From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books

By Arie Kaplan

Reviewed by Tim Lasiuta

Once upon a time, I read comic books for enjoyment. I used to buy Howard the Duck, Spiderman, Batman, Nova, and the 1970's Marvel westerns. That was then, this is now.

At the tender age of 40 plus, I have finally learned that the creators of my favorite books were Jewish! Not that it made a difference to my enjoyment that Bob Kane, Stanley Lieber, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and so many others had a Judaic background, but now that I know that, some pieces have fallen into place.

Arie Kaplan has written From Krakow to Krypton, (The Jewish Publication Society, 2008)which explores the Jewish mythologies one more time. Danny Fingeroth, in Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics and the Creation of the Superhero (Continuum, 2008), also took on the monumental task of studying the origins of the characters and their circumstances in relation to Jewish teaching. Both books are marvelous, and come across a little differently. Krakow to Krypton breaks the development of the comic book age into Golden, Silver, and Bronze with discussions centering on different topics, including the logical progression from Eisner to Lee to Spiegleman and Pekar. Kaplan brilliantly dissects the birth of the comics, the growth and development of Jewish comics, and comics in the modern world with respect to themes that reflect both the changing comic publishing culture and unconscious Jewish concepts. While some characters were intentionally Jewish (Fagin, The Spirit, Kitty Pryde, The Thing), others merely reflect distinct characteristics and elements.

While comic books as an art form are not overtly Jewish, the concept of a ‘strange visitor from another planet’ and the ‘last survivor’ reflects the Jewish transition during passages to America to escape oppression. Images like Clark Kent’s bespectacled, book worm and mild manner-ishness are stereotypical of being Jewish. Even the name, Kal-el, while it sounded alien to readers of the time period reflects the Hebrew language. Roughly translated, it means "All that God is". Jewish readers might have picked up on that, while other readers could miss that entirely and think of Superman as ‘just’ the greatest hero ever. The myth of Golem (life from the lifeless) could even be read into Superman (as Eisner did).

What is remarkable about this book is the depth of the discussion and the obscure examples of Judaic references in specific illustrated fiction (aka comic books). For example, the prayer by The Thing from Fantastic Four (2002) is a faith filled watershed moment that exposes the ‘real’ inner man as a once practicing Jew. Joe Kuberts’ Ragman (1977) explores the life of a well meaning Jewish second-hand dealer. Yossel: April 19, 1943 (2003) is Joe Kuberts intensely personal foray into what his life might have been if his family had not escaped the Holocaust. Caper (2004) by Judd Winnick shocked readers with a graphic cover that featured the Star of David written in blood marking a Jewish mob hit. Kaplan’s examination and discussion of these examples make one point beautifully: Jewishness is and has been a major theme in illustrated fiction. Throughout the work of Will Eisner, there is an aura of Jewishness, and if we consider Contract with God(1978), The Plot (2005), and The Spirit (1941 to present), the influence is powerful. If we add ‘the aliens within us’ theme into the mix as represented by the X Men by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Chris Claremont, the case for Jewish influence in illustrated fiction is even stronger.

I was mesmerized by the easy to read, easy to digest, and most importantly, the passion that Kaplan displays for his subject. Well-chosen art accompanies the book, yet I hope the final pictures are taken from flat books (not file copies bound in hardcover). Better graphic samples are available.

Viewed as a series of two books, Krakow and Disguised should be primary sources for truly academic discussions as to why comics aren’t just for kids anymore.

I highly recommend From Krakow to Krypton, just after morning prayers.

Tim Lasiuta is a freelance writer living in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada.

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