From Superman to Sabraman, Museum Exhibits Jewish Comic Strip Themes

When Abie the Agent talked about middle-class life in America or the war — World War I, that is — he spoke with a Yiddish accent.

Created in 1914 by Harry Hershfield, the immigrant car salesman was the first Jewish comic book character to be syndicated, and he brought a touch of "shtetl" humor — traditional Jewish folk humor — to the newspaper funny pages.

"Oi gewalt," he would lament. "It ain't the principle," he told an overcharging waiter in one oft-quoted line. "It's the 10 cents."

On Thursday, the Jewish Historical Museum in the Dutch capital opens "Superheros and Shlemiels," an exhibition of Jewish artists who have brought their collective memory to comic art.

From Superman to the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel "Maus," many of the strips and graphic novels have overt or subtle Jewish themes, from the displaced immigrant in the early 20th century to the terrors of the Holocaust.

"Superman was an American hero. There's nothing Jewish about him," says Hetty Berg, the co-curator of the exhibit. But "it comes out in little ways."

With a messianic mission, the comic hero created by the teenagers Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel in the early 1930s "comes from another plant to save the world. He has a dual identity and leads a double life," she said. And he doesn't get the girl.

One story, drawn for Look magazine in 1940 entitled "How Superman Would End the War," sees the Man of Steel — before he adopted his skintight blue suit — grabbing Adolf Hitler by the throat and telling him, "I'd like to land a strictly non-Aryan sock in your jaw." He then flies Hitler off to Moscow, picks up Josef Stalin and takes them both to Geneva for judgment by the League of Nations, where they are convicted of "unprovoked aggression."

The exhibit displays other comic heroes, from Batman and Captain America in the 1930s to the Fantastic Four and Spiderman in the 1960s, with dozens more in between. The Jewish nature of the superhero found its ultimate expression in Sabraman, an Israeli spin-off in 1978, employing the word "sabra" for native-born Israeli.

Drawing on loans from 40 artists or publishers, the exhibit was co-produced with the Dutch museum's counterpart in Paris and first appeared in the French capital.

The familiar gapped-tooth grin of Mad magazine's cover boy Alfred E. Neuman has a place at the museum. Created in 1952 and edited by Harvey Kurtzman, Mad became a global model for adult comics and satirical magazines. In its early days, it used biting humor to take stands on such issues as racism and McCarthyism.

One of the most powerful influences of the genre was Will Eisner, who co-founded one of the first studios to mass produce comics in 1936. He hired some of the great comic artists of his day and invented the popular masked crime-fighter The Spirit, which ran in dozens of Sunday and daily papers for 12 years.

The exhibit displays original panels drawn by Eisner for his groundbreaking 1978 work, "A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories," which used the structure of a novel and the artistry of an illustrator to became the first graphic novel to make its way into public libraries.

Eisner's work inspired Art Spiegelman, who published "Maus" in Raw magazine in 1980 and later as a book. It satirically depicts Holocaust characters with animal faces: Jews as mice, Germans as striped cats, Poles as pigs and Americans as dogs.

The latest example of illustrated Holocaust storytelling came last year when the Anne Frank House published "The Search," the story of fictional families in the Netherlands, Germany and Poland. Designed for teenagers as an educational tool, it has been widely adopted in German high schools.

But "The Search" is missing from the exhibit, Berg said, because it was not created by Jewish artists.