Lund, Martin: Rethinking the Jewish-Comics Connection. (Lund Studies in History of Religions, 34.) Lund: Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, Lund University, 2013. (413 S.)
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ID no. (ISBN etc.): 9789174736731
BibTeX citation key: Lund2013a
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Keywords: "Superman", "The Spirit", "X-Men", Eisner. Will, Identity, Judaism, USA
Publisher: Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, Lund University (Lund)
This thesis is a study of configurations of identity in American mainstream comics. It focuses on how a small number of writers of Jewish descent have expressed or disciplined their Jewishness in relation to their creations. In an attempt to revise common linear narratives, the thesis presents three case studies of famous and influential comics texts with different primary foci: a chapter on Superman asks how characterization was used to configure identity in relation to contemporary society; a chapter on Will Eisner asks how identity was configured and reconfigured in the creator’s work and self-representation; and a chapter on the X-Men asks how identity was configured and reconfigured with reference to the series’ central trope, mutantcy. The aim of these studies is to investigate how Jewishness and Americanness, as well as other subject positions that implicitly affect how people think and write, can intersect or converge in mass culture representation. In doing this, the thesis also engages in a critical dialogue with extant writing on the subject of Jews and comics.
The chosen texts are analyzed using a methodology based on theories of representation and on the basis of a social constructivist paradigm of identity and identity formation. From this perspective, it is first argued that the early Superman, rather than being a Moses or golem figure as others have suggested, reverberated with a contemporary Jewish American project to construct a Jewish American heritage and to represent Jewish interests as aligned with national interests. The second chapter argues that Will Eisner’s The Spirit was configured in similar ways, but also that its use of blackface stereotypes constituted race talk, or denigration of African Americans as a means of entry into majority culture. The second half of the chapter argues that Eisner’s use of Jewish significations in his later career was not ethnography but a claim to authenticity, in support of an attempt to “whiten” the comics medium and bring it into the mainstream of American culture. The third chapter suggests that rather than having initially been racial allegory, the X-Men was a product of the Cold War, and that when civil rights discourse began to enter the series, it did so in a way that was common to liberal Jewish rights activism. It is then argued that the increased prominence of themes of prejudice and oppression in the second series was not directly intended to metaphorize Jewishness, as has been claimed, but to construct an open sign of outsiderhood for any reader to inhabit. Finally, it is argued that the reimagining of one the series’ oldest characters as a Holocaust survivor was connected with the writer’s Jewishness, but that this expression of ethnic identity was subsumed under an Americanizing representational logic.
The concluding chapter argues that the popular literature on Jews and comics is best situated within a framework of present-day Jewish American identity formation, and that it constructs myths of a Jewish–comics connection to bolster contemporary Jewishness. In doing so, it is argued, the books employ common contemporary Jewish American themes and symbols to reshape the past of American comics in a way fitting current Jewish American concerns. The chapter then turns to methodological problems stemming from the use of these books in academic writing. This use, along with other issues that have become visible during the production of the thesis, is argued to be potentially detrimental to the study of Jews and comics, and to comics studies in general. Finally, after a summation of the thesis’ findings, it is suggested that the historical Jewish–comics connection, rather than being one of surreptitious symbolic or metaphorical reproduction of elements from religious or historical Jewish traditions, is perhaps instead best understood as an existential connection that emerged from the writers’ individual attempts to navigate the ways Judaism and Americanism hailed them and exerted social pressures.
The publication of Michael Chabons Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) brought the Jewish–comics connection to popular attention. The novel illuminated the fact that many of the pioneers of American mainstream comics were Jewish. Owing to this history, and to the fact that there today exists a large and growing library of self-consciously Jewish comic books and graphic novels, much has been written about the meaning of the connection. Engaging in a critical dialogue with extant writing on the subject, this thesis argues that much of the popular and scholarly writing on the subject of Jews and comics is historical in the sense that it is a product of its own time, rather than in the sense that it critically investigates the past.
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