The Rise of Jewish Women in Comics
Steven Bergson has loved comics since he was a kid, but over the past decade and a half his interest has been focused on a particular subject: Jewish women.
The 42-year-old librarian, who works in the research department of Toronto’s UJA Federation, has several blogs on Jewish women in comics, both as characters and creators, including one called “Jewish Women in Comix.” He suspects his having grown up with two sisters in a family headed by a divorced working mother might have something to do with this interest.
Bergson recently spoke with The Sisterhood about how the portrayal of Jewish women in comics has changed over time, his favorite Jewish female characters, and his thoughts on the current exhibition “Graphics Details: Confessional Comics By Jewish Women.”
Renee Ghert-Zand: How did you get interested in Jewish comics, and specifically Jewish women in comics?
Steven Bergson: I’ve been reading comics since I was about 4. I was reading just stuff that I was interested in — at the time is was mostly the superhero books. I didn’t originally seek out the Jewish material, but if I came across it, I would notice it.
Then when I got more involved with the Association of Jewish Libraries, they didn’t have a bibliography on Jewish comics and graphic novels, so I started working on one for the group’s conference in Toronto in 1996. I wasn’t specifically focusing on women, but there were Jewish women characters in the comics that I would come across and I would keep it in mind.
How have Jewish women evolved in comics?
When I was growing up I didn’t know about women rabbis, I didn’t think that there could be women rabbis. Now there are two examples in comics, and maybe there are more that I haven’t come across. Having Jewish women be super- heroines is not something I encountered so much when I was growing up, but now that is normalized. One of the most popular comics in marvel’s history is X-Men, and one of their most popular characters in Kitty Pryde. She was introduced in the ‘70s… Jewish kids born in the ‘80s were able to have this role model, fictional as she is.
As far back as the ‘40s the first women that were appearing in comics were biblical characters. The ways to get Jews into comics was to talk about the biblical stories that were acceptable to Jews, Gentiles, Muslims and even secular people…You don’t see many women in the ‘50s and ‘60s. In the ‘60s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not was had the idea to tell the Golem story…they had the Maharal’s wife in a panel or two, but she was only there to be the worrying Jewish mother and wife.
Are you more interested in Jewish women as characters or as writers?
I mostly help others in looking at the Jewish creators, but I myself am mostly interested in the characters. There are Jewish creators who are not interested in creating Jewish stories…and there are non-Jews that are more interested in having Jewish characters than the Jewish creators are. So, I focus more on the Jewish experience and the Jewish characters. And it stands to reason that there are quite a few Jews—men and women—who want to have Jewish women characters in their stories. Barry Deutsch is part of the class of men who write good strong female characters based on their interactions with women and speaking with women and getting an idea of what they are going through.
Has there been a trend of more Jewish women getting into comics writing?
I know that there was a feeling once that Jews were over-represented in the comics world in general, and then the men were overrepresented. So it was really a large number of Jewish men. Women were getting into the field and sometimes they were writing under pen names. Lily Renee, for example is someone who was taken for granted in the field. Now I think the number of Jewish women cartoonists has grown over the generations. I think that once it was realized that there were Jewish women working in the field, that inspired a generation that inspired the next generation, and as autobiographical comics became more acceptable…now we have all this rich autobiographical material by Jewish women.
Who are your favorite Jewish female comics characters?
My favorites are Matzohgirl (the first & only Canadian-Jewish super-heroine), Hilda the librarian (the first & only female Jewish librarian in comics), and “Die Bubbeh” (Sharon Rudahl’s real-life grandmother; the short bio-comic showed that she was clever, determined, and protective of those she loved).
What are your thoughts on the current “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics By Jewish Women” exhibition?
I thought it is great and I am glad that these people are getting the attention, but there is some other stuff out there, other material, that I would have brought into it. It would have been nice to have had Phoebe Potts in there. She did an autobiographical memoir about trying to get pregnant, and her journey, which sadly did not end in her having the babies that she wanted. There was infertility dealt with in the exhibition by another artist, so that’s an example of where there could have been some comparison. They were dealing more with the autobiographical end of it, where I think it is nice to speak about the fiction and the non-fiction. There are some areas of overlap and some comparison.