Author pho­to by Tilly Blair

Saman­tha Baskind spoke with Jere­my Dauber on his life-long con­nec­tion to comics and graph­ic nar­ra­tives, the Jew­ish influ­ence in the genre, and the evolv­ing nature of the field today. His book, Amer­i­can Comics: A His­to­ry, is a com­pre­hen­sive and engross­ing look at the sub­ject matter.

Saman­tha Baskind: Amer­i­can comics span many gen­res, far more than that depict­ed in the wild­ly pop­u­lar Mar­vel and DC movies. Most read­ers are famil­iar with the tra­di­tion­al super­hero com­ic book (e.g., Cap­tain Amer­i­ca and The Fan­tas­tic Four) and com­ic strips (e.g., Charles Schulz’s Peanuts),but also very rel­e­vant and some­times over­looked are war and hor­ror comics; pulp and humor mag­a­zines (e.g., Mad); under­ground comics (e.g., Raw); and graph­ic nov­els (e.g., Art Spiegelman’s Maus). What inspired you to write your com­pre­hen­sive and very read­able book that cov­ers all of these genres?

Jere­my Dauber: First of all, thanks so much for the com­pli­men­ta­ry words — com­ing from some­one who’s an expert like you, that means a lot! I think the main impulse for writ­ing the book was to try to tell the sto­ry of this won­der­ful medi­um that felt like the whole sto­ry — not the sto­ry of, as you sug­gest, one of its dom­i­nant strains, the super­hero com­ic, or of its more fre­quent­ly award­ed and her­ald­ed cousin, the alter­na­tive or inde­pen­dent graph­ic nov­el. But some­thing that showed how that famil­ial rela­tion­ship real­ly worked, how it devel­oped and how these dif­fer­ent gen­res informed and influ­enced each oth­er. Find­ing those con­nec­tions, try­ing to illus­trate them — it was a lot of fun, and I hope that shows!

SB: It sure­ly does show! Have you always loved comics? Did you devour them when you were a kid?

JD: Absolute­ly, and in dif­fer­ent forms. As I say in the acknowl­edge­ments to the book, I could tell the sto­ry of my life through comics. From the Sun­day fun­nies I read in a news­pa­per — a news­pa­per! — as a kid, every­thing Mar­vel pro­duced through a large chunk of the eight­ies, and then — just as I was begin­ning to look for some­thing a lit­tle more grown-up — that remark­able one-two punch of Watch­men and Maus. And although there were breaks and hia­tus­es for a while, I nev­er real­ly stopped.

SB: You’re host­ing a din­ner par­ty. Which three comics char­ac­ters would you invite, and why? What would be the first ques­tion that you would ask?

JD: What a great ques­tion! I’ll say Super­man, the Thing, and Harley Quinn, and the ques­tion I’d ask them (espe­cial­ly since this inter­view is for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil) is: Are each of you real­ly Jew­ish? And if so, how?”

Comics, being of and spring­ing from their time and place, are always express­ing polit­i­cal and social themes, some­times explic­it­ly and some­times implicitly.

SB: Please invite me to that din­ner par­ty. A num­ber of arti­cles and books have assert­ed that Super­man, in par­tic­u­lar, is Jew­ish. Among oth­er points, it has been argued that the Man of Steel’s sto­ry is a sci­ence fic­tion adap­ta­tion of Moses’ res­cue from near-cer­tain doom because of Pharoah’s decree of infan­ti­cide, and that Superman’s birth name, Kal-El, is derived from Hebrew. Is Super­man actu­al­ly Jewish?

JD: I’ll find out at the din­ner par­ty! I do think, though, that a lot of the evi­dence” for Superman’s Jew­ish­ness is often a tes­ta­ment to the inter­pre­tive inge­nu­ity of the (some­times Jew­ish?) critic.

SB: Is there some­thing dis­tinc­tive about Amer­i­can comics” as com­pared to comics made in Europe or Israel?

JD: Yes and no. In some sense, the comics made in any giv­en cul­ture (which is often, though not exact­ly, relat­ed to geo­graph­i­cal bound­aries) reflect the fears, hopes, dreams, and pre­oc­cu­pa­tions of that cul­ture. So an Amer­i­can” com­ic has its own his­to­ry and iden­ti­ty in that way, and it’s those sto­ries I want­ed to tell. But on a for­mal and tech­ni­cal basis, while there’s cer­tain­ly fla­vors that dif­fer­en­ti­ate — for exam­ple, Asian man­ga is a very dif­fer­ent enter­prise than much of DC and Marvel’s prod­uct — there’s also, increas­ing­ly, a kind of styl­is­tic overlap.

SB: The Jew­ish con­tri­bu­tion to comics in its var­ied forms is vast and remark­able. Jews have been front and cen­ter in almost all areas of comics. The super­hero genre was cre­at­ed by Jews — Jer­ry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Super­man — as was, arguably, the graph­ic nov­el, with the first often cred­it­ed to be Will Eisner’s A Con­tract with God. Why do you think Jews have been at the van­guard of comics?

JD: I’ll take Eisner’s answer, for a first approx­i­ma­tion: it was, when it start­ed, a low-sta­tus medi­um with few bar­ri­ers to entry, which made it ide­al for Jews in an era of social and eco­nom­ic dis­crim­i­na­tion. (This is true of a lot of new mass cul­tur­al media, and, notably, untrue of the com­ic strip, which had one or two notable Jews in it — Milt Gross and Rube Gold­berg come to mind — but over­all, as a much more lucra­tive and indeed club­bable medi­um, it was very large­ly pop­u­lat­ed by non-Jews). I’d add, though, that a sec­ond rea­son, clear­ly, was net­work effects: peo­ple who were in the indus­try tend­ed to invite in peo­ple they knew, and since it was a low-sta­tus medi­um at first, peo­ple didn’t care too much about how qual­i­fied they might have been. Stan­ley Lieber, lat­er Stan Lee, came to Mar­vel because he was a cousin by mar­riage. Of course, he stayed!

SB: Do you have a favorite Amer­i­can com­ic strip, com­ic book, or comics character?

JD: Too many to count — I had to write a book to put em all in! A sen­ti­men­tal favorite that only made it into the foot­notes, how­ev­er, was the char­ac­ter Lit­tle Sam­my Sneeze, a less­er-known char­ac­ter by the ground­break­ing car­toon­ist Win­sor McCay whose mas­sive sneezes laid waste to all about him, the destruc­tion ren­dered gor­geous­ly and com­i­cal­ly by one of the best in the business.

SB: Over the last thir­ty years, graph­ic nov­els have become a key fix­ture in lit­er­a­ture, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly tied to and diver­gent from comics. What are some of these key dif­fer­ences and what is it about graph­ic nov­els that have made them so wide­ly enjoyed? Atten­dant to that ques­tion: Is there a graph­ic nov­el that stands out to you for its artis­tic and/​or sto­ry­telling innovations?

JD: I think, as I hope the book’s sto­ry shows, that it’s actu­al­ly kind of hard to dis­tin­guish exact­ly what makes a graph­ic nov­el a graph­ic nov­el, and that the sto­ry is one of grad­u­al­ly increas­ing ambi­tion, matched with insti­tu­tion­al and busi­ness changes. Maus, which is still strik­ing me as remark­able in new ways every time I read and teach it, is a good exam­ple, appear­ing at first, as it did, in install­ments in a comics mag­a­zine, Raw, but also in a kind of stand-alone sec­tion with­in the mag­a­zine, show­cas­ing its dif­fer­ent sta­tus. Ulti­mate­ly, I think graph­ic nov­els are in many ways what we decide to call graph­ic nov­els, and what mat­ters — in what­ev­er for­mat, what­ev­er genre — is the sur­pris­ing and remark­able capac­i­ties of the works themselves.

SB: Comics and graph­ic nov­els aren’t always just super­fi­cial fun. In what ways have comics engaged pol­i­tics and oth­er social issues through their unique mar­riage of text and image?

JD: Comics, being of and spring­ing from their time and place, are always express­ing polit­i­cal and social themes, some­times explic­it­ly (many comics char­ac­ters pitched war bonds dur­ing World War II) and some­times implic­it­ly (fifties romance comics, sug­gest­ing that a hap­py end­ing was a het­ero­sex­u­al, father knows best mod­el of mar­riage, are ide­o­log­i­cal in their own ways.) My book tells the sto­ry of a lot of these por­traits, as they change with chang­ing times and mores….

SB: Car­i­ca­ture and stereo­types some­times per­vade comics. How should we look at comics of this nature in the era of Black Lives Mat­ter and the #MeToo movement?

JD: One of the jobs of a cul­tur­al his­to­ri­an is to tell the full sto­ry, includ­ing the parts we might wish weren’t there. Ulti­mate­ly, when you do that with the past, I firm­ly believe we’re bet­ter equipped to face the chal­lenges of the present.

Saman­tha Baskind is Pro­fes­sor of Art His­to­ry at Cleve­land State Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author or edi­tor of six books on Jew­ish Amer­i­can art and cul­ture, which address sub­jects rang­ing from fine art to film to comics and graph­ic nov­els. She served as edi­tor for U.S. art for the 22-vol­ume revised edi­tion of the Ency­clopae­dia Judaica and is cur­rent­ly series edi­tor of Dimy­onot: Jews and the Cul­tur­al Imag­i­na­tion, pub­lished by Penn State Uni­ver­si­ty Press.