Superheroes and Schlemiels

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2011.04.11 – 2011.11.13

”Superheroes and Schlemiels” is a co-production with the Jewish museums in Paris och Amsterdam, Musée d´art et d´histoire du Judaïsme and Joods Historisch Museum. The exhibition opened in Paris och Amsterdam 2007/2008. Since then it has been shown at the Jewish museums in Melbourne och Berlin.

When we started planning the exhibition I contacted Fredrik Strömberg the chairman of Seriefrämjandet, a group of people interested in comics. He directed us to Thomas Karlsson, expert and collector.

The meeting with Thomas Karlsson was of vital importance in creating the Swedish version of the exhibition here at the Jewish Museum in Stockholm. Thomas Karlsson, has a deep knowledge of comics litterature, is the curator of the exhibition. Without his commitment the exhibition would not have been produced. Therefore we would warmly thank Thomas Karlsson for the the immense support he has shown!

The exhibition ”Superheroes and Schlemiels”, shows a colourful assortment of superheroes and antiheroes by some forty Jewish comics’ artists from 1910 until today. It builds bridges between the American and the European culture of comic-strips. seriekultur.

At the Jewish Museum in Stockholm several styles and authours’ and artists’ work from different generations are shown. But they have the Jewish collective memory as an important part of the telling of the story in common!

What is typical of the Jewish Comics’ artist? They focus on the story.The humuor comes natural, it is not forced. There are parallels to I B Singer’s way of telling a story.

The exhibition is divided into different periods of time and thus shows a chronologic story of Jewish experiences during the last century.

Our version of the original exhibition is smaller since we have adjusted it to fit our premises and Swedish circumstancies.

Our exhibition contains many fantastic originals och three dimensional objects that are only exibited in Stockholm. Some originals has never been shown in Sweden.

During the first decades of the 20th century comic-strips was not considered as art, but nowadays it is a highly appreciated artform. Artists like among others Roy Lichtenstein has contributed the change of opinion.

We want to thank our partners Brombergs Förlag AB, Seriefrämjandet, Serieteket och Åberg’s Museum in Bålsta. Special thanks to Dorotea Bromberg, Kristiina Kolehmainen, Ola Hellsten and Lasse Åberg and also Irit Dagan at the Israeli Embassy in Stockholm.

Thank you Lasse Åberg for lending us the unique originals from Åberg’s Museum in Bålsta!

At last but not least a warm thank you to the Eduard och Sophie Heckscher’s Foundation and private persons, whose generous contributions have made this exhibition possible!

The exhibition ”Superheroes and Schlemiels” is innovative and crosses borders.

Never before has such an extensive thematic exhibition on comics’ artists been shown in Sweden!

Welcome to Hälsingegatan 2!

Yvonne Jacobsson
Director

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Jewish memory in comic strip art

serier_stalmannenEveryone has heard of Superman. But not everyone knows that the creators of this famous superhero – Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel – are Jewish. In Superheroes and Schlemiels, the ‘man of steel’ is joined by a colourful assortment of comic-strip characters from 1910 to the present day. The exhibition includes heroes and anti-heroes by forty Jewish comic-strip artists. What role does Jewish memory play in their comic strips and graphic novels? The exhibition creates a bridge between American and European comic-strip cultures, various styles and generations of writers and artists who have incorporated Jewish collective memory as an essential ingredient within their stories.

Does this mean that comic strips are a Jewish specialism? Superman and the Spirit are not Jewish heroes and the genre was not invented by Jewish artists. Nonetheless, many renowned American and European comics’ artists have made use of Jewish history and autobiography. In turn they have contributed to the formation of Jewish collective memory and self-awareness. The exhibition shows that while the art of comic strips is not unique to Jewish artists, there is a specific historical connection between comic-strip art and Jewish culture.

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From the shtetl to the metropolis

serier_golemJewish strip cartoonists in the first half of the 20th century often came from immigrant families who had settled in the Lower East Side, Brooklyn and the Bronx in New York. They expressed their profound interest in the challenges and ordeals faced by immigrants during their social and cultural integration into American society.

Comic strips in Jewish newspapers published in Yiddish (Zuni Maud) and English (Harry Hershfield, Milt Gross) immersed their characters in the ‘all-devouring metropolis of New York. These cartoons and so-called ‘funnies’ forged the image of the Jewish immigrant embroiled in the transitory mechanisms of integration. Their comical and endearing characters were driven by their need to succeed socially and their passionate commitment to democracy. They often employed so-called ‘Yinglish’, a mix of their mother tongue (mame loshn) and English. Alongside this movement, other artists chose the path of pure entertainment in social satire, never allowing their origins to interfere with their subject matter (Rube Goldberg).

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It’s a job for Superman!

serier_capamThe advent of the comic strip superhero is linked to the integration process of Jewish immigrants in the United States. Fascinated by the universe of comics, young second- generation Jews gathered in New York and began producing comic books and strips for the press. Between 1932 and 34, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel conceived a superhero character which D.C. Comics published as Superman in June 1938. He was followed in May 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s Batman, and in December 1940 by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon’s Captain America.

The first superheroes are devoid of ethnic and religious identity. Their dual identity – they are also ordinary people like us – condemns these superheroes to a solitary existence in the urban jungle. As tireless dispensers of justice they are driven by the universal values of Good and Justice. They consider the defence of the human race as their principal duty. Destined for the American nation at large, they are a reassuring and fantastical response to the trials and hardships triggered by the 1929 stock exchange crash. They also offer relief from the rise of the dictators in Europe in the 1930s.

Only after the Holocaust do superheroes begin to show signs of Jewish identity. Episodes of Superman feature a figure reminiscent of Moses or the Messiah. The character of Ben Grimm – The Thing – in the Fantastic Four series, created by Kirby and Lee in 1961, is a variant of the Golem. The Golem is a Jewish folklore figure brought to life from clay. Several other characters, such as the extermination-camp survivor and super villain Magneto in the X-Men series, created by Kirby and Lee in 1963, are embodiments of parts of the Jewish experience.

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America after 1945

The authors of the generation that reached adulthood in the post-war years were driven by self-examination. Consciousness of their ‘foreignness’ despite successful integration, Jewish artists were drawn to political action. In 1949 Al Capp (author of the Li’l Abner series) created The Kigmy (‘kick me’), a multiform character representing the ‘kickable minority’ or the ‘coloured Jew’. From 1952 onwards Harvey Kurtzman denounced the dominant climate of racial segregation, the Cold War and McCarthyism in his satirical magazine MAD.

The comic strip became an essentially adult medium. In 1959, Kurtzman, who until then had not touched on Jewish-related questions, published his graphic short story Decadence Degenerated. Its hero Si Mednick, is a clearly recognisable Jewish intellectual living in a small town in the southern United States. Despite his peaceful nature, Mednick is accused of having murdered a young woman and is chased by a lynch mob.

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Historical fiction and autobiography

serier_mausOther artists establish their names with historical fiction. Ben Katchor’s novels and short stories explore the past via their urban wanderings, giving us a documentary and poetic vision of Jewish existence in New York. In The Golem’s Mighty Swing, James Sturm associates the trials of the Jewish and black minorities in the America of the 1930s, playing on the ambiguities of integration.

They bear testimony to the personal experience of the generation that reached adulthood after the Second World War. The underground publications of the 1960s and 1970s gave the leading role to antiheroes. A good example is Harvey Pekar’s autobiographic series with the darkly humorous title American Splendor (drawn notably by Robert Crumb), which lays bare the daily anxieties and humdrum existence of a Jewish antihero. Women’s voices also joined the fray to attack the patriarchal notion of woman and the anti-Semitic vision of the ‘Jewess princess’. Using provocative, raw and deliberately self-deprecating imagery, Aline Kominsky-Crumb (Dirty Laundry and Love that Bunch) and Diane Noomin (Didi Glitz) have used the comic book to describe their painful process of emancipation from their family past and the position of women in society.

European memories

As in America, European comic strips and graphic novels began to deal with generational conflicts and confrontations with the past. The stories are based more upon history than autobiographical facts and take place across continents. Often fictional elements are added. The comic strips contribute to the generation of new visions of Judaism and Jewish history.

Shaking up narrative conventions, Hugo Pratt combines childhood memories and his passion for the Kabbalah and the great adventurers. His heroes (Corto Maltese, Koïnsky) are linked to Judaism either by their personal history or by a nostalgic, even fantastic evocation of Jewish tradition. In Malka’s Silence, Jorge Zentner and Ruben Pellejero associate the figure of the Golem with the history of Jewish emigration in Argentina.

Since the 1990s Vittorio Giardino has turned his attention to European Jews in the 20th century (Max Fridman, Jonas Fink). He pays tribute to their commitment in the dramatic upheavals of the 1930s and also explores a neglected aspect of the remembrance process: the life of the Jews behind the Iron Curtain after 1945.

Joann Sfar integrates Jewish memory and history into French comics culture. Le Chat du rabbin (The Rabbi’s Cat, five albums) evokes the world of his grandmother in Algeria. In Klezmer he takes us on a journey to Eastern Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. He playfully confronts his public with topical issues. The incorporation of Jewish memory in comic strips has also spread beyond Europe. In Israel, Uri Fink and the artists of the Actus Tragicus collective (Rutu Modan, Yirmi Pinkus and Mira Friedmann) have renewed the comic strip by opening it up to the graphic novel.

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Walking through the exhibition

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