This is part three in the series of blog entries I am doing of an edited down version of my senior paper on 20th Century American Comics and Politics. It may be boring to some, but the purpose is to inform and educate. This section covers the origins of the forefathers of the industry and reffrences to the prohibition era and early womens liberation contributions through the prohibition era and the Great Depression.
Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Works Cited/Resources here.
Politics of “Who writes comics?”
At the turn of the 20 Century fleeing religious and political oppression, thousands of Jews poured in from the Russian Empire into New York. The persecution of Jews in the Balkens, led to Romania promising to respect the civil rights of all their citizens in order to gain Western European support in their war of independence from Russia. Yiddish speaking Jews, poured into Romania from Russia, Poland, and the Ukraine. (Jones, Men of Tomorrow 2). The Jewish population grew as these numbers added to the Turkish, Romanian, and Ladino-speaking Jewish numbers. The population of major cities in Romania was a third to half Jewish. In Romania they owned big businesses, dominated the textile trade, and produced prominent lawyers and doctors. Events leading to prohibition of Jews to conduct business and citizenship pertaining only to the Christian numbers in the populace led most Jews to make another exodus from Romania to New York.
In New York the Jews, just as the Italians and Irish immigrants before them, found themselves, again persecuted and made second class citizens. Many of them gathered in what became then a Jewish Romanian barrio in the Lower East Side near the First Romanian American Synagogue. Eventually socialist thought, which came over with some of the Jewish Ukrainian immigrants; led to formation of a dominant textile union, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), who would start of a movement for workplace reform in the area.
While the Jewish immigrants of New York began to dominate the garment industry, a key growth market for the Jews in the early 1900’s was printing. The field had been dominated in New York by Germans, Irish, and Scots. Businesses passed down through generations seemed to leave no room for new entrants. However, old-line printers weren’t set up to print the Hebrew characters used in Yiddish. The Jews were the most literate, most publication-hungry of all the ethnic groups in America. (Jones, 18). Printers, especially Jewish founded printers, began to flourish by meeting this increased demand. A new culture began as the Americanization of this generation was communicated through information and passed on to a new generation. The print industry allowed for opportunities in other major East Coast cities as immigrants spread out.
It was in these Jewish communities American comics where born. As one of the most educated demographics in the nation, many Jews were not found in the coal mines, or steel mills of the east coast. They sought more “white collar” employment as business owners, lawyers, doctors, writers, and most importantly illustrators, publishers, and salesmen. Many of the flourishing publishers needed illustrations to go with their publications. They needed cartoonists for their editorial and commentary sections. To keep in trend with England and the rest of Europe, magazines and newspapers in the US also began running comic strips in serial.
Persecution across Europe led to increased immigration, and wealthy families were able to help entire villages make the move across the Atlantic. The new generation birthed from these immigrants would become the pioneers of the comics industry and household names even today for comic scholars and fans. Maxwell Gaines (born Maxwell Ginzberg) collected popular comic strips to create the first American comic book. He went on to found Educational Comics, publisher of the popular series Picture Stories from the Bible. His son, Bill Gaines, inherited the company and eventually establishes EC Comics, renowned for their horror and crime comic books. Ukrainian, Jack Liebowitz and Romanian, Harry Donenfeld would create National Allied Publications, which became DC comics (now owned by Warner Brothers). Liebowitz also worked with Maxwell Gaines to co-publish All-American Comics, the company which founded Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and more.
Florida’s Martin Goodman became a publisher of pulp magazines would hire Captain America co-creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, to start Timely Comics. Timely comics would transition to Atlas Comics; eventually become what is known today as industry leader Marvel Comics (now owned by Disney). A young man named Stanley Martin Leiber would take over for Joe Simon as the editor-in-chief at Timely publications. He grew the company from a small publishing house into a mega-corporation. Most anybody in America will recognize him from his television shows and movie cameos, as the father of Marvel Comics and creator of many of America’s most famous superheroes, Stan Lee.
Even though the roots of comics started from Jewish ghettos, the industry thrived through many eras and ushered in waves of diverse creative minds. Surprisingly many of the early comic strip, pulp magazine, and comic book artists were women. During the 1920’s and 30’s most of the women involved in painting many of the lavish fantasy landscapes were published with pen names as men, out of fear having a woman connected to the title would decrease sales. Even today many do not know the impact of the likes of Janice Valleau Winkleman. Just like Jews, many other social minorities turned to comics because they thought of themselves or their ideas as unwelcome in more reputable spheres of publishing and entertainment. (Hajdu, The Ten-Cent Plague 9). If you read some old strips from the 1920’s and prior it is easy to see where conservatives would criticize some of the out spoken and over sexualized women found in comics. It is fitting the industry did become a voice throughout its lifetime as a medium to portray minority rights issues.
The onset of the industry survived World War I and the Roaring 20’s. The beginnings of mass produced comic books started during the Depression and prohibition era. While superheroes were not well established yet, the 30’s were rife with crime novels and westerns. Creators had invented a new medium to tell the stories of American folk heroes and found curiosity in the lives of real life gangsters. Many characters resembling Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger found their way into comics. There were stories mirroring current culture talking of racial prejudice, bootlegging, bank robbing, organized crime, and a dislike for the constraint of government control. Westerns portraying the freedoms of the Wild West and books glorifying gangsters showed a collective political sentiment of the era. Creators do as Alan Moore suggests in his book, Writing for Comics “write what you know.”
Second-class citizens would eventually break the mold and become main stream. Being the voice of a counter culture for such a long time; poking fun at authority figures, pushing the limits of decency, and stepping outside the lines paved the way for comics as society conceives of them today. New creators come from all walks of life and seem to follow this same bit of advice. Superstar screen writers and novelists like Joss Whedon and Neil Gaiman have written many popular comic series. While long time comic writers have also found time to write scripts for popular television series and film. Creators are quick to give credit to those who came before them, and still many continue to evolve the industry with their stories. Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and others broke the mold of oppression the industry suffered for years and invigorated new life into the medium. Others took the road of Art Spiegelman and transcended the genre to create literary masterpieces.
Fortunately as prohibition was repealed and a new war was looming the nation began to change, and with it so did the American Comic. Transitionining from serial strips to the point were even Bible stories were being printed in comic form, comics were being used as educational aids. Many other stories and even US Historic events were quickly adapted to comic form to help assimilate the increasing immigrant population. Moving on to the entertainment perspective where criminals were being locked up and chased by masked crime fighters. Female characters began to shed a little skin and be a little more bold when in disguise as women were about to get the right to vote. The change in policy and temperament of America, demand for something more exciting was created; and eventually led to the creation of a new (and now most popular) genre, the super hero book.