There is little argument regarding the fact that Superman, Captain America, and The Green Lama are comic book heroes. But if you thought muscle-bound, caped-crusaders who wear their underpants on the outside are the only heroes of the genre, you’d be flat out wrong. If you delve into Drew Friedman’s brilliant new book, “Heroes of the Comics,” you’ll find that the real heroes of the genre are the disheveled, ink-fingered nebbishes that created the amazing panoply of American superheroes and other comic figures.
Riding a continuing wave of popularity, the superheroes of Golden and Silver Age comics were created by artists and writers who, in reality, seem to have toiled in inky sweatshops. Portraying dozens of them in their rumpled glory, the formerly stipple-obsessed artist, Drew Friedman, reveals a cadre of of men (and three women) many of whom suffer from bad posture, pot-bellies and bubbling double chins. Also included are concise and informative biographies of each.
Bearing no resemblance whatsoever to their comic book progeny, Friedman’s Heroes are drawn in his trademark photorealistic style, warts and all. As a result, on offer among the more than 80 charming portraits are a broadly smiling Stan Lee with a hairpiece and liver spots, and a Carmine Infantino whose face is so creased it looks like a happy prune. Friedman, who evidently takes great joy in the drawing of older faces rich in character and lives lived, is the American Master of the Wrinkle, whether it be in skin or in gabardine.
She’s just a 16-year-old Jersey girl “suddenly bestowed with super-human powers that send her on the adventure of a lifetime.”
But Kamala Khan’s also a Pakistani Muslim-American. And as the title character of Marvel Comics’ new “Ms. Marvel” series, she’s making history.
The team behind the series includes Eisner Award-nominated writer G. Willow Wilson — who’s also a Muslim convert. “I didn’t want to start with making her the perfect poster child for Islam,” Wilson told the AltMuslim web site. “I’ve been wearing hijab for ten years, but I wanted to make her representative of Muslim woman at large, and the majority does not wear hijab.”
Considering the heavily Jewish lineage of both superhero comics and Marvel itself — co-founder Stan Lee, ne Lieberman, was the son of Romanian immigrants — the character’s appearance represents a turning point, according to Steven Bergson, whose Jewish Comics blog offers a Hebraic spin on the comics world.
“We’re in an age where it’s not only much more acceptable but expected and highly marketable to give characters unique identities, whether it’s religious, national, sexual or physical i.e. disability),” Bergson told the Forward. “In the past, Jewish creators have written non-Jewish characters and Gentiles have written Jewish characters like Marvel’s golems, DC stories with rabbis, Marvel’s Moon Knight.
If Ms. Marvel turns out to be “an anti-Semite, that would be as unacceptable as if the character were sexist, homophobic, or racist. If she is merely critical of Israel, then she’ll join the ranks of political-minded superheroes, which includes Superman, who joined an Arab Spring protest not that long ago,” Bergson added.
But Marvel’s announcement about the series was careful to downplay political implications. “This story isn’t about what it means to be a Muslim, Pakistani or American,” series editor Sana Amarat said in a press release. “Those are just cultural touchstones that reflect the ever changing world we live in today.”
Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary
By Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen
Bloomsbury, 305pages, $30
No vernacular artist, and possibly no American humorist, had a bigger following during the 1940s and ‘50s than Al Capp did. That Capp had to be banned from campuses in the late 1960s after repeated sexual assault charges — and that he shifted from New Dealer to anti-peacenik rightwing Republican — almost obliterated the memory of the older satirist. This comprehensive biography recaptures the real thing.
The fiercely competitive Jewish artist was born Alfred Gerald Caplin in 1909, grew up poor, and worse, lost a leg in a streetcar accident at age 9. A quick study with a thirst for self-advancement, he faked credentials to get into art school, dropped out, and eventually headed to Manhattan with nothing but six dollars and a portfolio of drawings. Through talent and persistence he got into the comic strip racket as an assistant to Ham Fisher, the very quietly Jewish artist of “Joe Palooka.” Within a few years, Fisher and Caplin (by 1935, “Capp”) would become lifelong enemies.
But what an artist! Capp’s “Li’l Abner” was intended for a sophisticated adult audience that could appreciate social satire far beyond the mental level of “Blondie” and art less stylized and repetitive than “The Phantom” or “The Little King.” (The biographers do not say so, but those early years of “Li’l Abner” bring to mind the work of other Jewish comic strip artists like Milt Gross and Harry Hershfeld, not to mention Rube Goldberg.)
Art Spiegelman just wants to be left alone. Or, rather, he would really like it if parts of his career and biography were minimized, and others celebrated more. The central tension, both in the long conversations he had with University of Chicago professor Hillary Chute, the germ and base level of “MetaMaus” (2011), and now in Clara Kuperberg and Joelle Oosterlinck’s new documentary, “The Art of Spiegleman,” is the anxiety of success. Spiegelman is painfully self-aware that he will be forever known (and, often, only known) for the path breaking Maus (1980-1991); fearful that he will become the “Elie Wiesel of comics”; and worries that he cannot seem to escape the autobiographical voice. Somehow, some way, his career turned from the one he imagined and he’s never been able to get the old one back.
“The Art of Spiegelman,” now screening as part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, is a medium-length documentary. At 45 minutes, it’s perfect for television. Most of the movie consists of interviews with Spiegelman, though his wife and daughter become increasingly prominent as the movie progresses. There are photographs of Spiegelman’s early years, and archival footage of Spiegelman and his wife printing Raw, the legendary little magazine of what we now call sequential art, but really should just call comics.
Non-Spiegelmans, like the illustrator Charles Burns, make appearances, but they are there to tell personal stories and to contextualize Spiegelman’s life. Learned, bespectacled academics with receding hairlines are sadly absent. This is not a critical documentary devoted to analyzing the contributions Spiegelman made to either his field or the whole of arts and letters, but one that allows him to tell his own story. It is a good, entertaining documentary, though limited by everything just mentioned. Those who already know Spiegelman’s work will wish it cut deeper, while those unfamiliar with his art will only have their interest lightly piqued.
The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song
By Frank M. Young and David Lasky
Abrams, 192 pages, $24.95
With a recent issue of Time magazine declaring “The Carter Family” to be one of the seven best comics of 2012, artist David Lasky has ascended to the top tier of Jewish-American comic artists, an august group that includes Art Spiegelman, Ben Katchor, veteran Sharon Rudahl and newcomer Dan Asher, on top of a considerable list of others. This is not exactly a surprise. Lasky’s drawings, mostly in alternative comics anthologies, have been highly regarded by comics insiders for a decade or more. With this latest subject and the four-color precision of the result, Lasky, along with his collaborating script-writer (who also did the coloring) Frank Young, have hit a big number.
The “Midwest school” of comic art, appearing in daily papers in the 1920s and ‘30s, is now long gone. At that time Sidney Smith of “The Gumps” and Frank O. King of “Gasoline Alley” as much as invented “continuity,” moving away from four-panel gag to story lines about daily life and sometimes high adventure. Within this style, “Little Orphan Annie” achieved a peak readership among countless story-line, syndicated strips. “Joe Palooka” and “Li’l Abner” apart, they had non-Jewish creators and with few exceptions, were politically conservative.
“The Carter Family” might almost be accused of returning to Al Capp’s hillbilly vintage, except that Capp specialized in ridicule, while Lasky and Young have gone in the other direction, towards a documentary look at the lives of the 20th century’s most important country music innovators.
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