In 1986, a not-so-young (he was 38), struggling and virtually unknown NY comic artist named Art Spiegelman published Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. In a vivid, memorable depiction of the Germans as cats, the Jews as mice and the Poles as pigs, Spiegelman recounted his Polish-Jewish father’s experience during – and, with Maus II, after – the Holocaust.
With Maus, Spiegelman revolutionised the world of comics, catapulting the genre to the higher sphere of dramatic non-fiction, upgrading comic books to the rank of graphic novel, even snatching a special Pulitzer in 1992. Twenty-four years and innumerable controversial covers and essays for The New Yorker later, Spiegelman is to comics what Duke Ellington (who almost got a special Pulitzer) is to jazz – and alive and kicking, at that: he’s currently busy with MetaMaus, a making-of book about his masterwork.
No self-respecting comic retrospective could do without Spielgelman’s work, let alone a Jewish one. Heroes, Freaks and Super-Rabbis – an itinerant exhibition that explores the history of comics as Jewish art and, after Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, is stopping at the Jewish Museum in Berlin for three months – includes a few original prints of In the Shadow of No Towers, Spiegelman’s 2004 work about his post- 9/11 experience. But just as Ellington was more than a ‘black musician’, isn’t Spiegelman more than a ‘Jewish artist’?
Because of its subject matter, Maus is obviously the perfect match for an exhibition about Jewish comics – but do you see it as a ‘Jewish work’?
I’m not positive what a ‘Jewish work’ is. I am a Jew. I’m not a practicing Jew. I tend to be an atheist Jew. I think most people who meet me wouldn’t think of me as Swedish even if I was born in Sweden. I’m not sure what makes something a ‘Jewish work’.
Is there something in the history of comics that is identifiably ‘Jewish’?
I keep getting stuck with this. Except that I’m Jewish… I don’t know what those qualities are that make something Jewish. Is it possible for a non-Jew to make Jewish art?
I’m asking you…
I grew up with a lot of Jewish artists. Harvey Kurztman was very central to my development, the man who invented MAD comic magazine – a kind of self-reflexive comic book, post-modernism before there was such a thing. So, is post-modernism Jewish? I just don’t know. I think it’s fine for this stuff [the exhibition] to happen, because biographically these people were Jews and Harvey Kurtzman grew up in a very typical lower-middleclass Jewish background. He was brought up as a ‘red-diaper baby’ with a lot of communist and socialist ideals and that informed his development. Beyond that, I don’t know what to say. One can be grateful that people can see this work…
According to the curators of the exhibition, Jewish comics as a genre started with people like you, Jewish artists dealing with Jewish themes…
Does my work stop being ‘Jewish comics’ when I do a sex story? This is not a problem specific to my category. It has to do with the way things tend to get sliced. Gender studies, for example. One begins to look at works by women, works by gays, works by blacks. It definitely informs the work. It’s not irrelevant. It becomes central if you look at the work from a different angle. If you look at the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, you can’t look at it as ‘male art’ – the particular way she does those flowers is unique to her gender. On the other hand, when you look at the photographs of Berenice Abbott, is it that useful to look at them as ‘women’s photographs’?
One of the main points of the Jewish Museum’s exhibition is to show the amazing influence of New York Jews in the birth and development of modern comics… what it calls ‘the Jewish dimension of comic art’.
What is true is that there are a couple of Jewish comic-strip artists who were really important and even geniuses – like Milt Gross – but it’s the comic book which brought Jews into the mix in such an important way. A lot of the comic-book publishers were Jews, though most of them were secularised. The comic-book industry wasn’t a dignified trade: it was taken on by first and second generation artists, but nobody especially wanted to be there. It was a way of getting into a business, one that involved writing and drawing at a time when Jews weren’t especially welcome in the higher precincts of publishing. In some ways it paralleled the early movie industry, which was also a fairly disreputable corner of culture.
So to some degree it was a by-product of anti-Semitism…
To some degree. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it because it ain’t nothing like what you guys had as the 1930s progressed.
From Superman and Captain America to The Hulk, superheroes were often the inventions of Jewish artists.
Superheroes were the first great fad success of the comic book. Comic books started by reprinting comic strips, and were invented by this Jewish printing salesman named Maxwell Gaines who later went on to be the publisher of EC Comics. They started off as advertising premiums that would reprint the popular American comic strips like Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie and made enough of a splash to be sold on the newsstand. The superhero is very much a Jewish-inflected invention, and I remember, in the 1980s, trying to convince the New York Jewish Museum to do a show of Jewish comic book art. The curator was bracing his mouth, frowning at the idea of a Jewish comic-book art show.
Goebbels was one of the first people to identify Superman as a Jew… but what’s so Jewish about Superman?
Only a Jew would take on a secret identity with a name like Clark Kent. Superman definitely comes out of a specific experience which one can translate as Jewish. It rethinks the whole concept of an Übermensch to make him an American hero who can fight for democracy against fascism, whose adapted identity “Clark Kent” plays this kind of shtetl Jewishness – the timid, ineffective, emasculated reporter. One can definitely read a Jewish subtext in all of that, especially with a character who emigrates from Krypton, also known as Europe.
And that is mirrored in the fact that a lot of comic artists were masking their identity under gentile names – like Stan Lee (born Lieber) and Jack Kirby (born Kurtzberger), the inventors of the Fantastic Four and Spiderman.
Yes… and it also has to do with the fact that it was a relatively unsavoury business. You didn’t want to be associated with comics.
According to the Jewish Museum’s exhibition, there was a shift in the 1960s: superheroes started coming out of the Jewish closet – like the giant stone monster the Thing, one of the Fantastic Four…
That’s crazy! He’s no more or less Jewish than Superman! I was reading Marvel comics in the 1960s… I don’t think there’s ever a time when he goes to a synagogue or does anything specifically Jewish.
He’s a golem figure; his name was Benjamin Jacob Grimm.
So…? Benjamin Franklin wasn’t a Jew!
I read that Kirby always thought of the Thing as Jewish. In a recent volume of the Fantastic Four, he’s shown reciting Jewish prayers, but I guess that happened later…
It’s very plausible to read it that way because it comes out of a very specific immigrant experience.
Bernard Krigstein’s 1955 Master Race comic brought a major Jewish theme, the Holocaust, into popular culture. I think it had a big influence on you…
It was a brilliant story. It was very rare – one of the few times that the Holocaust was presented in popular culture at all. It’s not like now, where every year there’s the ‘Holocaust category’ movie at the Academy Awards. And Krigstein, who did comics for money, was a very formally engaged artist who cared about the medium.
Master Race belonged to the so-called “Shock Suspense” comics of the time. With Maus, you transformed comics into a serious literary genre.
Yes, I think Maus astonished people because the subject resists serious handling in any medium of literature or art, and it seems to have landed on its feet as a work. People were taken aback by the fact that something they thought of as the most dismissable medium could do something so serious. So most of the impact that Maus had was due to its content. Though I would like to think that, following in the footsteps of Krigstein, it’s a very formally sophisticated work. Over the past 20 years or so, the graphic novel has been an area in which a lot of artists, Jews and non-Jews, were able to flourish.
Maus was also novel in that it incorporated autobiographical elements from your own life side by side with your father’s.
The idea of autobiographical comics was something that had just started in the underground comics movement, ironically by Justin Green – who’s half-Jewish – who did a comic about growing up Catholic called Binky Brown. It really introduced the idea of confessional autobiography as a possible subject matter for comics. He had a very big influence on me.
Who are the major Jewish comic artists working now?
Among the people working, there is certainly Joann Sfar, Ben Katchor and myself. It’s not a primary area of concern for me. I’m equally interested in the work of Chris Ware, R. Crumb… I’m more interested in intelligent versus stupid, as opposed to Jewish versus not Jewish.
So – would you rather consider yourself a political cartoonist?
There is a healthy history of radicalism that’s led to some great political cartooning that ranges from Herb Block through Jules Feiffer. There’s a tendency, at least amongst diaspora Jews, to gravitate towards things dealing with disenfranchisement – people who are under the gun, so to say. I understand there are a lot of weird neo-con Jews who have created this policy that led us into the mess we’re in right now, but I can’t really think of any important neo-con Jewish cartoonists right now. Again, I’m not that sure how fruitful identity politics are when applied to art. When you talk about it being autobiographical and self-reflective – that’s not a monopoly that my people have.
You were really outspoken against censorship of the US media in the post-9/11 arch-patriotism of the Bush era. You resigned from The New Yorker in protest. You even talked about exiling yourself to Europe. Are things better now with Obama?
Yeah. I don’t want to move to Europe right now. It’s a nice continent, but I’ll stick to my poor beleaguered country because we’re all poor, beleaguered countries now. At least there’s someone intelligent in charge. I wish he would be more radical than he is, but I’m so grateful to be out of the malignancy of the Bush years, so I give Obama a lot of slack.
So if you had a work like In the Shadow of No Towers, you wouldn’t have to publish it in Die Zeit anymore?
I would love to publish it in Die Zeit, but I wouldn’t have to.
You’ve called the political cartoon a “disappearing species”. Is that more to do with the political climate or the economic climate of our times?
It’s the technological climate! The newspapers are an endangered species. Although they’re beginning to appear on the web, for the most part political cartoons are the product of newspapers and magazines, and those things are very wobbly at the moment, as we move into a revolution that’s as big as Gutenberg’s. So the category is in great danger. I never considered myself a political cartoonist. I was drafted several times by world events back in the heyday of the Vietnam War and in the run-up to the Iraq War. It’s not my primary focus. It just happens when I can’t avoid it.
What is your primary focus?
I am a Talmudic scholar of comics.
What do you mean by that?
I am interested in what happens when words and pictures are put together to narrative ends, and most of my work in one way or another is focused on that category.
So now you’re not a Jewish artist, not a political artist. Now you’re a Talmudic scholar.
That’s bullshit! I didn’t say that “now”. I said that I am and I always was… None of the work came out of some agenda to make political art or Jewish art. It came out of a need to express myself and make art, and that art is informed by a lifelong engagement with comics. So it makes a nice headline, but it’s not trueto say NOW I’m a Talmudic scholar of comics, I was always a Talmudic scholar of comics.
You won’t be coming to Berlin. Too bad – Germans really like you.
I like Germans too… I’d love to be there if I could figure out how to make time for it. My Protestant work ethic has kept me busy.
HEROES, FREAKS AND SUPER-RABBIS | Through August 8. For more information, visit www.jmberlin.de