Comics for Chinuch?

by | in Jewish World

For decades, society considered comics to be “kid stuff.” Pictures were art, words were literature, but put the two together and it equaled trash. Nowadays, critically acclaimed novels in the format of comics1 (commonly known as graphic novels) are available at every major book chain. Many of these have Jewish themes (although they may not conform to traditional Jewish thought or practice). With the greater acceptance of comics as a legitimate communications medium, the format seems to be reaching a greater number of audiences, including the Orthodox community.

One of the most critical graphic novels was the 1992 Pulitzer Prize winning Maus, a groundbreaking work by Art Spiegelman. Subtitled A Survivor’s Tale, Maus adapts Spiegelman’s interviews with his father, who was a prisoner in Auschwitz. The story is so overwhelmingly powerful that the author felt he had to portray the characters as anthropomorphized animals: The Jews are mice, the Nazis are cats, the Poles are pigs, and the Americans are dogs. Because of its almost universal acclaim, Maus became the first comics literature for adults to receive widespread attention. This was the first step in graphic novels now being available in every major book chain and being accepted by many Americans as reading material for adults.

Veteran comics creator Will Eisner was one of the originators of the modern graphic novel. His first graphic novel, in 1978, was A Contract with God, and its protagonists were traditional Jews. Eisner would return to Jewish characters and themes throughout his career. Among his later works were Fagin the Jew, an adaptation of Oliver Twist from the antagonist’s viewpoint, and The Plot,2 a historical novel explaining how the malicious Protocols of the Elders of Zion were fabricated and disseminated. Such graphic novels have done much to expose the public to the Jewish experience.3

There are now many other critically acclaimed graphic novels with Jewish themes intended for mainstream audiences. These include The Golem’s Mighty Swing, the story of a Jewish baseball team; The Rabbi’s Cat, a tale of old Algiers; Cargo, a German-Israeli artist exchange program and an adaptation of Megillat Esther in Hebrew and English. But are there heimish comics intended for frum families?

A number of publishers have recently started using comics as a means to convey principles of Jewish education to children. This is not the first time this has been done, but earlier attempts proved abortive. A correlation can probably be drawn between the greater acceptance of comics in mainstream America and the growth in comics as an educational tool for yeshivah students, if not yet for frum adults.

Christian Comics Reach Out-Can Jewish Comics?
In truth, the Christian community has long recognized the power of comics as a medium. For over a decade and a half, a Christian comics publisher licensed the Archie characters for a series of educational comics promoting Christian faith and values. (These were licensed with the proviso that they only be sold in Christian book stores, so as not to confuse the marketplace.)

Similarly, the most published living author in the world is the creator of a series of fundamentalist Christian tracts in comics format. With over 180 titles in the series since 1970, available in over one hundred languages, more than half a billion of these tracts have been distributed worldwide. Clearly, there’s something to the medium.

Early Jewish attempts at using comics to teach Torah failed to duplicate this success. The 1972 Torah-Man and Mitzvah-Boy by Paulette (Pesha Razela) Fein Lieberman, currently a voice actress living in New York, in fact featured two yeshivah boys (rather than a man and a boy), who rode their “alef-beis bikes” on the way to do mitzvot. Self-published by Lieberman and artist Bracha Hadas, Torah-Man and Mitzvah-Boy was inspired by Lieberman’s observation that children in the school where she taught were emulating Superman and Batman. Not only did Torah-Man provide a Jewish role model, all proceeds went to provide scholarships for aspiring yeshivah students.

Torah-Man, which was actually illustrated prose rather than pure comics, was well-received, but only lasted two issues (and an accompanying record, later a tape). The primary reason for its early cancellation, Lieberman says, was the difficulty the two young mothers encountered in running a side business.

There would not be a real Jewish-education comic book until 1981, with the advent of Mendy and the Golem by Leibel Estrin, with art by Dovid Sears.

Estrin authored a half-dozen or so juvenile fiction books, released by a variety of publishers, including The Man Who Rode with Eliyahu Hanavi, The Story of Danny Three Times, Rabbi Riddle and a Mendy Pesach special, Grandma’s Seder Plate Is Missing!

Touting itself as “The World’s Only Kosher Comic Book,” Mendy and the Golem followed the adventures of the Klein family (Mendy and Rivky and their parents, Rabbi Yaakov and Sara) and their “pet” golem, Sholem. Mendy featured high production values. It was full color, well written and very entertaining. At least ten issues were published by Mendy Enterprises, focusing on themes from kashrut to lashon hara.

While not overtly stated in the credits, Mendy appears to have been created under the auspices of or somehow in cooperation with Chabad. This is evidenced not only by occasional story content (such as biographical tales of certain Chassidic rebbeim), but by house ads and the Tzivos Hashem sweatshirts favored by Mendy and Rivky. There would not be a 1980s renaissance in Torah-themed sequential art, but we may be on the cusp of such a revolution as of this writing. A lot has changed in society’s view of comics since the last attempt. One major change that has occurred in the interim is the aforementioned growth and acceptance of the graphic novel.

Contemporary Jewish Comics
One of the longest-running Jewish comics has been Al Wiesner’s Shaloman, from Mark 1 Comics. Shaloman has appeared in forty issues in several volumes since he debuted in 1988. The titles of the volumes include Shaloman, Legend of …, New Adventures of … and Saga of…. (The series appears to have recently gone on hiatus.) While not apparently produced under Orthodox auspices, the tongue-in-cheek superhero series includes healthy doses of Jewish education and Jewish pride, like a thirty-two-page Hebrew school. This comic book is less likely to find its way into yeshivot than Mendy, but it would not be out of place in a Talmud Torah. For example, in Saga … #6, a United States Air Force pilot is Jewish, but cannot explain the reasons for the holidays to “Dr. Traif.” Shaloman brings him back to the time of the Chashmonaim to fight with the Maccabees and learn about Chanukah.

Shaloman is truly an odd creature. His secret identity is a large rock shaped like the Hebrew letter shin (known, appropriately enough, as “Shin Rock”). He is summoned when he hears the cry “oi vay” (sic). Printed in black-and-white, the book’s production values may not be as finely-honed as some other comics, but it is clearly a labor of love.

Mendy and the Golem returned in 2002, published by The Golem Factory, with several noteworthy changes. While a Mendy comic strip, concurrently running in forty local Jewish newspapers, focuses on gags with a Torah-education spin, the comic book is a straight action adventure series whose protagonists just happen to be Orthodox Jews.

The new Mendy series was directed by editor-in-chief Tani Pinson, whose father, Yankel, was the publisher of the original Mendy series. The series was written by Matt Brandstein, whose résumé includes creating music videos for such artists as Sting and Mariah Carey.

The new incarnation of Mendy features art from classic comic book artists. Foremost among these is Stan Goldberg, a veteran of Marvel and DC, two major publishers of comics, but who is best known for his work at Archie Comics. Goldberg was succeeded by Ernie Colon, best known for his work on Harvey Comics, including Casper and Richie Rich.

The focus of the new series is less on Torah education and more on simply providing positive Jewish role models, although the series is intended to be accessible to readers of all backgrounds. Set in New Haven, Connecticut, a typical American city (and Pinson’s hometown), Mendy is seen more in his baseball cap than in his yarmulke. The characters’ religion is not the focal point of the story, but it is in no way concealed.

Mendy was very well received, receiving write-ups and glowing reviews from a wide range of publications including Denver’s Intermountain Jewish News, the Cleveland Jewish News and the Detroit Jewish News, as well as the Comics Buyer’s Guide. With its professional creators, full-color art and glossy pages, Mendy was “the one to beat.” Nevertheless, only five issues were published; it apparently went on hiatus in 2005.

Even more overt Jewish role models are provided in The Jewish Hero Corps by Alan Oirich, a writer and multimedia producer whose other work includes the “Virtual Shabbat” CR-ROM released by the National Jewish Outreach Program. The one published story, from Shayach Comics, provides a combination of action and education, although perhaps not subtlety, featuring as it does characters with such names as Minyan Man (who can split into ten individuals), Shabbas Queen (who can stop machinery for twenty-five hours) and the spinning Dreidel Maidel. The very existence of Matzah Woman, who gets her powers from eating radioactive matzah is rather puzzling, but we can understand Menorah Man, with his eight flaming arms.

The Jewish Hero Corps, with its full-color art by Ron Randall, looks very professional. It’s particularly interesting to see superheroines wearing long skirts, but that so many unsubtly Jewish-themed characters exist tests one’s willing suspension of disbelief. As Yitzchak, a sixteen-year-old to whom I presented the issue, put it, “[The array of Jewish heroes] is an interesting concept, but rather odd.” Only one issue appears to have been published, in 2003.

Another veteran comics creator, Joe Kubert, also got in on the Jewish comics game. Best known for his work on DC titles including Hawkman and Sgt. Rock, and founder of The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art in New Jersey, much of Kubert’s later work has included Jewish themes. Most noteworthy among them is Yossel: April 19, 1943, a graphic novel in which Kubert depicts what might have been had his family not escaped Europe before the War. Most relevant to this discussion, however, is The Adventures of Yaakov and Isaac. These strips, originally published by The Moshiach Times in the late 1980s, were recently collected by, and are currently available from, Mahrwood Press (info@mahrwoodpress.com).

Yaakov and Isaac (why not “Yitzchak?”) are two yeshivah boys who share two-page adventures, each ending with a moral lesson. For example, in one tale, Yaakov and Isaac wonder why it’s important for them to tutor younger students. They then happen to read the story of how Rabbi Chiya toiled to write a sefer Torah to be able to teach, inspiring them in their goal. Other stories flash back to 1700s Europe, the Warsaw Ghetto or the Beit Hamikdash, while some occur in contemporary settings. Each vignette is flanked by the author’s reflections and discussion questions; consequently, the volume is only 50 percent comics. Its inclination toward discussion, however, makes it perfectly suited for classroom use. I asked Binyamin, a fourteen-year-old yeshivah student, what he thought of the series. His reply? Yaakov and Isaac has “good life lessons and interesting mashals [parables].”

Mahrwood Press is currently producing additional educational material in comics form. Already released as of this writing is Rambam, a biography of Maimonides by popular lecturer and renowned Jewish historian Rabbi Berel Wein. (Rabbi Wein is credited as the creator, but Robert J. Avrech, an Orthodox screenwriter whose credits include A Stranger Among Us and The Secret Life of Ian Fleming, is listed as the writer.) Unlike most graphic novels, this one opens with a haskamah (letter of approbation), in this case from Rabbi Yaacov Haber, president of TorahLab and rosh yeshivah of Orchos Chaim in Jerusalem. (Such a letter moves the book from the realm of “graphic novel” into that of “sefer.”)

Unlike many other graphic Judaica, this small, hardcover volume appears to presuppose a frum audience, incorporating as it does such Hebrew terms as “Ribono shel Olam” in the text with neither translation nor glossary. Other comics in Mahrwood’s series include biographies of Shmuel HaNaggid and a forthcoming volume on Rashi.

Many other publishers of Torah literature for youth have started experimenting with books in comics form. Feldheim published Rabbi Yisroel Greenwald’s We Want Life, a guide to the laws of lashon hara based on the works of the Chofetz Chaim. Also focusing on lashon hara is ArtScroll’s The Word-Wise Adventures of Yisrael and Meir Book One: Going Global by Yitzchok Kornblau and Ruth Beifus.

We Want Life is a thick paperback volume composed almost exclusively of comics. The simple line art, however, is not really up to the comics industry’s professional standards. Going Global, a thin hardcover, is much more polished, with full-color art and glossy pages, but it contains fewer comics. While not exclusively in comics form, it does include some comics on almost every page. The two lashon hara books are very different in both style and approach. As each one brings something unique to the table, they are hardly redundant and can easily complement one another.

New companies are also helping to break ground in this area, such as the multimedia company Shazak Productions, run by Chicago veteran educator Rabbi Moshe Moscowitz. Shazak goes one step further by releasing both graphic novels and animated DVD cartoons on the Jewish holidays. The art is more cartoonish and appropriate for younger readers than, say, Rambam or even Mendy. Among the titles currently available, in both print and animation, are Queen of Persia (the story of Purim) and Miracle Lights (the story of Chanukah). Children who peruse the book version of Queen of Persia appreciate the cartoony style and the wry anachronisms (such as speed limit signs and references to the game “hangman”).

One might legitimately ask how we can anticipate a renaissance in Jewish comics when so many of the relevant releases are either one-shots by design or appear to be prematurely cancelled. The answer is not in the success of individual efforts, but in the fact that so many people now recognize the potential of the medium.

Comics are a powerful medium. They were accepted among adults in Europe and Asia long before they were in the US, but they now seem to have come of age. Christian educators have used them effectively for decades, but Jewish institutions are only starting to discover their effectiveness. Comics may be the perfect means to reach some disenchanted or uninterested students since, as the Talmud tells us (Rosh Hashanah 26a), seeing something is more powerful than hearing it. A picture being worth 1,000 words, comics can easily convey more detail than words alone.

The offerings in Jewish educational comics, while still few in number, are becoming as varied as anything in the secular realm. Some are black and white, others are color. Some are serious, others are humorous. Some are of higher quality, others are of lesser quality. But one thing is certain: The definitive Jewish comic book, one that is educational, critically acclaimed and long-running, has yet to come. With the relatively recent acceptance of comics as an art form, however, it would seem to be only a matter of time.

Despite their Jewish themes, the graphic novels discussed in the beginning of this article are intended for secular audiences and may not be appropriate for every family. Inclusion in the historical overview does not constitute an endorsement.

Rabbi Abramowitz is the Torah content editor of the OU. He has written for Comic Buyer’s Guide and Comic Book Marketplace magazines.

Notes
1. The accepted industry convention is that “comics” is plural in form but can be singular or plural in usage, hence “Comics are on the floor” or “Comics is an American art form.” Accordingly, a novel is in “comics format,” not in “comic format.”
2. The latter was published posthumously in 2005.
3. The author of this article at one point helped Eisner with research for a proposed graphic novel adapting stories from the Talmud; the project was later abandoned.

Jewish Roots of the Comic Book Industry
It’s no surprise to anyone familiar with comic book history that the industry was built by a staggering number of Jewish writers and artists.

Superman, for example, was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two “nice Jewish boys” from Cleveland, Ohio. Consider their character’s origin. As a baby, Superman was rocketed to Earth by his parents in order to save him from certain destruction. He was raised among a foreign people, concealing his true identity. Finally, he grew up to be a great savior, demonstrating miraculous abilities. Does this not parallel the infant Moshe’s escape in a basket, his subsequent upbringing in Mitzrayim and his ultimate redemption of Bnei Yisrael?

Similarly, the “Marvel Age of Comics” was built on the backs of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (born Stanley Lieber and Jacob Kurtzberg). Wasn’t Spider-Man’s angst Jewish? And what of the X-Men? They were a team of outcasts, hated and feared by the very world they were sworn to protect. How representative of the Jewish experience!

Jewish Characters Show Jewish Character
In the early 1980s, Jewish characters started taking positions of some prominence. Kitty Pryde of the X-Men was created with a strong Jewish identity, even though the character is not particularly observant. Colossal Boy of the Legion of Super-Heroes was revealed to be Jewish, and, in a classic case of overcompensation, they later decided that he was also Israeli. It would not be until the twenty-first century that a truly major comics character would be revealed to be Jewish: Ben Grimm, The Thing of the Fantastic Four. (This is not surprising, as he was patterned after one of his creators, Jack Kirby.)

The major companies also created Jewish-themed heroes, such as Marvel’s Sabra (a woman who fires quills) and DC’s Seraph (ostensibly equipped with Eliyahu’s mantle and Moshe’s staff).

There are now many Jewish characters, including observant characters, in the stables at both of the two major comics companies, Marvel and DC.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2006.

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