Jewish Images in the Comics: A Visual History
By Fredrik Strömberg
Fantagraphics, 304 pages, $26.99
In the epigraph to his second volume of “Maus,” the seminal graphic novel about the Shoah, Art Spiegelman quotes an anti-Semitic text: “Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed… Healthy emotions tell every independent young man and every honorable youth that the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal.”
At this point, 20 years after its publication, “Maus’s” contours are indelibly traced. Spiegelman’s novel is not simply a survivor’s memoir, but a visual broadside against a history of anti-Semitic images. When he chooses to depict all of his Jewish characters as mice (the Nazis show up as cats), Spiegelman is reclaiming derogatory images. That Jews were called rats, and then hunted as rats, was not simply a coincidence of history but an insight into the mechanisms of anti-Semitism.
Since “Maus’s” publication there has been an explosion of Jewish themed graphic works, a broad survey of which Fredrik Strömberg curates in his recent Fantagraphics collection, “Jewish Images in the Comics: A Visual History.” The collection, which handsomely binds together selections from hundreds of comic works with short informative essays, makes its most ambitious decisions wit what it chooses to include. Like Spiegelman (whose “Maus” is excerpted in the top triangle of the front cover’s Jewish star), Strömberg understands that any history of Jews in comics must contend with a history of defamatory images.