Jewish Cartoonists and the American Experience


June 28, 1999 - September 3, 1999


Reading Room Gallery
27 W. 17th Avenue Mall
Columbus Ohio

Cartoons like all mass entertainment are both a reflection of the society in which they are created and a creative force with an impact on that society. Jews, as the exhibition well demonstrates, have been major contributors to American cartoon arts from early in this century to the present day. They brought their own unique outlooks, influenced by immigration and assimilation, to their craft. One can trace the tide of American life through Jewish eyes in their work, and at the same time one can point out the paths by which they have influence the way all American see themselves.

In Harry Hershfield’s Abie Kabibble one can detect the sentiments of American-born Jew in a world of anti-Semitism on the one hand, and European immigrant Jews on the other. Abie the Agent is full of Yiddishisms and Jewish humor, but there may be something more. Professionally Abie fulfills a Jewish stereotype, but this opens the door to the neutralization of negative connotations within that stereotype. The maternal figures in Al Capp’s hillbilly comic strip Li’l Abner and Mell Lazarus’ Momma do not appear to be Jews, but they, too, offer a positive spin on a Jewish stereotype – the masterful and guilt-wielding mother. Whether consciously or not, these cartoonists painted many of their Jewish concerns in the colors of American cartoon culture.

Superman, a comic book created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster on the eve of the Second World War, has been described by Jules Feiffer in terms of Jewish self-perception as well. Superman, for Feiffer, represents the desire of Jews to identify themselves as heroes of American values; it is an “assimilationist fantasy… It wasn’t Krypton that Superman really came from; it was the planet Minsk or Lodz or Vilna or Warsaw.” I think, however, that something different is occurring here. Superman is no super-Jew. Siegel and Schuster simply identify fully with American values. Superman represents the vision of American Jews who have assimilated successfully, to the point that their dreams for an American hero strike an identical chord with young people throughout the country.

The assimilated American Jew nevertheless had certain typical values, which are again represented by Jewish cartoonists, especially following World War II. For example, Al Capp’s Dogpatch is a stereotype American town, yet for Capp it was a device to deliver a strong liberal message of social welfare. (His popularity waned when he took a strong conservative position in the late 1960’s.) Jules Feiffer was able simultaneously to support liberal values and to poke fun at liberals, especially Jews. His targets, if not his humor, share much in common with those of Jewish writers like Philip Roth and Woody Allen. While this exhibition does not include the work of Herbert Block (Herblock), it is worthwhile to point him out as a political cartoonist whose anti-Republican barbs over the period of several decades undoubtedly represented the views of a large proportion of American Jewry.

Jewish cartoonists helped shape American thought as well as reflecting the values of American Jews. Certainly the contribution of Moses Koenigsberg, a Hearst executive who founded King Features Syndicate in 1913, was pivotal in making cartoons influential in American life. Siegel and Schuster helped put a face on American values with Superman, and continued to articulate those values through the comic book over many decades. Al Capp must be considered one of the most important cartoonists of the century. But Jewish ideas also come to influence American thought through several new styles of cartoon art in the last half-century.

Mad Magazine, one of the great satirical media for baby-boomers, is loaded with cartoons full of Jewish expressions, humor and references. Like the films of Mel Brooks, Mad cartoons featured Yiddish words in unexpected places, Jewish names on characters, and the satirical bite characteristic of much Jewish humor. Mad was read by millions, and it introduced untold American young people to the “lighter side” of American Jewish culture. In a far more serious vein, the work of Art Spiegelman made numerous contributions to the cartoon arts, particularly in works featuring Jewish-related themes. His most famous creation is the two-volume Holocaust biography Maus, based on the experiences of his parents and family relationships.Maus not only popularized the genre of serious cartoon art, it also offered an example of the ways in which this particular artistic medium can communicate complex ideas and sentiments better than any other. Spiegelman has further expanded the frontiers of cartooning with his covers for The New Yorker, several of which have featured Jewish issues in a very controversial context.

Altogether, then, a close look at American Jewish cartoonists can teach us much about Jews and American culture. Each artist represented in this exhibit has a different style and aim, but all offer a window into the experience of Jews in America. Let us learn and be entertained.

Matt Goldish
Samuel Esther Melton, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies
The Ohio State University