August 20, 2019

Writer Arie Kaplan and the great Jewish comic book tradition

Stan Lee. Will Eisner. Art Spiegelman. Chris Claremont. These men represent a Jewish tradition that, although not quite ordained from heaven, is a hallowed tradition just the same: Jews creating comic books.

Arie Kaplan memorialized them in his 2008 award-winning book, “From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books,” and now he’s working to join their ranks through a variety of his pop culture projects. Writing and cartooning, Kaplan is paying homage to the tradition and the Jewish comic book characters who inspire him while engaging in his innate passion for storytelling.

A Baltimore native now living in New York City with his wife and young daughter, Kaplan exemplifies the term “multi-hyphenate”: He’s an author, playwright, comic book writer, screenwriter for video games and television, journalist, teacher and public speaker. Recently, he wrote several of the “5-Minute Avengers” stories and contributed to the “Spider-Man Storybook Collection,” both published by Disney Book Group’s Marvel Press. 

Kaplan said he always wanted to be a cartoonist, whether that meant animation, comic book illustrations or one-panel gag cartoons for magazines. The latter was his first love, but he quickly realized it wasn’t a sustainable career like it had been in the 1950s and ’60s. 

“I started concentrating more on the writing at that point because if I just try to sell magazine gag cartoons and don’t do anything else as a creative outlet, it’s just going to break my heart,” he said. “I will have felt like I was born a generation too late because I’m doing this art form that’s kind of dying out.” 

Kaplan’s career took an unexpected early turn. When working as an assistant to a film producer while studying dramatic writing at New York University, he discovered he had a knack for playwriting. One of his first efforts, “Raisin Physics,” about a neurotic cartoonist who starts seeing a little green man from Mars,  reflected an early conflation of his lifelong  love of comic books and “Star Wars,” both pillars of geek culture — as well as his affinity for Jewish-related humor.

Since then, Kaplan’s Jewish identity has become intertwined with many of his projects. In 2008, he wrote the “Chronicles of the Racer” miniseries for IDW Publishing’s “Speed Racer” franchise, drawing a parallel from the religious history of his last name — Kaplan, as derived from the Hebrew cohen or “high priest” — to the exploits of generations of racers in the “Racer” family.

That same year, Kaplan published “From Krakow to Krypton,” which traces the historical link between Jews and comic books. It won the Booklist Editors’ Choice: Books for Youth in 2009 and was a finalist in the National Jewish Book Award competition for 2008. 

Throughout his initial research, Kaplan was propelled by one central question: Why was the comic book industry so disproportionately Jewish, especially in the golden age of comics during the ’30s and ’40s? He interviewed Jewish comic book legends such as Eisner (“The Spirit”), Joe Kubert (“Sgt. Rock”) and Jerry Robinson (“The Joker”), “and they confirmed a lot of things that I thought might be true,” Kaplan said, “like the fact that there was so much anti-Semitism back then, in the ’30s and ’40s, that Jews just did not have that many other options.”

Kaplan said he hasn’t experienced any of the anti-Semitism that spurred the rise of the comic book industry in the first place. Instead, he said, “it’s kind of been the opposite. I have been encouraged, whenever I wanted, to do a story with Jewish characters or Jewish themes.” To that end, he wrote a Chanukah-themed Superman story, “Man of Snow,” for the “DC Universe Holiday Special” in 2009, and a Chanukah story for “The Simpsons” in 2008 featuring Krusty the Clown, a character who Kaplan believes epitomizes the deepest dread of many Jewish comedians and comedy writers, that “they’ll turn out to be this washed-up, used-up, shticky, hacky, caricature of themselves.”

Kaplan named another famous fictional antagonist — “X-Men” villain Magneto — as one of his favorite Jewish characters. Jewish “X-Men” writer Claremont imbued Magneto with a Jewish backstory, and the 2011 film “X-Men: First Class” dramatized Magneto’s personal connection to the Holocaust for wider audiences. Understanding Magneto’s desire to kill Nazis wasn’t too difficult for Kaplan: his grandparents were Holocaust survivors. 

Just like him, Kaplan’s 6-year-old daughter, Aviya, is a “Star Wars” fan, and his two “Lego Star Wars” books are dedicated to her. In many ways, he said, the two books — “Lego Star Wars: Face Off” and “Lego Star Wars: The Official Stormtrooper Training Manual” — are the culmination of several other projects he’s worked on over the years, including the man from Mars play and several “Star Wars” parodies he supplied to Mad magazine.

Discussing the “Lego Star Wars” books, Kaplan describes himself as “someone who takes children’s literature very seriously” — that is, as valid literature. It is this genuine reverence for storytelling, for making people laugh and creating relatable characters, that drives Kaplan every day. And perhaps this, too, is a prototypically Jewish sentiment.

As Eisner told Kaplan in “From Krakow to Krypton”: “We are a people of the Book; we are storytellers essentially.”