Book Review: “Up, Up, And Oy Vey!” S. Weinstein

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As part of a regular series (i.e. when I remember) your Editor intends to introduce and explain some of the books used in her research. This is not intended as an exhaustive review as you would see in a historic journal, say, but just a little overview of what I’ve found interesting and useful.

My inaugural review is “Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero” by Simcha Weinstein.220px-Upupoyvey If I list some names for you – Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Stan Lee, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Max Gaines, Jerry Robinson, Will Eisner – and I asked you to name what they have in common, you might say ‘comic book pioneers’, or something like that. You’d be right, but they have something else in common too – they were (are) all Jewish.

Weinstein’s book is an exploration of the link between the comic book character and its creators via Jewish culture. In his introduction, Weinstein introduces this theme and explains that the book is an exploration of how major characters in DC and Marvel, including Superman and Captain America, personify a theme that features in ‘the Jewish tradition’. In essence, it is a series of essays on Jewish spirituality, using the DC and Marvel universe as a guide. It also ‘seeks to reclaim a vital component of that [Jewish] heritage’, i.e. to point out that the comic book industry was overwhelmingly staffed by the sons and grandsons of Jewish immigrants.

How far does it succeed in its aims? Well – Jewish culture and tradition is a huge subject to cover, but Weinstein does an admirable job of setting out who the Jewish contributors to his chosen characters were and the themes he sees within them. The chapter on Superman is particularly compelling and leaves me in no doubt that to understand Superman is to understand Jewish experiences in 1930s and 40s America. Where Weinstein displays real power is in his exploration of the bible stories that resound within these comics. This is particularly fascinating and had me gripped. It also has a number of interesting facts that are relevant to historic analysis, but are also of great general interest. One such example is that Jewish artists were effectively excluded from certain illustration roles. The antisemitism of American society at the time meant, therefore, that the talents of these young men had to go into comic book production, an industry that accepted them.

Overall though, the book left me wanting more. It simply did not have enough depth. It would have benefitted from more detail about Jewish culture and the historic experience. Furthermore, the themes that Weinstein picks as ‘Jewish’ – Superman = integrity, Fantastic Four = family values – one could easily argue are present in many cultures; that other folk traditions equally hold dear such values and – indeed – incorporate them into their stories. However, Weinstein leaves me in no doubt that, within comics, these themes are sourced from Jewish culture and so our comic book heroes are in some ways reflections of the young US Jewish male experience.

Overall, I would recommend reading this book. I’ve supplied a link to its purchase in the UK. It looks as though a new edition may be in the offing as it is available for preorder for March publication:

“Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero” by Simcha Weinstein.

The edition I reviewed – published by Barricade Books, Fort Lee, NJ. Publication year – 2006.

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Let’s talk about sex, Batman

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The time has come to face facts. We cannot avoid the issue any longer. We must talk about sex. Because the human experience is all about sex, you see. Well, sex and death actually (if we are to follow Freud). These two things motivate all of us: Eros and Thanatos – the need to create and the need to destroy, urging humanity along a path to places unknown. Therefore, if we are to learn about human progression (history), then sex and death are subjects that demand our attention. And as you probably realise, Batman and his ethos have both in heaps, but it is sex that is our focus here.

Bruce Wayne has power, money and hot cars. Batman has power, gadgets and a hot car. He also has a habit of rescuing people and generally saving the day. This is ever-so-slightly attractive. He appeals to adult and post-puberty readers who may be motivated by sexual themes. Not all of his adult fans find him ‘sexy’, but a number do and talk about it. Ergo, Batman is a bit of a sexy fella.

"And this, Robin, is how you get girls."

“And this, Robin, is how you get girls.”

As an adult reader of Batman, I perceive his sex appeal even in the Golden Age. Batman’s storybook was small and therefore restricted in scope at this time, but nevertheless he had his charms. Sexy 3 imagesBob Kane et. al. drew him in an attractive way. For artistic inspiration, Kane had an incredible cultural source to draw from if he so wished; that great American cultural industry – Hollywood. In the decade of Batman’s birth, the young men who worked for DC experienced movies as part of their daily lives. Furthermore, photographs of film stars were the most popular images of the thirties. More than 30 million Americans accessed the photographic iconography of the studios each year. The movie industry exuded glamour, which was defined in the era as “sex appeal, plus luxury, plus elegance, plus romance” – a description that lends itself very much, I think, to Bruce Wayne.[1] Hollywood actors thus became a group of modern gods and goddesses, in a fantasy that rose above mundane, everyday America. [2] Again, this is something that could be said about the superheroes in comic books. Therefore, readers of Batman were very aware of movie stars, so his glamorous, movie-like qualities would have been entirely familiar to his audience.

This brings us to our next question – just who were the audience of Detective Comics and Batman from 1939 to 1945? Nowadays, DC’s dominant demographic is teens to mid-twenties readers. Its most frequent rating is T for ages 12 and over. Ian Gordon writes that comic book publishers in the Golden Age assumed they had a younger audience than those who read comic strips in newspapers.[3] The widely-held view is that Golden Age comic books had an 8-14 year old readership. This is reflected somewhat in the subject matter of 30s-40s comic books and also in their marketing. In Batman, we see this most keenly with the introduction of Robin in 1940, whom people such as Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson cited as being brought in to make Batman appeal more to children.

So – Batman was for kids. Why is it, therefore, that this panel was included within the debut issue of Batman’s own comic in 1940? The Cats Sexy LegAnd also this panel? Papa spank!Saucy, eh? These two panels herald the introduction of The Cat – or Catwoman as she is later known. Both are playfully sexual in imagery and language. Perhaps a 14 year old would have been appreciative of such spiciness, but an eight year old who has yet to experience puberty? That seems more of a reach, though a child might have found it funny for an adult to be threatened with a spanking!

The answer to this may be that the readership of comics was more complex than first appears; that the company was aware that older brothers and sisters read their younger siblings’ copy and thus included more risqué matter. We know that after Robin’s introduction in 1940, the demographic for comics was hugely affected by the Second World War. Between 1941 and 1944 comic book sales doubled to 20 million per annum, and much of this can be traced to the numbers of servicemen reading comics:

‘In 1944, 41 per cent of men between the ages of eighteen and thirty read comic books regularly, which researchers defined as more than six comic books a month. In military training camps, 44 per cent of men read comic books regularly and 13 per cent read them occasionally.’[4]

For men posted overseas, comic books provided an easy distraction from war and a reminder of home. Also, DC and other publishers dedicated their pages to propaganda – to encourage Americans to support the war effort at home and abroad. Thus, the delights of beautiful heroes like Wonder Woman or indeed Batman for servicemen who were (secretly) gay or bisexual, meant that comics were a hit during these hard years.[5]

However, the key to all this sexiness lies perhaps, not so much with the readership, but with the men who wrote and drew Batman. DC was overwhelmingly staffed by young men, as were all comic book studios in the Golden Age. Comics was a young man’s profession and young men throughout history have tended to enjoy sex and the pursuit of it. With Bob Kane and the Batman crew, we might see a bit of the creators reflected in their creation. In note 43 to pages 13-19 in his excellent book – Comic Book Nation – Bradford W. Wright writes that:

‘It would be easy to read too much into the psychological disposition of the comic book creators, but it may be worth noting that Bob Kane – unlike Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster – was tall, handsome and comfortable around women.”[6]

"Hi, I'm Bob Kane - tall, handsome, and confortable round women...and also six foot-two tall bats."

“Hi, I’m Bob Kane – tall, handsome and comfortable round women…and also giant bats.”

Wright then links this to the fact that Batman possesses no superpowers, unlike Siegel and Shuster’s creation – Superman, and speculates that this may be due to Kane’s own self-confidence. This brings us to another salient (and sexy!) point: the difference between Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne. Bruce is sexy in and out of the costume, Clark is not.

This is a still from the Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons from the 1940s. They are available on You Tube. Please look them up. They are truly beautiful and influenced the makers of Batman: The Animated Series.

This is a still from the Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons from the 1940s. They are available on You Tube. Please look them up. They are truly beautiful and influenced the makers of Batman: The Animated Series.

Clark’s awkwardness is commonly attributed to Siegel and Shuster’s teenage years. They experienced the kind of nerdy shyness that so many of us (especially comic book fans) do, and used it to form  Superman’s alter ego. Simcha Weinstein writes that, ‘The Yiddish vernacular has many words to describe fellows like the shy, bumbling Clark: nudge, schlepper, schmendrick and schlimazel. In the comic, Clark is simply called a klutz.’[7] Again, this emphasises how much of Siegel and Shuster’s background is within Superman. In contrast to this, Wright cites Jules Feiffer, who in his book suspected ‘the Batman school of having healthier egos.’ And if there is one thing we can say about Bruce, is that he has confidence in bucket-loads.[8]

There are lots of questions here that may be impossible to answer confidently, but I hope that it has provided some information for you to think about. A subject such as ‘sexual imagery and language in Batman 1939-1945’ may be explored in all kinds of different ways. Here, we have touched upon:

  • Movies and photography in the 30s and 40s.
  • The demographic of comic book readership in the Golden Age.
  • The personality and experiences of comic book creators and how these may be reflected in their creations.

Furthermore, we haven’t even mentioned one of the defining features of Golden Age Comic books – the fact that publishers were unregulated. There was no official body to prevent sexual subject matter from being included in the first place.This changed of course with the publication of Seduction of the Innocent and the establishment of the Comics Code Authority, factors that helped to bring about the end of the Golden Age.

And to think – this whole post came about because your Editor was intrigued by the shapely leg of The Cat and Batman’s predilection for spanking her within two panels from Batman #1, 1940. But that is precisely why comic books are such a rich historic resource – they give excellent visual clues to a host of cultural themes.

As a parting thought, I would like you to consider two more panels.

Julie Madison with The Batman. Notice his ears sticking out of the frame? I am pretty sure that this is the first time Kane tries this trick.

Julie Madison with The Batman. Notice his ears sticking out of the frame? I am pretty sure that this is the first time Kane tries this trick.

One is Julie Madison – Bruce’s fiancée in 1939 (yet more sexiness!). The other is of The Cat. Are you as struck by their likeness as I am? This may be a reflection of Bob Kane’s limits as an illustrator or – and I do wonder about this – did Bob Kane have a ‘type’?

The Cat, in a typically feisty mood.

The Cat, in a typically feisty mood.

Did dark haired girls with cat-like eyes appeal most? And did Julie and The Cat have a real-life model? I wonder if anyone has ever researched this question? If you have information on that, please feel free to comment below.


[1] David Eldridge, American Culture in the 1930s (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2008), p. 61.

[2] Robert Dance and Bruce Robertson, Ruth Harriet Louise and Hollywood Glamour Photography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), p. 119.

[3] Ian Gordon, Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945 (Washington; Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998), pp.128-129.

[4] Gordon, Comic Strips, p.139.

[5] These statistics included only men in service, not women, but of course women served in the armed forces. Their readership of comics is unfortunately not given.

[6] Bradford W. Wright, Comic Book Nation (Baltimore; The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), p. 289.

[7] Simcha Weinstein, Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero (Fort Lee; Barricade Books, 2006), p.23.

[8] Wright, Nation, p.289. Editor’s Note: Wright references here Jules Feiffer, The Great Comic Book Heroes (New York; Dial Press, 1965). I have not yet been able to source a copy of it, but would like to. Feiffer is a noted cartoonist, writer and educator. This is an archive of his website. Both these sites were last retrieved 09/01/2014.

What’s the (New) Deal, Batman?

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This project is about what made Batman; the influences upon a group of men – Bill Finger, Bob Kane, Gardner Fox, Jerry Robinson and others – working at DC in 1930s New York. Therefore, this project concerns the historic context in which Batman was born.

My reading for the next week or so will concentrate on US historic development in the thirties. As such, I have started with some general texts on the subject to act as an introduction. One of these is American Culture in the 1930s by David Eldridge.[1] For Eldridge and countless other analysts, placing historic development within a framework that is finite (limited in extent) and temporal (time-related) such as ‘the thirties’ or even ‘the twentieth century’ is misleading. This is because people living in the US didn’t just wake up on 1st January 1930 and think, ‘Oh, I’d better start acting differently now because it is the thirties.’ Neither did they drop everything to start something new in 1940. Phrases like ‘the thirties’ are de facto, or after the fact.

Nevertheless, Eldridge points out that the thirties do have some defining features. Delineated by the stock market crash in October 1929 and by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the decade is marked by the effects of economic crisis and the attempts to recover from it. The Great Depression resulted in thirteen million people being out of work by 1933 – a quarter of the American workforce.

A 'Hooverville' in Central Park, 1933. Sourced from www.moma.org

A ‘Hooverville’ in Central Park, 1933. Sourced from http://www.moma.org

A series of panics or ‘runs on the bank’ virtually shut the US banking system by the same year. Business investment reduced from $24 billion in 1929 to $3 billion in 1933.

In Lakin, Kansas, three children prepare to leave for school wearing goggles and homemade dust masks to protect them from the dust in 1935. Courtesy of Joyce Unruh; Green Family Collection. http://www.neh.gov

In Lakin, Kansas, three children prepare to leave for school wearing goggles and homemade dust masks to protect them from the dust in 1935. Courtesy of Joyce Unruh; Green Family Collection. http://www.neh.gov

If the crisis in industrial cities wasn’t bad enough, the decade also witnessed the worst drought in modern American history. It struck the Great Plains in 1934 – the states of Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas – and resulted in 2.5 million people migrating from the ‘Dust Bowl’, mainly to California.[2]

In response to this, Franklin D. Roosevelt promised, ‘a new deal for the American people.’[3] The New Deal, as it then became formally known, was the largest and most expensive government programme in the history of the American Presidency. The US government instigated a series of policies from 1933 to 1936, designed to ‘prop-up’ the economy in order to make it work again. The New Deal included the establishment of the Civil Conservation Corps and the Civil Works Administration, which embarked on government investment in infrastructure projects, thus employing out-of-work Americans in construction.  The scale of the crisis led to many questions as to why it had occurred. The topics of capitalism, the gap between rich-and-poor, even down to the exact meaning of the ‘American way of life’ played out in newspapers, radio, movies and novels. It was a time of introspection; of wondering where and even if it had gone wrong. A number of American people in the thirties questioned the validity of the New Deal, and the differences it made are still debated today.

In summary therefore, it appears that the thirties was a time of extreme poverty and distress for a great number of Americans in comparison to the previous decade, coupled with a systematic, planned effort to combat that. This led to a kind of national ‘soul-search’, if you will, as to the sources of the crisis.

Trouble is, these themes are conspicuous by their absence in Batman. As I read about the Depression and the New Deal in Eldridge’s book, my thoughts turned – not to the Dark Knight – but to his buddy in the Justice League: Superman. Superman’s beginning in 1938 (which is no less thrilling than Batman’s and even more significant as he is the first “superhero”) is, as Ian Gordon writes, ‘New Deal politics for juveniles.’[4] Superman kind of slaps you round the face with his moral crusade in his early years. He uses his super-abilities to place people in situations where they will learn a life lesson. ‘The Blakely Mine Disaster’ from Action Comics #3, August 1938, features a rich mine owner

who doesn’t want to pay for safety measures for his workforce. The owner, as though to prove the extent of his idiocy to readers, decides to hold a party in his mine. Clark uses his super-strength to trap the decadent group within it. Finding that they cannot get out or raise the alarm due to inadequate safety facilities, the party turns on the aforementioned mine owner. Clark frees them only when the owner expresses regret at not understanding the dangers his workers face. On his escape the owner begins to invest in safety. Thus a lesson in ‘responsible capitalism’ is learnt.

In Batman, the spectre of the Hoovervilles is just that, a ghost that seemingly passed through the pages leaving no trace. Bruce’s millions are not affected by the crisis and the crimes Batman combats are mostly based in greed. The criminals have a voracious appetite for jewels and money, as though their habit of spending money is the real crime. The only truly ostentatious show of Bruce’s wealth in 1939 is Batman himself – the gadgets, the costume, the having-the-time to be Batman. Oh WellSure, Bruce has a nice home and a luxurious-looking smoking jacket, but apart from impressing Gordon with how lazy and bored he is in order to cover for the Bat-Man, he’s not exactly wasteful. Therefore within Batman, questions about wealth and the appropriation of it that filled the media of 1930s, have more to do with old-fashioned honesty – obtaining wealth through hard work. The more complex notions of moral obligation within the New Deal environment are left to Superman.

So, as the Great Depression and New Deal is seemingly absent in Batman, does that mean that the thirties is missing too? The simple answer to that is ‘no’, but the more complicated answer is that the historic context of Batman is reflected in different, less heavily-outlined (inked – if we wish to use a comic book phrase!) ways. There will be a host of reasons for this and may include:

  • Bill Finger and Gardner Fox (another 1939 Batman writer) had less of an agenda to pursue than Siegel and Shuster.
  • Batman’s first story is derivative. Sources such as comics.org reference others which state that Batman’s origin is lifted from a 1930s Shadow story.[5] Therefore, it could be that the historic context of Batman is the Shadow’s, and so it is he that I need to investigate further.
  • Batman is a detective; he is in Detective Comics. Therefore, he had certain duties to fulfil and less intellectual freedom than his friend Clark who was a reporter by trade. Clark got to round-up all ‘bad guys’ who may not have been guilty in the eyes of the law, but were guilty of certain moral failings. Batman had to content himself with gangsters, murderers and evil-scientists rather than too-greedy-to-give-a-damn businessmen.
  • Or could it be that the Great Depression and The New Deal is there in Batman, but it is more subtle? Such as: the criminals in Batman’s New York exist because the economic crisis makes them desperate? Or that Batman needs to step in because Commissioner Gordon’s budget has been cut?

These are the questions I shall take forward this week. Some will be impossible to answer (we can never really know what was in Bill Finger’s head after all), but my attempts to find solutions will concentrate on the specific experience of Depression and New Deal in New York. I shall also target books, journals and even news archives (if I can access them) on crime in 1930s New York. I am also going to try to find a copy of The Shadow story Batman uses.


[1] David Eldridge, American Culture in the 1930s (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2008), p. 1

[2] Eldridge, American Culture, pp. 4-10.

[4] Ian Gordon, Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945 (Washington, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998), p. 134.

How I do it.

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Some good advice for the New Year from one of my favourite writers.

The Land of 10,000 Things

I’m getting one question more than any other these days – whether it’s phrased as a comment (e.g. “I don’t know how you…”) or a straight up query (“How do you…”), people want to know how I’m managing my workload. I’m way overdue for a post here in any case, and it seems like this will be a good opportunity to talk about the projects I have happening right now as well as reflect a bit on the insane year that has been 2013. So, this, then, is…

…HOW I DO IT.

I am currently writing seven monthly titles – Superman / Wonder Woman, Swamp Thing and Red Lanterns for DC; Thunderbolts, She-Hulk and Inhuman for Marvel; and a creator-owned title called Letter 44 from Oni Press (read the entire first issue for free here!) That essentially means I’m generating 140 pages of script per month, every month. …

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Merry Christmas, Batman

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You have to believe people can change. Batman_Noel_cover_art

Batman: Noël; Lee Bermejo

I remember reading an unfavourable review of Noël once. The reviewer was annoyed because, ‘Batman comes across as a third-rate Frank Miller creation’, or words to that effect. And I just laughed. You see, that is the whole point of the book. Noël is a lesson – a reminder that another Batman existed before Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns; a Batman who brings goodness to Gotham, a man who smiles and has a bit of fun during his nightshift.

A number of sources state that dark, antihero Batman began in my year of study, and it was this that influenced Miller. Well, I can confirm that 1939 brutal and unforgiving in many ways. But if you are looking for a man who is the type of antihero who works to his own agenda and not to some higher ideal, then you’ll be left wanting. The first ever words printed about him state that the Bat-Man is:

Fighting for righteousness and apprehending the evil-doer, in his lone battle against the evil forces of society.

Though masked and alone, he never gets in the way of the police force or criticises them. This is not the Batman at odds with the city system, therefore. Also, though Batman is clearly a vigilante and a man who breaks the law, this does not make him one of the criminals. Instead 1939 Batman stands wholly apart from that breed because he is the one who strikes fear into the cowardly and superstitious lot. Also, Bruce Wayne has a fiancée – Julie Madison, something you couldn’t really imagine Miller’s Batman being okay with.

Does this post read like a Miller-bashing? It isn’t meant to. I love Year One so much I think that Batman told Miller the story. Instead, it is a plea to remind you that Batman has changed over seventy-five years so there is a wealth of interpretations of him to discover. SmilingFurthermore, his journey is far more complex than just ‘camp Batman of the sixties’ or ‘family Batman of the fifties’. Don’t allow the judgements of others or even worse – the misquotes of the internet – colour your opinion and prevent you reading pre-Miller. Open your eyes, your minds and your hearts and go learn.

The Editor, The Lady and Batman wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Further Reading

The Batcave Companion by Michael Eury and Michael Kronenberg contains much about the Batman’s transition back to his darker side, a journey that actually began in the seventies.

Batman Banter #3

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“He quickly draws a tough silk rope from his belt and twirls it above his head”

Tough Silk Rope‘Frenchy Blake’s Jewel Gang’ in Detective Comics #28, June 1939; Writer – Bill Finger, Penciller – Bob Kane.

Though Batman wears a prominent yellow belt in his first Detective Comics’ appearance, it isn’t until this quote from his second story that Bill Finger introduces readers to a defining feature of the Bat-Man – his gadgets. Batman needs tools to compensate for his lack of superpowers. He is ‘just a man’, though a hideously over-achieving one at that.

BatgyroIn Batman’s fifth tale in Detective Comics #31 September 1939, the gadget game shifts up a notch. Fox, Finger and Kane introduce the Batgyro and the baterang (nowadays spelt batarang). BaterangThese wonderful items are significant because they are the first examples of Batman branding his gadgets. Over the 75 years to come, Bruce’s devotion to the ‘Bat-Brand’ becomes all-encompassing. It is easy to understand why: the winged shape lends itself to aerodynamic designs – the Batmobile and  the Batwing for instance. Furthermore, the wing tips are perfect for items that need to be sharp, to dig into surfaces such as the bat-shapes he affixes to the ends of ropes and grapples. And because Bruce is a man of business (and style), this branding of all his goodies seems to fit with his personality and background.

The cultural impact of Bat-Brand is huge. Batman and his Justice League friends were made for marketing: the S on Superman’s chest, Wonder Woman’s golden WW – these symbols stick in consumer’s heads. My closet is filled with Batman tees and pyjamas. I even own a Batman dress, though I don’t think Bruce would be too happy with that in his own wardrobe. Furthermore, all the gadgets Bruce uses can be turned into toys for children to buy, albeit safer versions (one would hope).

Bat-Brand and Bat-Gadgets are therefore not only part of Batman’s story but our own. It tells us the history of consumerism. My research task is to find out when the first Batman merchandise was made and marketed. This is another reason why I should like to read whole Golden Age comic books, as the advertisements contained within may reveal the first Batman toys and other merchandise.

Batsignal off! Help found

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As an update to the last post, I am happy to report that I have found the answer to where archived Golden Age comic books are kept. As well as DC Comics itself, the US Library of Congress appears to be a good bet. So I have something to aspire to – saving up for a visit to Washington DC. I shall combine this with a visit to a Stateside comic convention because, if you’re going to do Batman, you should do it in style.

I found all this out by making enquiries amongst some noted researchers in the field of comic book history/cultural studies (via Twitter). They proved to be super-helpful, coming up with this and more suggestions, all of which I can use. Which goes to show you that you only get to know these things sometimes by asking a question – no matter how dumb that question may seem.