The ProsenPeople

The Menschlich Schmuck

Friday, October 09, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Julian Voloj wrote about the story behind Ghetto Brother and the continuing legacy of Jews in comics. He is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.


In a recent interview, I was recently asked how I would define Ghetto Brother. My answer was “a fictionalized biographic comic.”

Biographical comics are increasingly popular, and Harvey Peckar mastered this genre with his American Splendor series, which debuted in 1976. Seth Kushner’s Schmuck, a new graphic novel anthology, stands in this tradition.

Originally a web series on TripCity, Schmuck is the “semi autobio comix neurotic” story of Kusher’s alter ego Adam Kessler, “a pop-culture obsessed photographer torn between pleasing Mom by finding a nice Jewish girl, and figuring out what he really wants.”

The Yiddish word “schmuck” refers to an obnoxious person, but everyone who ever met Kushner will attest that he was anything but. I personally first encountered this very talented artist when he shot the Beastie Boys for Heeb. Known primarily as a portrait photographer, he published The Brooklynites, an homage to his home borough, in 2007. Kushner’s passion was comics, and a year later, he started a series of portraits of cartoonists, later called Graphic NYC (with writer Christopher Irving) and published in 2012 as Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics.

I met Kusher around that time when writing about the book for the Swiss weekly tachles, for which I also wrote about Benjamin Melendez. We stayed in touch and, both of us being photographers with a passion for comics, showed mutual appreciation for each other’s work. My personal favorite was Culture Pop, a series combining both Kushner’s passions with fumetti (photo-comics).

Kushner started Schmuck in 2012, commissioning different artists to illustrate funny little “schmuck” episodes. The series ends— spoiler alert—with Kessler finding his bashert, or soul mate—in real life, his wife Terra. (The two had a son, Jackson.)

In 2014, Kushner launched a successful Kickstarter campaign for the graphic novel, but unfortunately was shortly afterwards diagnosed with cancer. Kushner documented his battle with leukemia on social media, and his story was ready for a happy ending when he was released from the hospital nearly a year later. In May, shortly after Ghetto Brother was released, we were chatting about the book and making plans to meet. A week later, sadly, Kushner passed away.

Seth Kushner was a brilliant photographer and writer, and a real mensch.

Born in Germany to Colombian parents, Julian Voloj is used to living in between worlds. In his work, the grandson of Shoah survivors explores questions of Jewish identity and heritage.

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Comic Books Are More Than Superheroes

Wednesday, October 07, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Julian Voloj shared the story behind Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker, his nonfiction graphic novel about the 1971 Hoe Avenue peace meeting brokered by the Ghetto Brothers’ president and Nuyorican crypto-Jew Benji Melendez. He will blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

My graphic novel Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker is many things. It’s a story about gangs in New York; a tale of the Bronx’ economic decline; a narrative of the early days of hip hop—but most of all, it’s a coming-of-age story with a Jewish twist.

As is well documented, the American comic book industry was full of Jewish pioneers. One might argue that only after Superman took off, the industry as we know it today was created.

Superman was, of course, the brainchild of two nice Jewish kids from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who quickly learned how unfriendly the industry can be—the topic of my next graphic novel to be published in 2016. (Read a preview here.)

Superman, the Samson from Krypton, had his debut in 1938, the same year a nationwide pogrom in Germany called Kristallnacht made clear that Hitler’s hatred was not sheer rhetoric. The son of Kal-El stayed mostly out of politics, but prior to the United States’s entry into the war, Siegel and Shuster created one very cool mini-comic How Superman Would End The War, published in Look Magazine in 1940.

Probably the most iconic comic book attack on Hitler’s evil empire was the debut of Captain America, the patriotic avenger was created by another dynamic duo, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, in 1941. Kirby, arguably the most influential American comic book creator of the twentieth century, grew up on New York’s Lower East Side and changed his name from Jacob Kurtzberg.

After World War II, superheroes were in decline, and so was the comic book industry. Despite many Jewish creators, Jewish topics were rarely explored in comics. In 1955, EC Comics’s Impact ran an eight-page comic story by Bernard Krigstein called Master Race. The protagonist of the story was a former death camp commander who eluded justice until he was spotted on the subway by a Holocaust survivor. It’s a remarkable story, created less than a decade after the Shoah during a time when the topic was rarely discussed in popular media.

Decades later, Art Spiegelman started to publish Maus, which became the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer. Spiegelman gave the medium the credibility to explore serious topics.

Since then, many Jewish artists have used the medium for a variety of Jewish topics from the relationship to Israel (Sarah Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less) to a comic book version of the The Book of Esther.

Comic books today are much more than just superheroes.

Born in Germany to Colombian parents, Julian Voloj is used to living in between worlds. In his work, the grandson of Shoah survivors explores questions of Jewish identity and heritage.

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Discovering the Nuyorican Marrano Ghetto Brother Benji Melendez

Monday, October 05, 2015 | Permalink

Julian Voloj is the author of Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker, a nonfiction graphic novel about the 1971 Hoe Avenue peace meeting brokered by the Ghetto Brothers’ president and Nuyorican crypto-Jew Benji Melendez. He will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

In 2010, while working on a photo series on Jewish diversity, I read about Benjamin Melendez; a month later, I revisited the South Bronx with the former gang leader, listening to his stories, trying to figure out how to best portray him. My portrait of a man who found his inner peace by reclaiming his Jewish heritage was part of my ten-year retrospective at the German Consulate in New York.

My encounter with Melendez was not my first trip to the Bronx. In 2004 – 2005, while working on my first New York solo exhibition, Forgotten Heritage, I traveled the borough extensively, retracing and documenting former Jewish sites.

In the 1930s, around half the borough’s population was Jewish, but by the time the Melendez family moved to the area, most of them had already left to the suburbs or others parts of the city. Listening to Benjamin Melendez, I felt there was a larger story to be told.

Initially I was thinking of an oral history project, combining portraits with interviews, but when discussing my ideas with my friend Claudia Ahlering, we decided to recreate the 1970s Bronx in form of a graphic novel. We were fortunate to have the archive of Rita Fecher as source material. In the 1960s, the daughter of a rabbi and ex-wife of another had left New Jersey for the Greenwich Village, and from there made her way to the South Bronx, where she worked as a public school teacher. With her Super 8 camera, Fecher documented the borough’s tough kids—including Melendez—whom she saw as victims of a failed social policy.

Her tapes were unused for decades until Henry Chalfant, a photographer and filmmaker probably best known for his 1983 graffiti documentary Style Wars, convinced Fecher to revisit the project. Together, they found some of her former students and interviewed them about their post-gang lives. The documentary Flyin’ Cut Sleeves was completed in 1993, and in it are also scenes of Melendez at the Intervale Jewish Center talking about reclaiming his roots. The Center was also subject of a documentary The Miracle of Intervale Avenue, another great resource in putting together the script for Ghetto Brother.

Yes, Ghetto Brother is primarily a story of gangs in New York, but at the same time, it is also a piece of American Jewish history worth exploring.

Born in Germany to Colombian parents, Julian Voloj is used to living in between worlds. In his work, the grandson of Shoah survivors explores questions of Jewish identity and heritage.

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