The Comic Art Forum
With Harvey Pekar, Ben Katchor & Paul Buhle
April 18 - Al Green Theatre
part of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival
Note - Ben Katchor will be reading live from his work April 19 8:30pm
There was no clear agreement on the role of Jews in comics, whether there was ever a golden era of Jewish involvement in comic books in or about 1939, or even if there was a significant, purely "Jewish" role in comics to be spoken about. There were, in fact, as many opinions on the subject as there were panelists at the Comic Book Forum.
The introductory remarks did seem to be leading in a particular direction, including references to left wing Yiddish American scholar Irving Howe and the early history of Jews in America - the tenement world, a Yiddish world that still has a connection to today. Harvey Pekar was described as one of the early underground cartoonists, one of the first whose work was personal and autogiographical, detailing his life as a file clerk in American Splendor. It was noted as a continuation of Jewish literary tradition, just as Ben Katchor's work was put in the context of the Jewish fantasist, creating believable worlds.
Buhle led the discussion, opening with an innocent enough question about the role of Jewish history and culture in their work. "My only connection to Jewish culture is through history," Ben Katchor began carefully.
The notoriously curmudgeonly Harvey Pekar was less circumspect. "I heard a lot of stuff growing up about how great the Jews were," he said. "I'm kind've studious - that's good. I'm obsessive compulsive - that's not so good." He acknowledged picking up Yiddish, but downplayed the role any of his background had in his upbringing. His father worked 7 days a week, his mother 6 days a week - not leaving them a lot of time to pass along a sense of tradition, as he pointed out.
Ben questioned the very idea of Jewish element to the comic business. "I remember bringing comics home," he said, "my father thought that they were the epitome of American culture." Not Jewish, in other words. "The idea that these would be celebrated as Jewish artifacts seems insane. What kind of Jew would write these comic books?" It drew laughs. "Jews, if they were so interested in comics, they would have invented them in the Middle Ages!"
He went on to point out the traditional separations of text and image both in the publishing and art worlds. Comic books came out of pulp fiction and other non-Jewish culture. He threw cold water on the idea that superheroes came out of the Jewish golum legend.
Pekar's take on the advent of comics books and the role of Jews was more pragmatic. "A lot of Jews were into commercial enterprises, and the comic book was invented during the Depression," he said. "You could make a living producing comic books." He pointed out that their readers were not intellectuals. "They were kids or those with child-like minds" - i.e. setting the bar low in terms of content. "A lot of Jews were into crime (during the same era)."
Paul mentioned Harvey Kurtzman and Mad Magazine as an extension of the by now disputed Jewish tradition. Ben saw Mad, though, as a reinvention of the comic book - not an evolution. "It's not a continuity." He himself, with his exquisitely drawn graphic novels, illustrates a case in point - he took the medium and made it his own. It was in fact comic books that helped awaken his bent towards visual art. "This is where I discovered the tradition of figurative drawing," he noted. "I look at the work of Bill Griffith - he was talking about French surrealism." Ben went on to study "the Western traditions of drawing, perspective and all that."
Harvey Pekar was dozing on stage by this point, but became animated in discussing the evolution of comic book art to its current level of acceptance. "It took a long time for the general public to recognize comic book art as good as any other art form. It's just the way people have used it," he said. "You can do anything with pictures and words." He was one of the first to show that the form could be used for much more than superheroes, with his tales of file clerkdom. "Who, in any form of literature, dealt with the lives of people like me?"
Unlike Ben, Harvey is a writer - "As I've admitted, I can't draw worth a shit" - who has worked with a variety of illustrators over the years, including Robert Crumb. "I met Crumb when he was about 19 and saw some of his groundbreaking work - even then," he recalled. He describes a back and forth creative relationship with illustrators that has proven rewarding.
In the end, as Paul pointed out, there was something all could agree on - a connection between the advent of movies and a greater acceptance of comic books. And, he added a fittting summary for the discussion. "Comic art seems to draw the rebellious spirits."
PR image of Harvey Pekar
Poster from A Checkroom Romance, a musical tragicomedy by Ben Katchor and Mark Mulcahy.