of course propelled forward by Jews such as Harry Donenfeld, Max Gaines (“Ginsburg”), Jerry Siegel, Harvey Kurtzman, and others. After the implosion of the mid-1950s, Buhle largely ignores superhero comics to focus on “comix.” This he does by focusing on Art Spiegelman, Crumb, Kim Deitch, Pekar, and women like Trina Robbins and Aline Kominsky-Crumb. Finally, he arrives in the modern day, with Maus and other new works by Spiegelman and Crumb, as well as Peter Kuper, Jason Lutes, Vanessa Davis, Lauren Weinstein, Miriam Libicki, and Miriam Katin. It’s an interesting look at how the creators have defined themselves and how they brought Jewishness into comics, especially the comix of the Sixties. At the end of each chapter (there are four, plus an introduction), Buhle includes several excerpts of works from 1911 to 2007. The excerpts are nicely selected, showing an interesting cross-section of works.
Why this isn’t more successful as a book is because it is just a survey. Buhle fails to get deep into what it means to be Jewish and a comic book creator. This is an odd thing to write when we consider that he is constantly writing about “Jewishness” and “Yiddishness,” but what’s interesting is that he doesn’t define what he means when he speaks of Jewish creators. (His focus on “Jewishness” instead of strictly Jewish creators is why Crumb is in here, as Buhle categorizes his output as having a “Jewish” character even though Crumb isn’t actually Jewish.) As an example, he speaks of the lack of Jewish superheroes during the Golden Age. He writes, “Identifiably Jewish superheroes would not have been an option for wartime comics, and neither artists, writers, nor publishers seemed even to contemplate them” (page 57). He mentions that “wimpy Steve Rogers, child of the Lower East Side,” fit the template of a Jew, but obviously, he was a blond-haired, blue-eyed all-American. Buhle never really deals with the way Jews assimilated or what it meant for them. He almost completely ignores Kirby (Jacob Kurzberg) and Lee (Stanley Lieber), despite the fact that, as Jews who practically single-handedly reinvented the most dominant genre in comics, they might have something to offer about being Jewish in the industry. He also skips over Eisner quite a bit, although he gives him more page time than Kirby and Lee. The excerpts in the book are concerned quite a lot with Jewish characters and even how Jews are treated in American society, but, strangely enough, Buhle doesn’t go into it enough in his text, which means the comics are presented somewhat out of context and we don’t really get a sense of how being Jewish affects the creators.
Buhle does get into the Jewishness of certain creators, most notably in the first and last chapters, which deal with the early days of comics and the latter days of comics. In between, when creators entered the mainstream and Jews assimilated, whether by choice or by external pressure, he skims the surface. Buhle focuses much more on the political ideology of the creators, including those of the comix of the 1960s and ’70s. Given what I could find out about Buhle on-line (not all of it flattering, mind you), it seems logical that he would focus on these creators (many of whom he knows personally) and their radical politics (which he shares). There’s nothing wrong with doing that, except he seems to conflate “Jewishness” with “socialism” without giving any reason for it. I’m not saying that he’s wrong, as many of the creators he focuses on were both Jewish and socialist, but he seems to assume that one leads to another, yet gives no evidence for this. The political focus of the middle chapters are very interesting, but they seem to take over the book a bit until it becomes less about “Jews and American comics” and more about “Socialists and American comics.” It gets back to his failure to really define how Jews approach themselves with regard to comics – if we don’t know what he means by “Jewish comics creators,” we can’t make the leap to “Jewish socialist comics creators.” Again, the work excerpted shows quite a lot of political leanings and how being Jewish affects those politics, but Buhle’s text doesn’t back this up as much as it could, or should.
It’s still a fascinating book, because even if it doesn’t quite get as deep into how creators viewed their Jewishness in relation to their work in comics, it’s still a very good survey of the work of “Jewish” comics creators (whether or not they’re actually Jews). The excerpts are frustrating only because they don’t show more of the work – I reach the end of an excerpt, and I want to know what happens next, damn it! Buhle sets us up a bit to expect more from this book, but just because he doesn’t necessarily deliver on that doesn’t mean this isn’t a worthy read. At the very least, it introduces us to a group of creators who have had a great influence on our favorite artistic medium. And that’s not a bad thing at all.
(I would have scanned more stuff from the excerpts, but I’m having scanner problems. Sorry! Trust me – the comics he uses are pretty keen.)