lørdag 25. oktober 2014


During the comics festival in Lodz, Poland this year, I had the opportunity to speak with comedian and writer Arie Kaplan, author of the book From Krakow To Krypton: Jews and Comic Books.

Arie Kaplan displays his cartoons in the Lodz festival press room.

Arie Kaplan is a bit of everything: comedian, cartoonist, journalist, lecturer and comic book writer. As a lecturer, he also visited Norway once, during the Jewish Culture Festival in Trondheim in 2011.

But comic books have a special place in his heart. He has written two books on comics history: Masters of the Comic Book Universe Revealed! (2006) and the aforementioned From Krakow To Krypton: Jews and Comic Books (2008). The latter book in particular, was the basis for this interview. Jewish comic creators are so numerous (even if one disregards the European ones, such as René Goscinny) that even this fairly voluminous book could not cover them all. Is there anyone he would have liked to interview, but didn’t get around to?

"Arnold Drake, who co-created the Guardians of the Galaxy (the first team) in 1969 and Doom Patrol. I wanted to interview him, but I didn’t get to it, and now he’s no longer with us", Kaplan replies after a bit of hesitation. Will Elder was also mentioned.

What would he added if he was asked to publish a new edition now of the book now?

"There’s certainly been other Jewish graphic novels that have come out since then" He also thinks maybe he'd spend more of the material that he got when interviewing Will Eisner. "There are a few characters that have emerged from DC and Marvel since 2008, Jewish characters that I would’ve liked to talk about. Like Batwoman;  in the current DC comics Universe, she is Jewish."

I mention another DC superhero, the Atom. But many people have had the identity of the Atom, he’s a legacy character, and the current one is apparently Asian - Ryan Choi. Kaplan admits that he’s not sure which Atom was Jewish. He also admits that while he knows there have been made new Graphic novels about Jews since 2008, he's can’t name any at the moment.

In From Krakow To Krypton he tries also to analyze Spider-Man to find out if there’s something Jewish about the figure.

"A little bit, but since then I have reconsidered my position, because I was hired by Slate Magazine earlier this year to do an article on that. They said: As you know, Andrew Garfield, star of The Amazing Spider-Man movies is himself Jewish, and in interviews he did for to promote [The Amazing Spider-Man 2], he’s been saying that Spider-Man is Jewish. This hadn’t happened when I wrote the book, and I could certainly have talked about that. And also that the producer Avi Arad had gone on record saying the same thing. Avi Arad is himself Jewish too, he’s from Israel. That made me think: Maybe there’s something to it. They got me into a screening of the movie, I saw it, I enjoyed it, and I took copious notes, and one thing screaming out to me as being subtextually Jewish, and I was surprised that more people hadn’t spoken about this, was the use of traditional Jewish humor in Spider-Man. Peter Parker / Spider-Man is one of those characters that always jokes about everything, as a way of relieving tension."

I have to agree. That was one of the things that really got me into Spider-Man as a kid.

"And I think that's one of the reasons why he survives as such a popular character. The children love it, and it's also why adults love him so much. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, it makes him more human. Not that Jews have a monopoly on humor, but the type of humor that Spider-Man uses is very much this sort of old school Borscht Belt one-liners that wouldn’t be out of place in a Don Rickles comedy routine from the 50's or 60's. I find it interesting that those are the kind of lines that every writer gives Spider-Man. And it’s something that was very much started by Stan Lee, who is also Jewish. I’ve interviewed Stan Lee, but I’ve never spoken to him about this, because it’s just something that I thought of recently. If I ever get a chance to interview him again I’ll probably ask him about it. We write what we know. Lee probably grew up around Borscht Belt humor and Jewish humor in general."

Would it be possible to make Spider-Man Jewish after the character has been around for so many years, I ask myself. It’s been done before, anyway. Chris Claremont made Magneto Jewish more than ten years after the character first appeared. As "From Krakow two Krypton" informed me, Claremont half Jewish, and he spent two months on a kibbutz in Israel after his first apprentice period at Marvel.

But perhaps the biggest "celebrity" among Jewish super heroes is Ben Grimm, aka Thing of the Fantastic Four, whose ethnicity was established nearly 40 years after his first appearance! In a 2002 Fantastic Four story that Kaplan describes in the book, Ben is identified as Jewish for the first time when he meets Mr. Sheckerberg, a mentor figure from his old congregation in the Bronx. Ben’s explanation is that he was previously afraid to speak out about his ethnic background because he was afraid that his peculiar appearance would be used in anti-semitic propaganda.

"When Ben Grimm was created, it really was uncommon to give characters a set ethnicity or a set religion", Kaplan explains. "In the early 60's, TV was just starting to explore multiculturalism and diversity, and comics were just starting to as well. When Ben Grimm was first created, he had no set ethnicity. but it’s hard to look at the character, the way he’s usually written, and not see him as Jewish, because he’s this though guy from the lower east side, he talks a lot like Jack Kirby,  and both smoked cigars. The character really seems a lot like Jack Kirby" (who, as everyone knows, was also Jewish).

Getting back to Back to the X-Men and Claremont for a moment: I used to think that Kitty Pryde (one of Claremonts creations, supposedly based on a military woman he saw in Israel) was the first Jewish superhero who was meant to be Jewish to begin with. But Kaplan’s book suggests that it may have been Ragman from DC. Once and for all, who was the first?

Kaplan thinks back on an interview he did with Joe Kubert (who helped create Ragman). "It's tricky", he says. "I think [Ragman] was [meant to be Jewish], but Kubert didn’t talk about it a lot. It wasn’t till later, when other writers and artists explored it more, his Jewish lineage, and worked it more into the origin story. I think he was the first character who was originally set out to be Jewish. He was created in the seventies, and in the seventies you started having a little more free rein to do that. There were certain supporting characters who were Jewish. But there were so many comic book companies out there, and a lot of them no longer run today, but at that point there was just so many of them, and it's hard to go through everything. The first one that I can  find is probably Ragman, but was he the first one? That’s hard to say."

Arie Kaplan knows a lot about comics, but what has he made of comics? First and foremost, he works in MAD, something for which he got a good response when he visited Norway. He’s described working for MAD as "a dream", but does he have any unfulfilled ambitions in the comics field?

"Oh yeah, a few. I would love to write a Conan the Barbarian story, a Spider-Man story, a Batman story, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman ... there’s a lot of characters I that I would love to tackle. Writing a Catwoman story would be a lot of fun. I’d love to tackle the X-Men, Teen Titans…there’s a lot of characters out there."

A lot of super heroes on the wish list, then. We've talked a lot about comic books. The reason why comic strips are not really discussed in From Krakow To Krypton is simple: There are far fewer Jewish comic creators in strip format. This is because the comic book industry, like Hollywood, was founded by Jews, so Jewish creators were not being discriminated there. Kaplan admits that it gets a bit more complicated than that, but that's the main reason. However, the book starts off with an interesting piece of information about the use of newspaper comic strips, one that is also extremely relevant to the Scandinavian market: The Max Gaines (father of William Gaines) was the first publisher to collect newspaper strips and sell them in magazine form. It was "Famous Funnies" # 1 in 1933.  This way of filling up comic books is mostly obsolete in the US, but still very much alive in Scandinavia.

Returning to the comic book format one more time, I dare Arie Kaplan to tell me, once and for all: Who is the most important Jewish comics creator of all time, Will Eisner or Jack Kirby? 

Kaplan is not really in any doubt:

"Not to undermine what Will Eisner has done. Eisner added a lot to the vocabulary and the grammar, and the storytelling and everything. But just the sheer number of characters, concepts and storytelling devices that Jack Kirby pioneered in, is just overwhelming. I can’t put it into words. Michael Chabon said he’s the Shakespeare or Cervantes of comics, and I agree."

onsdag 22. oktober 2014


A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Italian Marvel editor Marvel Comic Book Luca “Dolce” Dolcini, who is trying to collect information about when and how Marvel Superhero comic book have been published around the world. I promised I’d provide him with the information he’d need about the Norwegian publishing history. I tried to limit myself as best I could, but still ended up with a fairly detailed overview, which I’d now like to share with the rest of you as well.

Roughly speaking, there have been three waves of Marvel superheroes in Norwegian comics publishing history.

The first one was in 1968, when prominent comic publisher SE-Bladene decided to push Marvel with four titles: Edderkoppen (Spider-Man), Fantastiske Fire (Fantastic Four), Koloss (Hulk), Demonen (Daredevil) Fakkelen og Jernmannen (The Human Torch and Iron Man). Most of these titles failed to make any sort of impact on the Norwegian market, and only lasted one year. Daredevil’s title was the only one that didn’t get cancelled by the end of the year. It lasted until the end of 1970. It wasn't Daredevil's book alone, though. It also featured the characters whose books had been cancelled - Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and Hulk. In fact, Hulk became a backup feature in Daredevil's book as early as in late 1968, and from 1969 on, the other heroes were featured on the cover just as much as Daredevil himself.

For most of the seventies, Marvel was dead in the Norwegian market (DC, on the other hand had its golden age in Norway in the seventies, but that’s another story).

The second wave began in 1978, when Spider-Man and Fantastic Four was reintroduced in Norway, both with the same names as used in the 1968. The comics were published by Atlantic, and the release schedule was coordinated in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Atlantic also introduced Atlantic Spesial featuring stand-alone stories with various Marvel heroes, and in 1979 they began publishing albums and double digests featuring Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and the Hulk. The Hulk had his original name this time, possibly to take advantage of the synergy effect from the TV series. The next year, Hulk got his own monthly comic, which went on to be a cornerstone in Atlantic’s Marvel line. For the next five years, Spider-Man and Hulk were the only consistent Marvel titles on the Norwegian market, but a whole lot of other titles came and went.

Atlantic Spesial became an anthology magazine, mostly featuring X-Men, Iron Man, Daredevil and Ghost Rider. Then Daredevil got his own book for a couple of years, and so did She-Hulk, of all things (still more proof of the Hulk’s popularity). Fantastic Four stayed monthly up until 1982, and there were a ton of albums and double digests featuring Spider-Man and the Hulk. Atlantic even got a couple of year’s run out of comics that weren’t technically superhero comics, but was still considered part of the Marvel universe, such as Ka-Zar and Tomb of Dracula. A competing company even published a Moon Knight comic book for three years, aiming it at an older audience. All things considered, the early eighties was a great time to be a Marvel fan in Norway.

Then, in late 1984, Norway’s biggest comic publisher Semic (later bought up by Egmont) got the rights to Marvel in Scandinavia, which changed the game completely. Semic made some important changes in the Marvel line, some for the better, others for worse.

The good thing first: Semic encouraged fandom activity and contact between readers and editors in a way that Atlantic had never done. They introduced pages for reader’s letters and provided their readers with good and proper information, rather than just spewing out the comics blindly, like Atlantic had been doing. Also, they brought the X-Men (under the name Prosjekt X) back into the Norwegian market as a new, monthly comic book. X-Men was a comic that Atlantic had never treated with much respect or attention.

The bad: for some reason, Semic began reprinting Hulk stories that had Atlantic had already put out five years ago, messing up the continuity that Scandinavian readers had gotten used to. Semic hardly put out any new albums or digests, and the few digests they offered were single and in black and white. Semic’s Norwegian editor admitted that he had no idea how Atlantic was able to publish several double digests in color every year.

By the end of 1985, Semic’s great plan for the Marvel universe in Norway was falling apart. X-Men was cancelled before the end of the year. Hulk was as good as cancelled by the end of the year. In the following year, only a few Hulk issues came out. Spider-Man continued as before, though, and to make some amends, Semic began publishing the Miller/Janson run on Daredevil as a monthly comic book (called “Demonen”, a name which has not been used for the character since 1970). It actually did quite well, mostly because Miller’s writing appealed to more mature readers. Daredevil was considered proof that the comics medium was growing up, so to speak.  

Encouraged by the Daredevil success, Semic began publishing new bi-monthly comic books in 1987 under the vignettes Marvel Spesial and Marvel Superheltene.  Through these books, the X-Men made their return to the Norwegian market and, perhaps more surprisingly, so did the Fantastic Four. Semic must have had great confidence in John Byrne’s ability to deliver quality comics at this time, as they published everything they could find of Byrne in the period 1987-1989: Fantastic Four, Hulk and even Alpha Flight - In addition to John Byrne’s Superman, which they also had the rights to.
Hulk and X-Men got their own comic books back 1990 (bi-monthly for the Hulk and monthly for the X-Men). But alas, this turned out to be tempting fate. X-Men was cancelled within a year, Hulk was cancelled within two years. Only Spider-Man stayed afloat, but was cancelled by the end of 1993. And that was the end of the second wave, after what seemed like a constant and defiant struggle to remain in the Norwegian comic market ever since 1985.

Technically, it wasn't over until the Punisher's comic book ended in 1995, after being published in Norway for five years. But the Punisher's Norwegian publisher was trying to avoid making a book that would have appeal to fans of Marvel superheroes. And probably for good reason - The reader's letter pages suggested that the typical Punisher reader detested superheroes.The Punisher was publised by Bladkompaniet.

The third wave began, once again with Spider-Man. In 1999, he made his surprising return to the Norwegian market, probably encouraged by the character’s increased mass media presence. It was perfectly timed: Media’s interest in Spider-Man was about to explode, thanks to Sam Raimi’s movie.
One important detail changed with the third wave: All the characters kept their original names from now on. In Norway (and in many other countries) there’s a tradition of translating superhero names.
Spider-Man was now published by Egmont. Encouraged by its success, Egmont also relaunched the comic book Gigant in 2000. Gigant was originally for DC superheroes only, but this time it was used to print both DC and Marvel heroes, especially Ultimate Marvel.

Egmont also tried a Wolverine comic book for two years. When it got cancelled, they replaced it with an X-Men comic in 2003. This was actually the X-Men’s most successful run in Norway; it was bi-monthly with double-sized issues every time, and ran for four years. At the same time, the fan-driven company Seriehuset reintroduced Daredevil and the title Marvel Superheltene with the aid of the old publishing house Aller. They also added another title, Marvel Universet, for Iron Man and Captain America stories. It lasted two years. Daredevil also lasted two years, new Marvel Superheltene lasted for four years including a year-long sabbatical, and was made up mostly by Fantastic Four and Thor stories. It’s worth noticing that despite the character’s roots in Scandinavian mythology, this was the first time ever that Marvel’s Thor had been prolific in a Norwegian comic book.

In 2007, the Norwegian rights to Marvel were taken over by the important publishing company Schibsted, who tried their best to keep the heroes in circulation. Spider-Man continued as before, and the vignette “Marvel Spesial” was reintroduced. It was mostly made up by X-Men and Wolverine material, so the X-Men stayed around for a little while longer. Schibsted also published Marvel color single digests for a couple of years. From 2009, the issues became less irregular, but they also became thicker and had a greater diversity of characters. The content was to some degree based on whatever Marvel hero had a movie out at the time, but the editors were free to use any story they wanted with that particular hero. Yet also in 2009, Spider-Man was cancelled, which was obviously a bad sign. Gradually, the new special became fewer, and for the last couple of years, they’ve only featured reprints of material formerly released in Norway.

This year, nothing has been published save for the “Spider-Man Kids” book produced by Panini. So I think it’s safe to say the third wave is over, and I don’t think there’ll ever be a fourth one. The kids in Norway are content with Marvel superheroes on TV and cinemas, while the adult fans know English well enough to read the originals.  The translated material just isn’t selling anymore.  

søndag 12. oktober 2014


Although Lodz (pronounced "woodge") is Poland's third largest city, it comes across as rather anonymous. It lacks the rich cultural history of Cracow, and the metropolitan atmosphere of Warsaw. What it has, however, is Eastern Europe's biggest comic book convention. Both American superheroes (and Polish ones!), manga and European bande dessinée albums are all the rage, and the market is still huge.

The entrance to Festiwal Komiksu

Festiwal Komiksu in Gier (comic and game festival) at Atlas Arena in Lodz is used to having big names on the guest list. This year, the con attendees had the chance to meet Jean Van Hamme, Grzegor Rosinski, Alan Grant, Arie Kaplan and Regis Loisel. In this company, Norwegian comics creators Øystein Runde and Ida Neverdahl could hardly expect to get the best seats in the house; they had to settle for lecture hall B and a table placed conveniently next to the festival shop where you could purchase their book, Moskwa (Moscow) in Polish. When they went on stage in hall B on Sunday, October 5th at 11.30 am, attendance was low, but it tripled during the lecture.

Ida and Øystein with their Polish aide

Moskwa (Norwegian title Moskva) was originally published in Norwegian in December 2013 as a collaboration project between Øystein Runde and Ida Neverdahl. Both artists had been guests at KomMissia in Moscow, Russia’s main comic festival, in May the same year. The comic is based on their fairly subjective impressions of the festival and of Moscow and modern Russia in general.

From the Norwegian edition, Øystein is having a conversation with the local guide in English

“Moskwa” has not been translated into English, but in the Norwegian edition, all the dialogue that takes place between the Norwegian protagonists and the Russians are rendered in English. In the Polish version, this has not been changed. Instead, the Polish translations are in the back. The Poles’ English is (in my experience) very variable, so it is quite possible that many readers must constantly flip back and forth in the book to understand everything. Was the Polish publisher okay with this?

“Yes it was his idea! It would have been no problem for them to do everything in Polish, but I think he thought this was a cool way to do it, to show that we are strangers in a strange land, that we struggle with the language. It was a logical, narrative technique”, says Øystein.

Ida and Øystein signing books at the festival arena

Festiwal Komiksu in Gier in Lodz took place October 3-5 this year. From the same festival, I hope to publish an interview with Arie Kaplan shortly.