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for Friday, February 6, 2009

Disguised as Clark Kent

Several "Jews and Comics" books have crossed my desk in recent months. I reviewed one of them two weeks ago and, today, you get two-and-a-half more.

Disguised As Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero by Danny Fingeroth [Continuum; $19.95] is a very thoughtful, very smart, very readable exploration of its subject. The inside cover flap calls it "provocative," but I think that's an adjective that falls flat. The formative roles that Jews played in the birth of the American comic-book industry in general and the comic-book superhero in specific are undeniable matters of record. Blocked from the more "dignified" worlds of art and commerce, Jews created industries of their own (including, in large measure, the motion picture biz) and applied their gifts of art and storytelling to them. Without the likes of Max Gaines, Harry Donenfeld, Jack Liebowitz, Martin Goodwin, and other Jewish entrepreneurs, we might not have a comics industry, and without creators like Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, and Will Eisner, those early comic books wouldn't have been anywhere near as exciting and successful as they were.

Fingeroth approaches this history with all the sensibilities acquired during his own long career in comics. He considers what import, conscious or otherwise, the background of the creators had in the development of their creations and make a viable case that it was greater than initially meets the eye. It's hard not to see the link between the secret identities that were de rigueur for the fashionable superheroes of the 1940s and historic Jewish identity. As Fingeroth writes:

Jewish identity is historically about the push and pull toward and away from that very identity. As immigrants with a history of persecution, Jews came to America with their heads down but their eyes open. Finding in America a civilization freer of officially sanctioned anti-Semitism and replete with a philosophy that allowed the individual to succeed, at least in theory, to the extent of his or her abilities, Jews were faced with unprecedented freedom and opportunity.

That's as good a summation of what comic art and the superhero offer as any I've read.

Thus far, Disguised As Clark Kent is my favorite of the "Jews and comics" books. It's an essential book for any serious student of comics history and a swell read to boot. It earns the full five out of five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

Krakow to Krypton

Comedian, MAD contributor, and comic-book writer Arne Kaplan's From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books [Jewish Publication Society of America; $25] is less weighty than the Fingeroth book, but offers more examples of comics art created by Jewish creators, most of them presented as full pages and in full color. Especially effective in this regard are two Wally Wood-drawn pages from "Hate" [Shock SuspensStories #5, October-November, 1952], a landmark tale that addressed anti-Semitism; and black-and-white pages from Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, Joe Kubert, Robert Crumb (drawing a Harvey Pekar story) and Sharon Rudahl and Trina Robbins' dramatic "Zog Nit Keyn Mol."

As you can see, Kaplan's coverage of non-superhero comics and creators surpasses Fingeroth's. Pressed, I'd give a slight edge to Disguised As Clark Kent, but Kaplan's tome also ranks as an essential addition to your comics library.

From Krakow to Krypton earns the full five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

Boys of Steel

The "half" book on Jews and comics is Marc Tyler Nobleman's brilliant Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman [Alfred A. Knoft; $16.99], an illustrated biography of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for young readers. Concise in text and page count, this book is, nevertheless, a well-researched, well-written history of those imaginative boys, the origin of their greatest creation, and their many struggles, first to bring Superman to the public and later to achieve their fair share of the hero's success.

His target audience notwithstanding, Nobleman crafts a story older readers will enjoy as well. Ross MacDonald's illustrations, powerful in their harkening back to the 1930s and 1940s, add weight and emotion to Nobleman's compelling prose. This book belongs in, not merely in the personal libraries of serious fans and students of comics, but in every public and school library.

Boys of Steel, like the other books I've written about here, is not merely a story about Jewish comics creators and their landsmen who founded the comic-book industry. It's the fundamental story of America. It earns the full five Tonys.

Tony Tony Tony Tony Tony

Thanks for spending a part of your day with me. I'll be back on Monday with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

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Zero Tonys
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.

ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.

TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?

THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.

FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?

FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.

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