Professor N.C. Christopher Couch: “Jews and Comics”

Zane Razzaq ’15
Arts Editor

 

On April 18, Professor N.C. Christopher Couch, a professor in the Comparative Literature department at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, gave a lecture titled “Jews and Comics” on the history of comics and its relationship with Jewish artists. The lecture, sponsored by Smith Hillel, made connections between Jewish religious and secular traditions and comic art and detailed the history of Jewish influence in comics.

In the beginning of the lecture, Couch stressed the importance of “[thinking] about Jewish religious and secular traditions in the United States” when considering Jewish influence in comic art. He identified one of the more influential traditions as Yiddish theater, which he called “the most amazing cultural phenomenon.” He mentioned that critics at the time lauded Yiddish theater and that it influenced American theater in many ways.

Yiddish literature is another cultural tradition he talked about as having influenced Jewish comic artists. He described Yiddish literature as “modern literature that combines Hasidic folklore and philosophical things” and having “played a major role in American realism and naturalism.” It had influenced American authors like Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane.

The Jewish community “from both sides of the Atlantic” embraced Yiddish theater and literature enthusiastically as part of their identity. The way the Jewish community cheered on their playwrights and artists is crucial to how Yiddish theater went from being a despised art form to becoming accepted as a legitimate art form.

After providing context about what types of art Jewish communities were engaging in during the time Jewish creators got involved with comic art, Couch talked about the general history of comics. Comic books were first introduced in 1933 by several printing salesmen in Manhattan, New York. Soon after, superheroes were incorporated. In Cleveland, Ohio, two Jewish teenagers named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shusterin created Superman. They were inspired by “American science fiction, Sunday funnies, the Golem.” Initially, Superman was “not the all-American superhero he is today”; instead, he was a “friend of the worker,” “fought corrupt employers,” and was “really interested in mine safety.”

Couch noted that superheroes “live in the communities they protect.” Couch drew similarities between superheroes and the Golem, for at the time superheroes came to being, the Golem went  through a popular and cultural reinvention in which three different films were dedicated to the story. Couch noted that Siegel and Shusterin were drawing from American pop culture and Jewish pop culture in creating the story of Superman.

Couch also touched on a stereotype that Jewish artists only worked in comics because they could not get jobs anywhere else. In an interview with Mother Jones, Al Jaffee, an American cartoonist, said, “I figured I can’t get a job anywhere … there was a certain amount of anti-Semitism … the ad agencies tended to be lily white.” While Couch acknowledged that Jewish artists began working in comics because there was too much prejudice for them to get jobs elsewhere, he believes this implies that Jewish artists only worked in comics for money; in actuality, they genuinely enjoyed creating comics. “They embraced it,” Couch said. “They took this despised artistic medium and they did the very best they could with it. I don’t know about any other artistic medium where the creators cared so much that they tried to raise the cultural value of the art form except one – Yiddish theater.”

Couch mentioned that today there are still many Jewish artists working in comics. In the ’90s and ’00s, there was a realization that there was so much Jewish influence in comics, and this led to Jewish artists reentering the artistic medium.

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