76 Jewish cartoonists gather at Schechter

76 Jewish cartoonists gather at Schechter

Former Batman editor Jordan Gorfinkel turns Exodus, Zionism into laughing matters

The hero of “Michael Midas Champion: Book One.”
The hero of “Michael Midas Champion: Book One.”

Jewish astronauts are noteworthy. Jewish presidential contenders are seriously noteworthy. Jewish popes are particularly noteworthy.

Jewish cartoonists and comic book creators — not so much.

Batman, Superman, and the Fantastic Four, for example, all were created by Jewish artists and writers, mostly working for Jewish publishers.

What is noteworthy about Jordan B. Gorfinkel, however, is his message: Any Jew can be a Jewish cartoonist if he or she can write letters on the top of a page, draw stick figures, and tell a story.

Last week, Mr. Gorfinkel, who lives in Cleveland, brought this message of Jewish cartooning empowerment to the fifth and eighth grades at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford.

To judge by the show of hands, the students all felt confident in their ability to write letters, draw stick figures, and tell a story. To judge by the finished result of the two-hour workshops, many also were able to craft a good four-panel gag.

Although the results were entertaining, Mr. Gorfinkel insists that the process is educational.

“This is not a cartooning class; this is a class about critical thinking and being able to apply it in visual storytelling,” he said. “It’s building a skill that they will use and apply in everything they will do for the rest of their lives.”

Mr. Gorfinkel sees himself as a storyteller. His weekly comic strip, Everything’s Relative, which appears in Jewish newspapers around the world, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. In August, his graphic novel “Michael Midas Champion: Book One” came out from Penguin Random — it is recommended for the seventh grade and up. A new web video series is about to debut. And he’s working on a graphic novel version of the greatest story ever told over four cups of wine: the Haggadah.

He also runs a studio that provides storytelling, and sometimes comic book characters, to brands such as Microsoft and Clorox.

A graduate of the School of Visual Arts, Mr. Gorfinkel creates every element — writing, drawing, lettering — of Everything’s Relative. On his other projects, he writes the script and hires artists for the illustrations. In the Schechter beit midrash, as he went from student to student, making comments on their scripts and then their drawings, he assumed the role that earned him his highest-profile success in the world of mainstream comic books — editor.

Yes, for nine years Mr. Gorfinkel was an editor for the Batman line at DC Comics.

Jordan Gorfinkel instructs fifth-grader Shoham Shans on the art of cartooning.
Jordan Gorfinkel instructs fifth-grader Shoham Shans on the art of cartooning.

There, as he said, he was “caretaker of one of the most important characters in serialized fiction. There’s Sherlock Holmes, Superman, Luke Skywalker, and there’s Batman. (Let the angry tweets pour in about who I missed.)”

Among his responsibilities was the sort of collaborative interaction with the writers and illustrators that he models when he conducts his Jewish cartooning workshops. At DC Comics, he and his fellow editors would work on big story arcs that would play out over a year in the several monthly comics that fell under the Batman umbrella — arcs like No Man’s Land, which took place in an earthquake-devastated Gotham City.

At Schechter, the broad narrative context for the children’s cartoons came from the curriculum. The fifth-graders looked at the week’s Torah portion, B’shalach, which features the crossing of the Red Sea. Rabbi Fred Elias prepared a sheet reviewing key events of pre-State Zionism the ninth-graders had studied in his Jewish history class for their session with Mr. Gorfinkel.

Mr. Gorfinkel handed out the classic tools of the cartoonist’s trade: sheets of paper with four pre-printed rectangular panels, blue pencils, and black pens. Photocopiers and scanners do not register the marks blue pencils make, so artists can ink over them, putting in fine details without having to erase their mistakes.

Then he gives a mini workshop in the four beats of a four-panel strip.

“It begins with a setup,” he said. “In the second panel, there’s a problem. In the third panel there’s a solution. The fourth is a resolution.” Then he called up four students to stand in front and had each act the part of one of the comic book panels.

He called on another student to choose a setting. He chose the first incident on the Zionist review sheet — the story of Lord Balfour.

“How does the story begin?” he asked the first panelist. With some back-and-forth, it was decided that the story would begin with young Balfour wanting there to be a Jewish homeland.

“The second panel is the problem. Who’s ruling Palestine at the time?” He and the second student worked out the second story beat, and he moved on to the third and the fourth.

But comic strips are not only about what was. They’re also about what wasn’t, but might have been. So he takes the four students through a story where there had been no Balfour declaration.

Then he quickly reviewed the meaning of theme, and asked them to tell a story that uses the same theme as the Balfour story but takes place in their school.

And with that, he wrapped up his micro lecture in cartooning. Now it was the hands-on part.

He asked the students to work in pairs to come up with stories. No drawing yet: First the script.

As he roams the classroom, he gives his feedback on the stories, suggests improvements, and gently steers students to ensure a diverse group of topics are covered and there is not too much repetition. Some students finish quickly; others focus intensely on their drawing, skip recess, and rush through lunch to get more work done. In the end, some of the cartoons feature stick figures; other artists are more ambitious. Some stories feature the straight-ahead story; some add a joke for the final beat; some add a twist (Yoda rescuing the Jews at the Red Sea); and some tell stories with related themes.

Orr Yhezkel and Sara Kronfeld work on their story illustrations.
Orr Yhezkel and Sara Kronfeld work on their story illustrations.

Mr. Gorfinkel gives the most talented and committed students blue pencils to keep, and challenges them to begin drawing in a notebook regularly — and to show him their work when he returns next year.

Mr. Gorfinkel loves giving these workshops.

“I’m not sure who gets more out of it,” he said. “I gain insights into my own skills and thought processes. I sharpen my insights into the demographic. The best way to learn is to teach. It is a thrill to guide students into their creative vision, and to be the one capable of being their guide.”

He does a lot of workshops at summer camps. (“I like swimming in lakes and most schools do not have lakes,” he said.)

He gives workshops in schools and camps across the denominations. He comes by that naturally: One grandfather was a Reform rabbi. “On the other side was a grandfather like the zeyde in my cartoon who is in the chair reading Tehillim” — Psalms — “all day.”

“I’m kind of a mutt denominationally,” he says. “I went to public school, Reform day schools, Conservative, Orthodox, yeshiva, everything. I feel comfortable in all denominations though I identify as Sabbath observant, what some people call modern Orthodox, which sounds rather inflexible to me.”

As you might have guessed, he moved around a great deal as a child, living in some 11 different places by the time he was 21. One constant was the Barbarian Book Shop in Silver Spring, Maryland. When he was in fifth grade, he would go there to get his weekly new comic issues. When his family moved from Maryland, his grandparents kept buying the comics for him. They would mail them to whatever his latest address was.

His defining religious period came in Chicago. “I fell into this marvelous Torah observant crowd of high schoolers in Chicago, at the Ida Crown Jewish Academy,” he said. “They were my closest influences and remain my closest friends.”

To pay back his love, he put touches of the Windy City into the map of Batman’s Gotham City that he helped design as editor. When the film director Christopher Nolan shot “Batman Begins” in Chicago, well, that was in part a lingering piece of Mr. Gorfinkel’s influence.

His biggest professional influence came from his year at New York’s School of Visual Arts. One course in particular: “Writing for Comic Books,” taught by Dennis O’Neil. Mr. O’Neil had been legendary among comics aficionados since his 1970 run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, which brought the ’70s mood of social relevance into DC’s superhero comics, replete with stories about racism and heroin addiction. In 1990, Mr. O’Neil was senior editor for the Batman line. Teaching was a side gig for him.

“One of the great lessons I learned from Denny is if you want to remaining authentic, surround yourself with young people,” Mr. Gorfinkel said.

After finishing art school, he did a variety of temp jobs — just enough to pay the rent and stay stocked with spaghetti. “I was trying all kinds of things to see if it would stick.”

06-04-L-JCW_SSDSBC-8He also directed public access cable TV shows, the sort satirized in “Wayne’s World.” “One of my camera people worked at DC Comics, and when I heard that my career path was very clear,” he said.

He learned about an internship, applied for it, got it, and when it was over he was offered two staff positions. “One was assistant editor on Batman. How am I going to say no to that?”

As editor, Mr. Gorfinkel was responsible for ensuring that all the elements for creating the content were in place. “And at the same time, he has to understand how to do all the individual jobs, so if something needs help, they’re qualified to provide assistance and even step in and perform that role,” he said. “My internship was very helpful with that. By the time I started the job, I had been coloring comics, I had taken the class in writing for comics, I had the art classes. On the job you learn about the other aspects, from publishing and licensing and toy design and manufacturing. On a much higher level, you have to understand the business side of printing and publishing and how to work out budgets.

“On the simple side, if an artist draws Batman’s belt with one too many notches in it, you have to understand how to take the notch out and have it look seamless and have it be approved by the artist and have it not be noticed by the reader.”

From its beginnings, comics had been a very Jewish business. But until Mr. Gorfinkel arrived in 1991, none of the field’s Jews were shomer Shabbat, kept kosher, or kept their heads covered.

It wasn’t a problem.

“The arts community is generally very liberal and accepting of differences,” Mr. Gorfinkel said. “When I became a full editor, with the responsibility to attend comic book conventions over weekends, which would include Shabbat, I asked the president of the company, Paul Levitz, how my being shomer Shabbat would affect my position. He said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.’ It was never a problem or an issue.

“My favorite anecdote is when I was walking down the seventh floor, ‘Executive Row,’ and I was wearing a kippah with the Batman emblem crocheted large, through the center, like a Jewish bat-signal. Linda Fields, Paul’s receptionist and a powerhouse in the company, calls out to me from behind, ‘I don’t see a TM on that yarmulke!’ she said, referring to a trademark symbol.

After all, DC Comics may well earn more revenue from licensing Batman insignia and characters to manufacturers of toys and clothing and the like than it does from actually selling comics.

Mr. Gorfinkel did on occasion make changes to DC Comics characters that were informed by his Jewish sensibilities. Take, for example, Black Canary. Long the romantic partner of Green Arrow, he steered her into a new all-female superteam, Birds of Prey. Later a short-lived TV series, the team also featured the former Batgirl, now wheelchair-bound, as the information genius Oracle.

It became the longest running female superhero team in comics.

Since her creation in 1947, Black Canary had worn fishnet stockings.

“What I’m most proud of is putting the pants on Black Canary. Not just for tzniut” — modesty — “but for Pete’s sake, when a superhero goes into the snow, aren’t their legs cold? Even when she wore shorts in the heat of the summer, I made sure her tuchas was covered,” he said.

“The moment I left, they rode her shorts back through her tuchas and put the fishnet stockings back on her,” he said.

Mr. Gorfinkel left DC Comics in 1999, along with two colleagues and friends in the Batman editorial group. “We were having families and realizing we wanted to spend more time with our families and that it was time to let other people shepherd Batman into his next era,” he says. Mr. Gorfinkel is married and has four children.

As he left, he pitched DC Comics two stories. One was accepted and published. The other was a retelling of the life story of Superman, which was rejected. “So in the time-honored tradition, I changed the names and wrote the story anyway. It’s about a superhero who must learn that the true source of his strength is his family.

“I took it around Hollywood in 2000. People said, ‘Superhero? Family? I can’t see the movie poster.’” This, of course, was four years before the Pixar blockbuster superhero family movie “The Incredibles.”

Fifteen years later, this story became “Michael Midas Champion: Book One.”

“There are no Jewish characters, but the plot actually hinges on an object that has Jewish mystical characters,” Mr. Gorfinkel said. “As in all my work, I try to infuse a foundation of Jewish values. I don’t want to be pedantic — this is entertainment — but the theme of bullying prevention runs through this; the theme of healthy eating. Subtly, the boyfriend-girlfriend relationship is not consummated until they’re married. I created it, wrote it, I fundraised it, I hired the artistic team, and handed a completely finished book to Random House.”

So what’s the lesson of his life? If Batman proves that with grit and dedication, a billionaire orphan can fight an endless stream of colorful psychopaths to endless non-decisive stalemates, what does the Jordan B. Gorfinkel saga teach?

“I was an introverted, overweight young boy who read a lot of comic books,” he said. “Nobody told me I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, so I did it. We’re in an unprecedented time for the Jewish people, where there are practically no limits to what we can be. We should take advantage of this.”

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