Our recent trip to Berlin took use to the Jewish Museum Berlin and their unique special exhibit about the contribution of Jewish culture and creators to comics: “Heroes, Freaks, & Superrabbis”. Designed loosely as a continuous comic strip looping through history, this exhibition brings the visitor from superhero comics of the 1930s, through the underground comix era, and up to modern graphic novels and the budding new generation (represented here by an independent collective of creators in Israel).
As a comic enthusiast, the exhibition was a rousing success. Not only does it introduce many immigrant comic luminaries I already knew, Will Eisner for example, but also exposes the visitor to other creators I was not familiar with (or didn’t know were Jewish). There were even strips in German and Yiddish from those early years, showing how these artists and storytellers helped create the building blocks of comics that we take for granted today. The chance to view originals from The Spirit, Krazy Kat, and more was also one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments; at least for a librarian like me.
Since the exhibition is pretty extensive, perhaps 2 hours long and displaying 400 artifacts, I will highlight a few of my favorites.
Superman Persuades Hitler: In an explicate piece of American World War II propaganda, Superman meets an incognito Hitler in New York and talks him into stopping the German war machine. The newly converted Furhur returns to Germany only to be murdered and replaced by his advisers who wish to continue the war; resulting in Superman’s disappointment that Hitler had (apparently) broken his promise. This 8-page comic is simultaneously naive and fatalistic; appropriate for the time.
I was disappointed that the discussion of superhero comics did not address the several copyright and trademarks that have marred the genre over the years.
Faces of MAD: EC Comics, a Jewish-owned publishing house and inventor of horror comics, was hit hard by the Comics Code and only MAD Magazine saved them. I read later copies of the magazine as a child, so this collection of Alfred E. Neuman as famous and infamous figures was fun to see.
Living Shmoo: I had never head of the Shmoo balloons that were dropped on West Berlin as part of food drops during the worst of the blockages and was delighted by the work of Al Capp who created the original shmoos, critters that provide all the food and animal products needed by humans. Other comic creators also adopted the living shmoo in comics written from within Berlin itself to tell stories about living behind the wall.
The Heroes, Freaks, and Superrabbis exhibit wrapped up with a narrow look to the future via the work of a young, independent comics group in Israel; which suggests that the medium is alive and well and continuing to interest Jewish creators. Certainly this view of the future of comic is incomplete without the contributions of people from other background, countries, and (perhaps?) publishing mediums, but the Jewish Museum Berlin isn’t a Comics Museum. So I’m willing to give them a pass on that.
In short, if you have the chance, go see this exhibition. You won’t leave disappointed.
Bonus: There is a “webcomic” motion comic online. It’s not particularly good, but it is what it is.