Graphic Jews presents a selection of graphic novels and original pages by contemporary Jewish artists Leela Corman, Vanessa Davis, Ben Katchor, and James Sturm that tell stories about Jewishness and explore some of the many ways Jews have figured and reconfigured their Jewish identities. These works combine words and pictures into what Will Eisner, one of the masters of the form, called “sequential art”: telling stories by putting one image after another after another.
Graphic Jews builds on a long history of Jewish Americans and comics. Jews played an outsized role in the history of American comics, creating, writing, illustrating, and publishing some of the best-known comics during the medium’s Golden Age in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet for much of the twentieth century the actual scale of Jewish involvement in the medium was not obvious, as neither the creators or their creations were marked, let alone marketed, as Jewish. Cultural shifts in American society in the 1960s and 1970s took pressure off Jewish immigrants and their children to assimilate into American society, and, as result, both long-time comics professionals and younger artists began to draw comics in which Jews and questions of Jewish identity figured more prominently.
Two important graphic novels from this period signaled the transition: Will Eisner’s A Contract with God (1978), considered by many to be the first graphic novel, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980-1991). Along with copies of graphic novels by Corman, Davis, Katchor, and Sturm, Eisner’s and Spiegelman’s two novels are available for visitors to explore in the exhibition.
The artists in Graphic Jews build on the emergence of overt Jewish characters and content in comics that began in the 1970s. Taken together, the works touch on the plurality of Jewish identities and experiences: struggles with alienation and assimilation, a spectrum of religious observance and indifference, and the knotty intersections of race, gender, and class. The exhibition explores how sequential art functions to visualize narrative, wherein images and texts about the past inform our present sense of our selves, thus contributing to the narrative construction of identity. We are the stories we tell and retell, from sacred narratives inherited from tradition and passed down through the generations, to more recent histories, fictions, and fantasies.