Today marks the first ever Jewish Comic Con at Congregation Kol Israel in Brooklyn, NY. As a day of celebration of the contribution that Jews have made as pioneers in the comics industry, there will be many opportunities for attendees to enjoy panels and interact with leading comix creators & authors. More so, the Jewish Comic-Con will introduce new perspectives about the history and future of comics and the many paths that have lead to the cultural renaissance of comics in the broader culture.
In the course of COMICS BEAT’s previous preview of Jewish Comic Con, I had the good fortune to have an in-depth chat with Arie Kaplan who (along with Danny Fingeroth) acted as a programming consultant for the con. Kaplan is a prolific writer whose work has spanned comics (for DC and Bongo), video games, MAD Magazine, and books like FROM KRAKOW TO KRYPTON, a historical survey of Jews and comics; this latter book was nominated for National Jewish Book Award. We had a wide-ranging discussion about Kaplan’s influences, his work preparing for the con, and why now is the right time to hold such a con in the first place!
AJ FROST: As a moderator of most of the panels at the con, what is your agenda (if you have one?) to elucidate to attendees? What do you want people to walk away with?”
ARIE KAPLAN: I wouldn’t say that I had an “agenda,” but I would say that the panels deal with everything from the Jewish roots of comics (the fact that many of the founders of the comic book industry were Jewish) to specific Jewish characters in comic books and the way comics have depicted the Holocaust. So during the Jewish Comic Con, hopefully we (Fabrice Sapolsky, Danny Fingeroth, myself, and the various panelists & guests) will provide the audience with a good idea of the way in which Jewish comic book writers, artists, and editors have contributed to the industry. And also, how Jewish characters have been presented and depicted in that industry.
And who knows? Maybe I’ll even work in a reference to Bernie Cornfeld in one of the panels. (But I can’t promise anything!) Oh—by the way!—some of the guests and panelists at Jewish Comic Con will be: Dean Haspiel, Ariel Schrag, Jordan B. Gorfinkel, Sholly Fisch, Josh Neufeld, Greg Pak, Craig Yoe, Rafael Medoff , Darren Vincenzo, Rabbi Cary Friedman, and Julian Voloj.
AND… there’s gonna be a spotlight on Mort Gerberg, and I’m pretty excited about that.
FROST: What are you most excited about for this con? And how do you envision it’s future?
KAPLAN: Well, I’m really excited about many of the panels I’ll be co-moderating with Danny. He and I have been friends for quite a while. I like to say he’s the Walter White to my Jesse Pinkman, to give you an idea of our relationship. Oh, except that Danny and I don’t cook meth. We just cook up AMAZING COMIC BOOK STORIES, Y’ALL!
FROST: Which comics are you drawn more to: Superhero comics in the mainstream or more Harvey Pekar-esque indie stories?
KAPLAN: I actually like both. There’s no one genre that I’m into. I actually find it odd whenever a comic book fan is like, “I only read superhero comics,” or “I only read autobiographical comics.” I mean, when I go to the movies, I don’t JUST watch action movies or superhero movies, or romantic comedies, or musicals. There’s no one genre that takes precedence. But I guess some comic book readers are like that. And come to think of it, so are SOME filmgoers. Some film buffs will ONLY watch low-budget indie films and they steer clear of anything that seems too “Hollywood” or “mainstream.” And some people are exactly the opposite about the movies they see. But as for me, when I first got into comics in a big way – around age 13 or 14 – there was so much to love, so many different kinds of stories – that I couldn’t in good conscience narrow it to one genre or approach or style.
As a teenager… I read GREEN LANTERN, IRON MAN, DETECTIVE COMICS, WONDER WOMAN, UNCANNY X-MEN, SPIDER-MAN, GROO THE WANDERER, GRENDEL, USAGI YOJIMBO, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, AMERICAN SPLENDOR, DRAWN & QUARTERLY, ZAP, LOVE & ROCKETS, CAPTAIN AMERICA, WHAT IF…?, FLAMING CARROT, REID FLEMING WORLD’S TOUGHEST MILKMAN, HEAVY METAL MAGAZINE, CRITTERS (a funny animal anthology published by Fantagraphics), CONCRETE, WEIRDO, SANDMAN, STAR WARS, STAR TREK, NEW TEEN TITANS, SECRET ORIGINS, LEGION OF SUPERHEROES, FANTASTIC FOUR, INCREDIBLE HULK, MR. MONSTER, SECRET ORIGINS, and ‘MAZING MAN, and probably a few others whose names elude me at the moment.
FROST: As a comic book writer and comic book fan, how would describe the cultural climate of fandom in the Jewish community and beyond?
KAPLAN: I have a unique perspective, because of the fact that I do quite a bit of public speaking. I travel all over the world as a guest author/graphic novelist, public speaker, visiting lecturer, etc. And one thing I’ve noticed when traveling to promote FROM KRAKOW TO KRYPTON is that there’s a Jewish community in pretty much every city I’ve visited that’s very proud of the Jewish “geeks made good.” In other words, folks from their community who’ve gone on to great success in a geek-friendly creative field, like comics. In many of the cities where I’ve lectured (or done a book signing), someone in the audience often turns out to be related to a famous comics writer or artist.
When I did the initial book tour for FROM KRAKOW TO KRYPTON, I went to so many cities where I’d be lecturing about comics history and someone in the audience would be related to MAD MAGAZINE’s Dave Berg. Seriously, that happened like five times or something. Also, when I was lecturing in Detroit once, at the book signing afterward, a woman came up to me and told me she’d dated Firestorm co-creator Al Milgrom when they were both teenagers. Anyway, these folks are very proud of the fact that people from their communities have gone on to create pop culture icons like Firestorm (or in Berg’s case, the “Lighter Side Of…” feature in MAD).
Also it’s very interesting which American comics European audiences are familiar with, and which ones they DON’T know. When I’ve done speaking gigs in Poland, they have NO idea what Archie Comics or MAD Magazine is, but they seem FASCINATED by both Archie and MAD. Especially MAD, because it’s a satire magazine, and the Polish audiences I’ve spoken to, in cities like Krakow and Łódź, seem to really like intelligent satire. So when I show them excerpts of MAD articles (either MAD pieces I’ve written or ones written by other folks), they’re definitely hungry for more.
FROST: Besides Jewish Comic Con, any exciting projects you’re working on now?
KAPLAN: Yeah! Recently, I wrote two LEGO STAR WARS books for Scholastic. The first one, LEGO STAR WARS: FACE OFF, is out now. And I’ve been working on a few projects for Disney Book Group. For example, I wrote three of the stories in the 5-MINUTE AVENGERS STORIES collection, which is out now from Disney’s Marvel Press imprint. Those are short prose stories featuring the Avengers characters like Captain America, Falcon, Iron Man, Hawkeye, etc. It was so much fun writing them! And I had an amazing time writing the LEGO STAR WARS books!
FROST: Is a dedicated Jewish Comic Con a long time coming, or just a nice synergy of interest and cultural reflection?
KAPLAN: I suppose it’s just a nice synergy of interest and cultural reflection; I guess it just feels like the time is right for a Jewish Comic Con. I mean, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created many of the characters in the Marvel Comics Universe, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is hugely popular right now. And I think this Jewish Comic Con fills a need right now, a need to honor the work and the creative legacy of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Larry Lieber, Joe Simon, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bill Finger, Bob Kane, Martin Nodell, and various other Jewish comic book creators.
It’s a way to explore what that even means: “Jewish Comic Con.” Does it mean a comic book with Jewish content (and what does THAT even mean)? Does it mean a comic CREATED BY Jews? Can it be both? And how have depictions of Jews in comics changed over the years? You’re seeing more Jewish characters in superhero characters, and they’re depicted in different ways. Batwoman is Jewish, but she’s definitely not Jewish in a stereotypical way. Which is refreshing.
FROST: That’s a pretty Talmudic approach!
KAPLAN: Yeah well, my mom is always accusing me of taking a Talmudic approach to everything. She thinks I could’ve been a rabbi.
The first Jewish Comic-Con takes place at 603 St Johns Place Brooklyn NY on November 13th beginning at 9am and going til 6:30pm.
Visit http://jewishcomiccon.org/ for more information.