The First Kosher Comic Book Blazed a Trail for Orthodox Outreach
It wasn’t as big as Batman, but ‘Mendy and the Golem’ gave Jewish kids a taste of pop culture—with a rabbinical seal of approval
Eventually, Chabad came out with its own officially sanctioned comic strip, “The Adventures of Yaakov and Yosef,” which ran in its own children’s magazine, Moshiach Times. It was drawn by veteran artist Joe Kubert, who did the secular comics “Sgt. Rock,” “Hawkman,” and “Tarzan.” Moshiach Times was free to audiences, and Mendy cost money … and before long, Mendy folded.
It’s not surprising that Chabad struck out on its own. The Rebbe was always savvy about reaching American Jews steeped in pop culture. He had a significant secular education, studying math and philosophy at the Sorbonne and the University of Berlin. And according to Joseph Telushkin’s book Rebbe, he knew from comics. Shortly after the Rebbe arrived in America on one of the very last passenger ships to get out of Europe during the Holocaust (the Serpa Pinta, which left Lisbon in 1941), he was appointed to run the social service, educational, and publication divisions of Chabad. In 1942, he told the editor of Talks and Tales, the Chabad children’s magazine, that “Curiosity Corner,” a column of little facts about Judaism “zol oys’zehn vee Ripley”—should look like Ripley. (As in Ripley’s Believe It or Not.) In 1951, he suggested that Talks and Tales introduce a recurring adventure-story hero to teach moral lessons, and “ess zol oys’zehn vee Dick Tracy”—he should look like Dick Tracy. (Rabbi Jack Abramovitz, the Torah Content Editor for the Orthodox Union as well as a comic-book fan, wrote a fascinating piece for the O.U. about the history of the use of comics in Orthodox education, pointing out that Christian publishers have long done similarly, with efforts like chick tracts and licensing Archie characters for a comic about Christian faith and values.)
Mendy was dormant until 2002, when the comic book was revived by Tani Pinson, the son of the original publisher. Rather than a goofy, funny educational tool, the new venture was envisioned as a straight-up action-adventure comic, much more polished and professional (and conventional), without the educational focus. To do the art, Pinson hired comics legend Stan Goldberg. Goldberg, who was inducted into the National Cartoonists Society Hall of Fame in 2012, worked on “Spider-Man,” “Fantastic Four,” and “Ironman,” but is best known for Archie Comics, where he drew 250 consecutive issues starting in the mid-1960s. (In the grand tradition of comic-book publishers treating comic-book creators badly, he was forced out in 2011.)
Goldberg laughed, remembering the challenges of drawing an Orthodox comic. “I had to watch myself,” he told me, “making sure the skirt was below the knee and Mommy and Daddy weren’t holding hands when they were walking.” Goldberg worked on a concurrent newspaper “fun page” starring Mendy that was syndicated in 40 Jewish newspapers in North America and Australia. “I think we did a good job,” he said. But he wasn’t convinced that Mendy comic books were a smart economic move, what with the vagaries of distribution and sales. “I liked the newspaper,” he said. “It was puzzles, it was ‘find the bagel,’ it talked about Jewish holidays and taught Hebrew words. I had a Zayde who read the Forward, and we kids sat with him while he read. I liked the idea of creating something a grandfather could share with his grandchildren.”
But Pinson really wanted a comic book. So, Goldberg gave up the artistic helm to Ernie Colón, who worked on “Casper the Friendly Ghost”, “Richie Rich,” “Wonder Woman,” and “Green Lantern,” as well as the official Anne Frank House graphic biography. Still, the revamped Mendy lasted only a few issues, quality of the artwork notwithstanding.
Today, Mendy is in limbo. Estrin is working on a book called The Wisdumb of Sholom the Golem, a takeoff on Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. Chabad runs other comics on its website. But the original kosher comic book has had lasting impact. Estrin pointed me to Camp Gan Israel, the Lubavitcher movement’s summer camp, founded by the Rebbe in 1957, where Mendy and the Golem (the original version) was the theme for last year’s Color War. Orthodox schools still use Mendy in their curricula. “In an age of graphic and hyper-realistic violence,” Estrin said, “there’s something about innocence and silliness that people of all ages find refreshing.”
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