Mandel, Naomi [faculty advisor, Department of English]
comic books strips; Jewish cartoonists; United States; Golem in literature
During the 1930’s and 40’s, rampant anti-Semitism prevented many Jewish-Americans from getting hired to a respectable job in publishing. Around this same time, an industry sprang up around the idea that comic strips (which had previously been confined solely to the pages of newspapers) could be printed in pamphlet form and sold on newsstands for profit. These “comic books,” while commercially successful, were considered the lowest rung on the ladder of artistic respectability, a trashy medium for children and borderline illiterates. This attitude, however, allowed it to become a field into which young Jewish-American artists and writers were not barred from entering by bigoted hiring practices. Through a combination of primary source analysis, readings of texts written about the subject, and quotes from those who lived it, Secret Identities examines the ways in which these Jewish creators used the disrespected fledgling medium of graphic literature as a means through which to express their personal experiences as Jewish-Americans.
Specifically, this paper looks at the concepts present in the graphic literature created by these Jewish-American artists that reflect aspects of their own identities and experience. The superhero, with his or her “secret identity” and use of masks, is a potent metaphor for the ways in which their creators were forced by society to hide or downplay their ethnicity in order to work and feed their families. The superhero also heavily echoes the figure of the golem, a mystical creature from Jewish folklore who possesses superhuman abilities and, in some versions of the tale, actively fought against anti-Semitism. Secret Identities also tracks the evolution of Jewish-American themes in comics over the decades, as an increasingly tolerant society allowed for creators to be more explicit and less covert in incorporating Jewish themes into their work. In short, this project is intended to reveal and examine how Jewish-American writers and artists used one of the few means of expression available to them to give themselves a voice when no one else would.