Moses clutches the Ten Commandments in one hand and tries to hail a taxicab with the other; Yahweh greets Jesus with a “Shalom,”and the latter replies: “Shalom yourself!” These are typical japes from the French comics artist Gotlib (born Marcel Mordekhaï Gottlieb in 1934 to a Romanian-Hungarian Jewish family). “The Worlds of Gotlib,” an exhibit at Paris’s Museum of Jewish Art and History, which can be seen until July 20, and a new edition of a 1993 memoir, “I Exist: I Met Myself,” testify to Gotlib’s comic imagination, which was influenced by Harvey Kurtzman and Al Feldstein’s Mad Magazine, Sol Brodsky’s Cracked Magazine, and the Marx Brothers.
Gotlib’s creative energy derived in part from traumatic experiences during his youth. In 1942, his father Ervin Tzvy Gottlieb, a housepainter, was deported to the French concentration camp Drancy and, after three years’ imprisonment, was murdered in Buchenwald. Gotlib spent the war in hiding with his mother, Régine Berman, a seamstress. After this harrowing childhood, Gotlib tellingly claimed that his favorite novel was Victor Hugo’s “The Man Who Laughs,” in which a beggar boy’s face is mutilated into a permanent grin to amuse paying crowds. Gotlib would find a substitute father in an early employer, René Goscinny, who co-created the comics “Astérix,” “Lucky Luke” and “Iznogoud.” Goscinny, of Polish Jewish origin, took Gotlib under his wing; yet Gotlib told Le Monde that the only time Goscinny referred to his roots was in 1968, in the midst of staff problems at a magazine, when he “threw a terrible tantrum and shouted, ‘My whole life, I’ve had massive headaches because I am Jewish.’”
For his part, Gotlib celebrated Judaism by slyly including Yiddish jokes in one comic strip with characters named Peter Ganz-Meshugeneh, Cyril Gornisht-Zogen, Guy Filtefish, and Jean Abisele-Dreck. In an essay in the Museum of Jewish Art catalogue, Jean-Claude Kuperminc, director of the Library of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, declares that for Gotlib, Yiddish remains the lingua franca of his childhood, full of comic delights. Gotlib underlined this by appearing in a small role in the 1986 film “Je hais les acteurs” (“I Hate Actors”) as the owner of a Parisian Jewish restaurant who, when customers marvel that an Asian waiter is fluent in Yiddish, replies: “Shh! He thinks he’s speaking English.”
With a cheeky humor that is typically Yiddish and Parisian, Gotlib could also somberly decry Pilote, a magazine that employed him, for a 1973 cover attempting to poke fun at Adolf Hitler. As he later told comic book historian Numa Sadoul, “To me it was unacceptable to speak of Hitler while ‘making jokes’ (perhaps because I had personal reasons for blaming him)… [O]ne mustn’t ‘be witty’ about Hitler, one must annihilate him! With humor, if you will, but he must be crushed!”
Gotlib participated the following year in a public debate surrounding the Italian film “The Night Porter” about an ex-concentration camp prisoner who sustains an S & M relationship with her former SS tormentor. While many French cinephiles were titillated, Gotlib denounced the film’s treatment of fascism.
Gotlib’s moral stances as well as his transgressive wit drew such fans as French Jewish novelist Georges Perec, whose mother was murdered at Auschwitz. In one text from 1991, Perec dedicated a pseudo-scientific study to “Professor” Gotlib, calling him a path-breaking botanist.
Gotlib was a visual humorist who was also known for his overtly sexual jokes, such as a comic strip in which Tina Turner performs the song “Proud Mary” with such erotic intensity that her handheld microphone has an orgasm, or a mock-scene from “Les Misérables” in which Cosette performs oral sex on Jean Valjean. Woody Allen popped up in Gotlib’s work, as did Barbara (the French Jewish singer born Monique Andrée Serf); Serge Gainsbourg; René Goscinny; singer-songwriter Michel Jonasz; the Marx Brothers; the French Jewish film director Jean-Pierre Melville (born Jean-Pierre Grumbach); and many more.
Around 1985, Gotlib retired from drawing, although he continued to advise and contribute concepts to “Fluide Glacial” (“Freezing Fluid,” perhaps an allusion to the much-vaunted French virtue of sangfroid or imperturbabilty), a satiric magazine that he had co-founded in 1975. Currently retired in Le Vésinet, a cushy suburb to the west of Paris, Gotlib is battling emphysema, which he attributes to years of workplace smoking in small studios. There he receives visits from fans such as the French Jewish journalist and author Fabrice Pliskin, who recently described Gotlib as “dressed in black like a James Bond villain, as tall as Yoda.” Hardly a fan of Hergé, the creator of “Tintin,” whom Gotlib deemed “too well-behaved,” he told Pliskin that he always “wondered if Hergé was anti-Semitic.” He displays hardly any more admiration for the French Jewish comics artist Joann Sfar (“The Rabbi’s Cat”), whom he dismissed as a member of the “school of doodling.”
Gotlib shared with Pliskin the irony of discovering that one of his colleagues at an early comics job was Philippe Druillet, son of Victor Druillet, head of one of the French Nazi milice groups who was condemned to death for Nazi collaboration. Undaunted, Gotlib toiled with the young Druillet at making parodies of science fiction.
In 1968, three years before Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” Gotlib created a strip in which a happy colony of rats in the Rungis wholesale food market outside Paris are forced to flee from inhumane developers. The implicit parallels to Gotlib’s own life hardly require any further comment.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.