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 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.
"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."