Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 11, 2008

Jews and American Comics

Filed under: Jewish question,popular culture — louisproyect @ 3:54 pm

Last night I attended an event at the KGB Bar on the Lower East Side launching Paul Buhle’s latest foray into the interrelated topics of American Jewry, popular culture and the left-namely “Jews and American Comics,” an anthology that ranges from Rube Goldberg to Art Spiegelman.

In an interview by Brian Heater of the Daily Cross Hatch, an online publication devoted to the comic genre, Paul is asked whether he embarked on the project because of his involvement with underground comics in the 1960s. Paul replies:

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 picked up a copy of “Jews and American Comics” at the event and browsed through it on my way to work this morning. As a fan of Mad Magazine in the 1950s, I was pleased to see Harvey Kurtzman’s work in Paul’s anthology. Kim Deitch, a veteran underground comic book artist and an invited panelist who is from the same generation as Paul and I, told the audience that Mad Magazine was not just a source of humor for 12 year olds like us. It was a window into broader culture. For many of us, it was the way we were introduced to literature or film, even as they were being satirized. For example, Deitch first learned about “My Fair Lady” through a lampoon interestingly enough revolving around radioactivity “on the street where you live”.

I would add that it was not just Mad Magazine that acted as a portal. Watching the Sid Caesar show in the 1950s was the way that I learned that “cool” be-bop hipster musicians existed. Here’s Carl Reiner as Edward R. Murrow interviewing Progress Hornsby, the famous saxophone player, in a parody of “Person to Person”.  Only a couple of years later, I would discover Charlie Parker, who Progress Hornsby was clearly modeled on.

The dotted lines between Jewish pop culture, the comics and the Sid Caesar show are connected with the story titled “Mel Brooks: Yiddish Comedian” that appears on page 164. Set in 1942, the first panel shows a housemaid in a Catskill Mountain hotel locked in a closet. Knocking loudly on the door, she cries out “Los Mir Arois”, Yiddish for “Let me out”. In the next panel, we see a 16 year old named Melvin Kaminsky, a drummer in a borscht belt hotel, standing in for a comedian on a hotel stage. The first words out of his mouth are “Los Mir Arois”, which cracks up the audience. That launches the career of Mel Brooks, who would become one of Caesar’s writers along with Woody Allen and others during the golden age of TV comedy.

During his remarks Kim Deitch thought out loud about what comic books cannot do. He said that while they are valuable, they cannot be a substitute for the novel which allows for much greater psychological and intellectual depth.

I have been wrestling with this question after agreeing to collaborate with a comic book writer on a project about my life growing up in the very same Catskill resort area where Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks got started as comedians, as well as my often comical career in the Trotskyist movement.

In order to satisfy the requirements of the genre, I had to cut down on the number of words and very possibly the complexity that the topics deserved. Understanding the dogmatic nature of much that appears on the World Socialist Website, I could not be struck by what they wrote about “Persepolis”:

By 1979, the Tudeh Party Stalinists had already done immense damage, subordinating the working class to one or another section of the Iranian national bourgeoisie and making it possible for the clerics to take power in what was a massive social upheaval with enormous revolutionary potential. Persepolis touches on many aspects of these tragic experiences, more openly than any films produced in Iran, but it is by no means simple to draw out their lessons.

Which leads one inevitably to raise the question (and not for the first time in a WSWS review-similar issues arose in regard to Sin City and V for Vendetta): Can a graphic novel, or a film based on one, successfully handle material that is complex and contradictory, or is the form itself inherently too confining?

Satrapi’s Persepolis maintains the most appealing visual aspects of a cartoon-as well as its weaknesses. Whether the form keeps the narrative from penetrating more deeply, or whether the inability to penetrate more deeply led Satrapi to resort to a limited and limiting form, is difficult to say. Whichever is the case, the unfortunate result is that Persepolis ultimately lacks the nuance and depth required.

After taking in Deitch’s remarks, I raised my hand during the discussion period and offered my thoughts on the limitations of the comic book genre particularly as applied to my own project. I said that I now recognized that the book will essentially be a standup comedian type riff on growing up in the Catskills, getting radicalized by the war in Vietnam, and being a Trotskyist activist for over a decade. If I can get people to laugh about my mishaps, that would be satisfaction enough considering the grim times we are living in.


  1. For some interesting commentary re Mad Magazine and the new left, take at look at Todd Gitlin’s _The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage_. (This was probably the last decent thing written by Gitlin.)

    Comment by Alan — September 11, 2008 @ 8:54 pm

  2. Great post.

    Your posts on Jewish culture, could be a book by themselves.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — September 12, 2008 @ 4:56 am

  3. Hi Louis, I’m just your typical marxmail lurker who’s lately been getting into comics, particularly the American Underground genre.
    For lefty comics I’d recommend to check out Spain Rodriguez, not jewish but worth checking out for a very unrepentantly red message. And also Harvey Pekar’s Unsung Hero trilogy chronicling the story of a poor Vietnam War vet. From the bureaucracy of the school system and being left out, to joining the military out of economic necessity and the war experience from the perspective of a black soldier in the midst of the civil rights/black power movement.
    I think the issue is pretty topical looking at a recent marxmail discussion.

    Comment by Michael — September 12, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

  4. I think Willie Elder could handle your project, though you’d have to indulge his background sketches and compulsive references to chicken fat.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — September 12, 2008 @ 4:21 pm

  5. When I was twelve I cut the head of a napalmed Vietnamese out of a “Mad” mini-poster and pasted it over Ray Conniff’s head on my mother’s record album. My father threw all my magazines out after that, for which I never completely forgave him.

    “Furshlugginer” was my first exposure to Yiddish ( I grew up in the suburbs). I used the word for many years before I discovered its Yiddish roots.

    There’s a book called “Comic Visions” about american t.v. culture that has a good chapter on the Catskills resorts.

    In case anyone is interested, got this e-mail today:

    “Akashic Books author Arthur Nersesian was the subject of a COVER STORY in the NEW YORK TIMES City Section this past Sunday. His new book, “The Sacrificial Circumcision of the Bronx,” is the second in a series called The Five Books of Moses, which fictionalizes the life, exploits, and impact of legendary urban planner Robert Moses.”

    Comment by magisana — September 17, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

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