Interview: Jews and American Comics Editor, Paul Buhle

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Released earlier this week by The New Press, Brown professor Paul Buhle’s Jews in American Comics could have easily been yet another rehash of a long line of academic treatises on the subject of Jewish-American involvement in the creation of the superhero, most recently exemplified by Danny Fingeroth’s Superman Disguised as Clark Kent.

Fortunately for us, however, Buhle considers himself something of a peer to artists like Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman. A spiritual descendant of Harvey Kurtzman and his ilk, the realm of capes and tights never really did all that much for the author.

Instead, the book maps the role of Jewish creators from the early days of syndicated comics through the innovations brought forth by EC/MAD, and ultimately through the explosion of the underground and its subsequent repercussions.

For a more complete review of the book, check the most recent issue of The New York Press. After the jump you’ll find a full—if short—interview conducted with Buhle for the publication.

What sort of history do you have, writing academically about comics?

I would say modestly—I began by publishing Radical American Comics in Madison, in 1969, which is the third of the underground comics to appear. The first two were Crumb’s Zap Comics solos. Then, in the 70s, I published a theoretical version of a fanzine called Cultural Correspondance—1975 to 1983. That is digitized now. In the 90s, I wrote a fair bit about Spiegelman and Ben Katchor, my pal, and any number of artists, some of whom I interviewed in the 70s for Cultural Correspondence, The Village Voice, The Nation, and any number largely Jewish publications.

Leaping forward to 2003, I had a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how comics have now become a subject of academic interest. That was much circulated and much—not exactly attacked—but everyone whose name wasn’t mentioned was crabby about it, you understand. There wasn’t much of a scholarly trail then, and anyone who published an online magazine that has since gone out of business thought that he deserved an important mention.

I have another scholarly piece in Reviews in American History and another piece in Marxism Reexamined and a number of other journals. I’ve tried to do two things at once: establish a sort of scholarly dignity for non-fiction comics and recover what non-fiction has done in the past, like this guy, Jack Jackson, who did a history of pre-state Texas and was highly regarded by the Texas historical society, before he died, a few years back. Also at the same time, I’ve tried to suggest what could be done now, and why it was important to do comics on valuable subjects, without being didactic, because that follows the track of my students who read less every year—and many of them want to read comics.

You seem to largely take as your focus alternative cartoonists like Crumb. Is that a direct result of having come out of that tradition?

No, really, a lot of it is based on my growing up reading Mad comics, before it became Mad Magazine. When it became Mad Magazine, it wasn’t as good, but it was still sort of Jewish liberal and New York reaching out to me, in the middle of Illinois, which was appreciated, but also, Classics Illustrated, which we always called “Classic Comics.” That was the place I where I first read my classics. Since my sister, who is four years older, taught me how to read after kindergarten using those books, comics always had a really warm spot in my heart. Mad comics, because it was so wonderful about showing what was stupid and hypocritical about the coporate world, it was sort of like my book of knowledge. I wrote a high school paper as a junior about Harvey Kurtzman. I got a B from a teacher who liked me, but always thought that comics were degraded, as almost everyone did think.

I feel now that they have an exhaulted purpose that is only now beginning to be understood, and the comic artist, with the rarest exceptions—Spiegelman is almost the catchword, until Alison Bechdel came on the stage, and my new friend, Linda Barry-there are less than 10 that have ever been given the credit that they deserve. They’ve rarely been able to make a living. I think that I’m they’re champion, I would cheerfully say.

Is it a coincidence that the first person considered to have broken down that wall between academia and comics—Spiegelman—is a jew?

No, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. It’s a strange thing, and the very first underground comics full-scale exhibit will open in Madison, in April at the University of Wisconsin. I wrote the essay in the catalog, and I noted that, in the underground comics world of the Bay Area, Jewish comic artists were not numerous. They were there, but they were not numerous. That’s because it was not in greater New York, the way that the comic industry was. But that migration eastward, after that phase ended, circa-1980, suggested that, in the greater New York publishing world, that Jewish artists probably would have been the ones who would have written vastly disprortionate amounts, compared to the common artist.

You touch on the superhero books coming out of New York in a chapter, but don’t really dwell. Does it have anything to do with the fact that it’s a well-tread area?

That’s a really good question, and someone who criticizes me on that is probably well-founded, and I have no right to be crabby about it. I really stopped reading superheroes when I was about 12. I was a little too old to start reading Marvel in the 60s. I didn’t take to them. I didn’t think that they represented a new phase of art. The art seemed very stylized, and also, I have to say I was always looking for that progressive New Deal-ish message that always seems to be in Mad Magazine.

I found Sgt. Fury to be more the tone of comics, and I know that has changed in the last 20 years—I was just looking at a writer who said that the artists want to write critically about the Iraq War, but they find themselves strapped to publishers who are still in the “celebrate the conquering heroes” mode in the mainstream. Although that may be over in ways I can’t see, I feel that the world of underground comics is so much my generation. There are so many people among them who are very good friends of mine, including Crumb and Bill Griffith—the only one who could make it into the dailies—that these are the ones that my heart went to. Plus those people in mainstream get $300 a page, and they don’t even have to ink. They have health plans, unlike my pals who have none of those things and are scraping along. So again, I feel like I’m their champion.

How integral is that concept of being an underdog to the success of the Jewish role in comics?

I think it’s integral to comics from the very first moment they appeared in the daily press in the 1890s, and not particularly Jewish. But it’s also true that my late friends, the Hollywood blacklisted artists, when they found out that they couldn’t portray struggling workers related to unions, they found another underdog who they could truly sympathize with, whether it was Katherine Hepburn as a woman or a poor orphan and on and on—some of them ended up doing animal features, with the same kind of underdog attitude. Animation was full of the same thing—mice against cats, cats against humans. You’re littler, but you can take on the giant, if you’re more clever. That resonates in a lot of Jewish culture, especially Jewish culture that’s not connect with the merchant or the Rabbi, but is out of that circle of influence.

Fitting then that it’s targeted toward children, in so many cases.

Well, that’s right, too, of course. I suppose on our weak side, we all wanted to be Superman or for girls, Wonderwoman, but that’s the immature way out—”I want big muscles, so I can punch people out.” But, by the time you get to be 12 and you realize that you’re not gonna be one of those guys with big muscles, you’ve got to figure how else to get along in the world. Then you’ve got to use your wits, and again, that goes to a certain Jewish affect, which was there, is there, and, in my estimation, will go on being there, no matter what the income levels and all of the other things that go along with that.

–Brian Heater

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