To Life and Laughs!

It may not surprise anyone in our community to learn that, like the movie industry and the sciences, Jews occupy a disproportionate influence on the history of American comics. Examining the intersection of Jewish culture and the American comic strip is \"Cartoon Art,\" a four-month exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center.
October 22, 1998

It may not surprise anyone in our community to learn that, like the movie industry and the sciences, Jews occupy a disproportionate influence on the history of American comics. Examining the intersection of Jewish culture and the American comic strip is “Cartoon Art,” a four-month exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center. The event, sponsored by The Comics Journal and Comic-Con International, will feature evenings with four prominent Jewish-Americans working in the comics medium — editorial cartoonist Jules Feiffer (Oct. 28); “Maus'” author Art Spiegelman (Nov. 15); “Momma” creator Mell Lazarus (Dec. 10); and “Sylvia’s” Nicole Hollander.

Unlike movies and medicine, and like baseball and jazz, the comics medium is an American-born idiom. While Jews did not create “The Yellow Kid” (R.F. Outcault’s 1895 creation widely considered to be the mother of all funnies), and George Herriman, the creator of “Krazy Kat,” was actually Greek, Jews were seminal in shaping the modern comic strip. Harry Conway Fisher, who signed his strips “Bud” Fisher, introduced the first continuously published strip, “Mutt and Jeff,” in 1907. Instantly popular, his creation was the first strip ever to run six days a week, enjoying a healthy run through the 1920s. Fisher was coronated the richest and most famous cartoonist in America in his day (raking in an unheard of $4,600 a week).

“A Rube Goldberg invention” is often used to describe some complicated and outlandish contraption. The term was coined after the legendary gag cartoonist Rube Goldberg’s strips depicting improbable and convoluted inventions as solutions to mundane problems, (although it should be noted that while Goldberg popularized this comic strip contraption gimmick, he was predated by British cartoonist W. Heath Robinson and by Clare Victor Dwiggins, whose comical gizmos ran on the same page as Goldberg’s early strip, “Mike and Ike”). The aforementioned catchphrase aside, Goldberg’s influence on the comics industry continues to be expressed today in a different context: the Reuben Award — presented each year by the National Cartoonists Society and widely recognized as the comic world’s equivalent of the Oscar — was named after Goldberg.

Jewish-flavored strips were common in the comic strip’s nascent years. Rube Goldberg’s brother Milt Gross, an esteemed cartoonist in his own right, drew a variety of popular strips, including the Yiddish-dialect cartoons, “Nize Baby.” Harry Hershfield, in response to popular ethnic strips like “Happy Hooligan” (Irish) and “The Katzenjammer Kids” (German) created “Abie The Agent,” chronicling the joke-filled exploits of car salesman Abie Kabibble in the New York business world milieu. And the 30s were dominated by two Jewish-created strips, the crime saga “Dick Tracy” (Chester Gould); and Al Capp’s hillbilly opus “Li’l Abner” (Within “Abner,” Capp actively spoofed his competition with a popular strip-within-a-strip called “Fearless Fosdick”). Prior to “Li’l Abner,” Capp had in fact ghosted Ham Fisher’s popular boxing saga “Joe Palooka” in 1933.

The cartoonists highlighted by the Skirball’s upcoming retrospective have each made their own impact on the comics industry. Since 1956, Jules Feiffer has proven that a comic could successfully double as an op-ed column and he has parlayed that gift for dialogue on display in his nationally syndicated “Feiffer” strip into scripts for the Mike Nichols-directed 1971 classic “Carnal Knowledge” and Robert Altman’s 1980 live-action film based on “Popeye the Sailor.”

Art Spiegelman was a marginal cult cartoonist at best when he hit paydirt with his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus” graphic novel and its sequel — his personal and highly acclaimed graphic novels grappling with his Auschwitz survivor father and, by extension, the Holocaust. In certain pretentious circles — where sophistication and eruditeness are equated with heavy subject matter — Spiegelman succeeded (even if it was for a minute) where thousands of other talented cartoonists have failed — elevating the medium to a level where it’s taken seriously. Unlike pop art’s Roy Lichtenstein, who made art out of comic book imagery which he turned into museum-caliber paintings, Spiegelman landed actual comic book pages into the museum with his Museum of Modern Art exhibition several years ago.

But by far the more important contribution Spiegelman has made to the medium (and more invisible to those outside the comics-collecting public) is his tenure as editor of the influential RAW anthologies in the early ’80s, which ushered in a new wave of cutting-edge cartoonists. RAW set the form-bending, post-modern template that has (for better and for worse) informed the course of today’s alternative cartoonists. The proof can be found in the dozens of copycat anthologies sitting on bookstore shelves, the scores of unfunny strips staining the pages of alternative newspapers everywhere, and in just about any title produced by high brow comic publishers like Fantagraphics (responsible for The Comics Journal and avant-garde comics like The Hernandez Brothers’ “Love and Rockets” and Daniel Clowes’ “Eightball”).

While some camps are eager to dismiss “Momma” for watering down a Jewish premise into broad, universal themes, one can not deny the widespread appeal of Lazarus’ work, (who preceded “Momma” with “Miss Peach,” a strip that enjoyed immense success in the 50s and 60s). Lazarus is a consummate gag cartoonist; a minimalist who has boiled his craft down to its naked essentials and can convey a joke swiftly with an economy of text and line. Love it or leave it, “Momma” succeeds in slipping a sly, sardonic mickey into the mild and milquetoast Shirley Temple that is today’s funnies pages.

“Sylvia” is another story. While some have never been wild about Nicole Hollander’s idiosyncratic strip, its eccentricity and homespun disregard for cookie-cutter formula is appreciated. Where something like, say, “Cathy,” flatlines into a broad, vaguely Jewish voice, “Sylvia” is much more specific — a loose, conversational strip that wears its Jewishness on its sleeve. There’s no mistaking Sylvia’s ethnicity — her character design is pure mah jongg maven. Most fascinating of all may be the story behind “Sylvia,” which appears in our newspapers today due to sheer force of will. Hollander self-syndicates her strip, bypassing conventional comic book distributors by approaching individual newspaper markets — something roundly unheard of in the ultra-competitive mainstream comic strip market.

But then again, overcoming obstacles — even in the funnies business — is part of what being Jewish is about. And, as the Skirball series will no doubt reinforce, Jewish-American-created comic strips have earned their keep in America’s pop culture heart.

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