The Jewish High Holy Days are upon us, so we’ve invited Arlen Schumer — whose lecture Jews ‘N’ Comics is 9/24 in NYC — to discuss the people who formed the backbone of the American comic book.
They worked for different companies and created different characters. Some were writers, some were artists, others executives. What they all have in common is that they were chiefly responsible for creating an art form and industry we dearly love today. And they were all Jewish.
Siegel and Shuster, Kirby and Simon, Will Eisner, the list goes on.
Arlen Schumer, a regular here at 13th Dimension, is bringing his lecture Jews ‘N’ Comics to the prestigious 92nd Street Y on 9/24 (more details here and here). So we asked him to curate a list of the 13 Most Influential Jewish Creators and Execs.
This series will run in four parts over the next 10 days or so, listing the 13 Most Influential in chronological order. (And yes, the 13 is a bit of a misnomer because in some cases, an entry is for a creative team.)
For Part 2: From Kane & Finger to Kirby & Simon to Eisner, click here.
Here’s Arlen …
By ARLEN SCHUMER
Max Gaines (nee Ginzburg) and Sheldon Mayer
The creator of the comic book itself, Maxwell Charles Gaines (1894-1947) was born in New York City as Maxwell Ginsburg (or Ginzberg), and known as Max, M.C. or Charlie Gaines; his exact European Jewish ancestry is not known.
In 1933, he was a salesman at Eastern Color Printing, when one day, as the story goes, while throwing out some old Sunday papers, Gaines started re-reading the color comics. It occurred to him that if the comics were somehow packaged separately, they would make excellent promotional magazines. Then he imagined folding over a tabloid-size newspaper page twice, stapling the side, and voila! The original comic book format—which Gaines ran with (Famous Funnies), creating an industry and an art form overnight!
Sheldon Mayer (1917-1991) was a writer, artist and editor working for Gaines at the McClure newspaper syndicate. In 1938, he rescued Siegel and Shuster’s original version of Superman as a newspaper strip from the slush pile — and showed it to Gaines, who knew that DC Comics publishers Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz were looking for material for their new title, Action Comics. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Without Mayer recognizing in Superman the touch of genius, we wouldn’t be discussing this today: “I was crazy about Superman for the same reason I liked The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro and The Desert Song. The mystery man and his alter ego are two distinct characters to be played off against each other.”
Mayer went on to a long career at DC Comics, but for his recognition of Superman alone, he belongs on this list.
Gaines has a few other very notable comic-book history credits: He was co-publisher of All-American Comics, which, before he sold it to DC in 1944, introduced such iconic characters as Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and Hawkman.
After, Gaines founded Educational Comics, which is remembered not only for publishing Picture Stories From the Bible, the first of its genre, but, after Max’s death in a boating accident in 1947, for being handed down to 25-year-old son Bill, who turned “Educational” into “Entertaining” — and transformed the company into the legendary EC Comics.
Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz
Like the Jewish movie moguls who created Hollywood but were born in the Old World in Eastern Europe and Russia—so too were the Jewish comic-book moguls, the original publishers of DC Comics, Harry Donenfeld (Romania) and Jack Liebowitz (Ukraine).
They started out—Liebowitz was the accountant—as the Independent News Company, a publishing house with its own distribution system, putting out primarily pulpy sex and nudie magazines. But then they met Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson in 1935, who was publishing his own comic books under the name National Allied Publications.
After initial success with New Fun and New Comics, their third title together — 1937’s Detective Comics, the first comic book of all-new material built around a single genre — proved key. It was also Nicholson’s undoing, as Donenfeld forced him out of the business.
Donenfeld also copped both the official name of the company, National Periodical Publications, and the initials of Nicholson’s most successful title, for the unofficial name of his and Liebowitz’s newly dubbed company: DC Comics.
Detective — and Liebowitz’s new idea for ’38, Action Comics — would become the homes of the new genre of “superheroes” with the debuts of Batman and Superman, respectively.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
Is the story of writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster’s creation of Superman — the greatest 20th century mythic American character who would jump-start an American art and entertainment medium — the ultimate rags-to-riches, dream-come-true, Jewish-American assimilation success story? Two 18-year-old hicks from the sticks (Cleveland, Ohio) come to the Big City (New York) and sell their Big Idea, which, following overnight success, transforms a budding publishing industry, branches into multimedia before the word was coined, and brings Siegel and Shuster wealth beyond their wildest dreams?
Their Big Idea, Superman—is he a biblical story transposed from both Old and New Testaments?
Is the child Kal-El (whose name means “voice of God” in Hebrew) — sent from Krypton to Earth by his parents to avoid a catastrophe (their exploding planet), adopted by aliens named the Kents in an alien world called Kansas — a modernized metaphor for Moses, sent upriver by his Jewish parents to avoid a catastrophe (death to all first-born sons), and raised by the alien Egyptians?
Or is Superman our Super-Jesus, for Jor-El “so loved the Earth he gave his only begotten son” with “powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men”?
Or is Superman an updating of the 16th century golem legend of Rabbi Loew of the Prague ghetto — who gave life to a giant being of clay to save the Jews of Prague from its pogroms — recast by two first-generation North American sons of Jewish immigrants, who summoned their golem from the clay of American popular culture so that they might subconsciously/unconsciously save the Jews of their time, suffering in Nazi and fascist Europe?
The answer is, of course: All of the above!
NEXT: Gotham grows from the shadows.