-Abira Nath and Hiya Chatterjee
In most simplistic terms, a graphic novel is a narrative related in the combination of text and art, often in comic strip form. To trace the emergence and evolution of this genre, we have to take into account the remarkable contribution of the USA, where this medium was first invented. The point which strikes us most is the lopsided nature of the community of graphic novel authors in the USA. A huge chunk of comic book writers were Jews. It seemed that they had discovered the appropriate form to give expression to their ideas, thoughts and feelings of identity crisis and alienation.
Two basic questions aroused by this fact are: why America, and why the graphic novel. The answer to the first question is obvious, because America was the ideal democracy at that point of time and this allowed any and every perspective or idea to gain ground. In the second half of the 19th century, there was a tremendous influx of immigrants, mainly Jews, fleeing from Russia to escape indiscriminate persecution. The Great Depression in America was perhaps a boon in disguise for the growth of the graphic novel. An inexpensive, easily available form, the comic book at that time became increasingly popular and thus attracted many Depression-era creators. Another reason was that the form was not recognized as a proper, intellectual, traditional kind. European countries would never have acclaimed it as an independent work of literature. This primary reason behind the predominance of the Jews, however, reflects the anti-Semitic strains pervading in American society, which compelled them to pour their imaginative acumen into this marginalized art. As Will Eisner said: “There were Jews in this medium because it was a crap medium.”
This hostile attitude towards the minorities bred a sense of isolation in the Jewish community. Will Eisner, whose Contract with God is generally considered to be the first graphic novel, was a Jewish-American. Thus the traces of the Jewish cultural heritage are often reflected in the graphic novels.
The earliest and most sustained product of the graphic novel was the cult of the Superhero, which became popular with its very inception. It is interesting and exciting to notice that a quintessentially American theme, that in Superman (1938), was the brain-child of two Jews- Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Though the idea of ‘Superman,’ derived from Nietzsche’s term “ubermensch,” epitomizes the great American ambition, the actual intent of the Jews was perhaps something very close to their own culture. Siegel had confessed that the very thought of the oppression inflicted on the Jews led him to create Supeman, coupled with the idea that Jews could well demonstrate their unquestionable patriotism. The story of Superman’s origin and journey bears striking resemblance to the story of Moses. Superman was also “a child, destined for greatness, snuck to safety by his parents to save him from inevitable doom.” Like Moses, he was the hero, the Messiah who would protect the Jews from torture and persecution.
In the American graphic novel, therefore, we find distinct undertones of the problems and challenges the American-Jew had to face, still unable to eradicate completely the sense of being an outsider. The constant threat of his true identity being exposed perturbed the superhero and the Jews, who did not want to be treated as the ‘other.’ This gave rise to the necessity of the ’mask,’ an external façade behind which the true self of the hero lies concealed. Often the identities of the ordinary civilian and his heroic alter ego clash with each other, symbolizing their sense of identity crisis. The recurrent use of the word identity testifies to this fact. As is exhibited in the graphic novel of Batman, and in the later superhero Spider-Man, there is the idea of “unmasking” the persona of the hero to find out his reality. To hide their minority status, the Jews had to put on a completely pro-American stance. Like the fictitious Superman, the first and foremost effort of the Jews in becoming pure Americans was to change their names from something ethnic to something modern and foreign. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee fell under this category.
Jewish legends and myths are given further impetus in the theory that the Superhero is a modified version of the magical creature “golem,” made of clay by the Rabbis. The golem is often delineated as a ‘miraculous redeemer.’ It was often armed with certain special gadgets which have poignant similarities with the American superhero, with all his gadgets and gimmicks, from Captain America’s shield to Batman’s utility belt and Spider-Man’s web shooters.
Anticipating a big war, times changed in America and so did attitudes, in favour of the minorities. In their full-fledges support of the United States, the Jews earned much-awaited integration, and the categorization was now broadened into ‘us’ (the Americans and the Jews) and ‘them’ (the opponents in the war). This was one of the reasons why the comics of those times became intensely patriotic, portrayed in the creation of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon- Captain America.
The hero was most typically American, clad in red, white and blue, appearing in the scene in 1941. The villain was mostly affiliated to Nazi interests. Captain America was an out-and-out American hero with a Jewish leaning. This shows how the Jews were striving to involve the Americans in the war against the vicious monster in the form of the Nazis. Nonetheless, these comics became so much a part of the American pop culture that they could well sever as a tool for promoting the American cause.
The upsurge of the superhero image in the 1930s and 40s was followed by a relative disenchantment in the larger-than-life figure. The themes became reiterative and produced a plethora of sub-standard graphic novels. Hindered by the inception of the television and the conservative Congress government, the graphic novel lost its ability to innovate. The post-war period unraveled a mature version of the genre and the protagonists were much more humanized and down-to-earth.
The graphic medium then became the breeding ground for new age creatures, most of whom were second generation immigrants fighting to come to terms with the baggage of a culture that they had never quite experienced in its entirety. The ethnical frustrations that these artists then felt translated itself into a stylistically noir voice expressed through an eclectic spread of adventure, comedy, sci-fi, fantasy, war and romance comics. Among these, science fiction was perhaps the best genre to explore the thoughts of alienation, the yearning to ‘fit in’ and the consequent tumultuous emotions that the new age graphic artists felt in their every moment of waking consciousness. Some of the most prominent of these artists — Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko– started off their careers by lending their artistry to inexpensive Pulp Arts, Westerns and Funnies but ended up creating a host of malformed superheroes under the iconic flagship of Marvel Comics. Their central characters then became a number of scientifically mutated beings fighting the demons within them and constantly trying to internalize the fact of their difference from the mainstream population. Yet, these artists too, advertently or unconsciously failed to keep the hints of their national identiy separate from their works. For instance, The Fantastic Four that was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (two second generation American Jews) has elements of Jewish culture surfacing in its different parts.
Prior to the release of the Fantastic Four, the concept of family was never explored in comic books. The Jewish Sabbath tradition of ‘my family’ is shared by millions across the world and has remained intact since Biblical times. There is also a Jewish concept called ‘Shalom Bayit’ which is Hebrew for ‘peaceful home.’ This idea is mirrored in the Fantastic Four as its four main protagonists may squabble all the time but always unite to save the world through their combined expertise. Even Ben Grimm or The Thing, portrayed as a traumatized Jew, was positively accepted as a superhero. This trend of humanizing the superhero by making him free from a secret identity and the myth of excellence, helped in creating a new market for the graphic novel which gained its current status as a serious form of art in the 1980s with the publication of Batman:The Dark Knight Returns in 1986.
By the 1980s, the immigrant identity was somewhat safe in America and the world became relatively tolerant of displaced foreigners. The time was ripe for nations and nationalities to announce their solidarity– a result of the trends of globalization the world over. As the market of the graphic novel expanded, Britain and several countries of Europe plunged head-on into the pursuit of graphic creations. This new-found acceptance that the graphic medium enjoyed led to newer stylistic experiments in the country that attempted the convergence of the graphic techniques of many cultures. For instance Berlin and City of Glass are two modern age graphic novels which use Herge’s ligne-claire as modes of its illustrations. Even the Hapanese techniques of Manga and Anime began to sweep into the American graphic art medium and now one can even find a separate genre of graphic novels known as Amerimanga or Original English Language mangas (OEL’s) as a prominent form of new age graphic arts. Even thematically, multi-ethnic strains started to assert themselves boldly in American graphic novels. In this respect, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning Maus is especially exemplary of the growing confidence of different races and ethnic denominations of America in declaring their original native identity.
The monolithic harmony that graphic literature enjoyed has, however, been disturbed in the post-9/11 era of xenophobic bigotry. In the wake of this paradigm shift, one finds a strangely tenacious desire in the various cultural and racial units of America to provide a picture of the world from the unique perspective of their indigenous cultural identity. For instance Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese skilfully weaves affecting, often humourous stories together to create a masterful commentary about race, identity, and self-acceptance. Even though it explores the oft-represented idea of an immigrant trying to come to terms with his native identity, it is filtered by the vehemently Chinese icon of the fabled Monkey King that makes it a more vocal indictment of the cultural loyalties of an immigrant than what the older generation of graphic artists could ever afford to express. Another interesting instance is that of Alissa Torres’ post-traumatic graphic novel American Widow (2006) that chronicles the experience of a 9/11 American widow who was married to an illegal immigrant from Mexico, Eddie Torres. When asked about this interesting dichotomy between her role as subject of national sympathy on the one hand and that as a helper and abettor of an illegitimate settler on the other, Torres responded by saying “I realized those two extremes … Especially having somebody with a background as an illegal immigrant, and having 9/11 stir up all this xenophobia and acts against immigrants in this country, I felt compelled, I was glad that the book shaped as it did.”
One may, therefore, amply locate in these novels a stark element of resilience as well as national pride that the multifarious immigrants and their families have developed to protect themselves from the blame and rebuffs that they are often subjected to. They are in fact willing to speak about their native qualities and present their traditions to the world with elan.