Author to speak on ‘Jewish subtext’ of comics
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Author to speak on ‘Jewish subtext’ of comics

Arie Kaplan knew from his earliest years that his life would involve comic books.

In fact, said the author of “From Krypton to Krakow: Jews and Comic Books,” “I don’t remember being interested in anything else.”

“Comic books are one way to tell stories,” he said. “And for whatever reason, I identified with the characters and themes in these stories.”

Arie Kaplan at work, surrounded by books, comics, and magazines he has written. Bobby Kaplan

“A comic book fan is not ‘casual,'” said Kaplan, pointing out that the medium, increasingly sophisticated, now appeals largely to older readers. “It’s such a niche market. It appeals to adults more than it does to kids. If you’re into it, you’re really, really into it.”
Noting that he originally wanted to be a cartoonist, Kaplan said that “many people would be surprised to learn that I can draw. These days, I still draw cartoons for some publications like Nickelodeon Magazine, but I’m primarily a writer.”

Realizing that there was “not a huge market for one-panel gag cartoons,” nor could they be used to tell “long, sustained stories,” he turned his interest to comics.

“I was always fascinated by the struggle to work things out creatively,” he said. “In the 1930s and ’40s, comic books were a whole new type of story-telling, differently paced and structured than other forms.” But while it was revolutionary, he said, it did not pay well -nor was it commonly recognized as an art form. Today, that’s changed. Comic-book references are part of popular culture, said Kaplan, citing Barack Obama’s recent joke that he was from Krypton [Superman’s home]. “He was sure everyone would get it,” said Kaplan. “It’s a sign of being pop-culture savvy.”

Kaplan’s book, which has been nominated for the Sophie Brody Medal – presented by the American Library Association “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to Jewish literature (fiction or non-fiction) for adults published in the United States in the preceding year” – highlights the major role played by Jews in the field of comics.

The book includes interviews with noted comic-book creators, and more than 100 full-color drawings and photos.

According to Kaplan, “Jews created the first comic book, the first graphic novel, the first comic book convention, the first comic book specialty store, and they helped create the underground comics (or “Comix”) movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s.”

In addition, he said, many of the creators of the most famous comic books, such as Superman, Spider-man, X-Men, and Batman, as well as the founders of MAD Magazine, were Jewish. And, said Kaplan, “they brought a uniquely Jewish perspective to their work and to the comics industry as a whole.”

Even as a child, he said, he was aware of this subtext “and took a lot of pride in it. Nerdy kids like me were proud that the creators of Superman [Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster] were Jewish.”

“The early creators came from Eastern Europe, from socialist, left-wing, and intellectual backgrounds,” he said, suggesting that it is no coincidence that their comic-book creations evidence a “deep sense of social responsibility and social activism. Superman fought against villains you could find in everyday life and in the newspapers,” he said. “It was an adolescent power fantasy. You could make it happen on paper.”

“Superman was also a breakaway character in the medium,” said Kaplan, pointing out that Siegel and Shuster created a new kind of hero.

“He was an inverted version” of the old heroes – such as the Phantom and Flash Gordon.

In the older stories, said Kaplan, the aliens were the villains. But with Superman, “the hero is the other, the alien [but] he walks among us and looks like any one of us.”

Citing the metaphor of alien as immigrant, Kaplan said Superman “was a kind of super-immigrant,” adding that Siegel and Shuster, who had probably gone to Hebrew school, may well have drawn on their Hebrew knowledge to create names such as Kal-El, Superman’s “real” name, which in Hebrew may be translated as “all that God is.”

Superman was also a distinctively American hero, said Kaplan, noting that his cape was clearly modeled on a Hollywood-type mythology of Roman gladiators, while the red and blue in his costume drew on the colors of the American flag.

Kaplan said he is pleased that today, women and different ethnic groups are becoming increasingly involved in the production of comic books.

“There are more voices being heard,” he said.

Among his own real-life heroes, Kaplan counts Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), who, he said, was widely recognized as one of the most influential and recognizable comic-book artists, serving as co-creator of characters such as the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Hulk, Captain America, and many others. According to Kaplan, while Kirby died in 1994, “we are still seeing some of his unfinished works being published today.” Also among his favorites are Stan Lee, Harvey Kurtzman, and Mort Drucker.

Kaplan – a MAD Magazine writer and author of the new comic book miniseries “Speed Racer: Chronicles of the Racer” – has also written for the DC title “Cartoon Network Action Pack” and the Papercutz series “Tales from the Crypt.” In addition to writing for MTV, the Cartoon Network, and PBS Kids, he produced two three-part series for “Reform Judaism Magazine,” exploring the history of Jews in comedy and in comic books. He is also the author of the book “Masters of the Comic Book Universe Revealed!” and created the children’s comic strip “Dave Danger, Action Kid.”

For more information, visit Kaplan’s Website, www.ariekaplan.com.

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