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Inside the First New York Jewish Comic Con

An unlikely affair in a Brooklyn synagogue celebrates the Jewish origins of the comics industry

by
Gabriela Geselowitz
November 14, 2016
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When I bring up the history of Jews in comics in conversation, I generally receive two polar-opposite responses: a complete lack of knowledge about this connection, or a fervent grip on the specific lore about how a ragtag group of first-generation Americans created an art form from the dust. Stan Lee! Jack Kirby! Will Eisner! Jewish comic book fans cling to these names as a reminder that one of the most enduring popular forms of entertainment had Jewish patriarchs. I know I have.

But what about now, in 2016? How do we engage with this legacy in a constructive way? Do we need to? And to what end?

These questions were on my mind as I went to Sunday’s first-of-its-kind Jewish Comic Con at Congregation Kol Israel in Brooklyn. I wore my best last-minute femme-Clark-Kent-changing-into-Superman cosplay, naturally.

The day’s events functioned basically in two tracks: a symposium of several lectures, one at a time; and an ongoing “Artists’ Alley,” where creators showcased their work. Other components included a silent auction of original work, a Saturday night preview gala, and opportunities for attendees to pray—after all, it took place in a shul. The event also served as fundraiser for the historic Orthodox Brooklyn synagogue that has recently been using Jewish art shows for its ongoing restoration project. Headlining this effort were the synagogue’s president, Fred Polaniecki, and congregant Fabrice Sapolsky.

“No one’s talking about the founders,” Sapolsky told me, a prominent comic book artist in his own right (he’s drawn Spider-Man!). “We know where we came from.”

The event really did want to be all things. The comics writers, artists, and editors in attendance hailed from a vast range of genres. On the one hand, you had a spotlight on Mort Gerberg (who presented at his own table), a cartoonist who has been prominent for half a century and drawn for the New Yorker. Then you had the likes of Isaac Goodhart, an up-and-coming young artist currently drawing Postal for Image Comics, arguably the industry’s most important independent publisher.

Gerberg was assisted by younger family members, and sold compilations of his work from over the decades. Goodhart was eager to talk about the LGBT Comic Con known called Flame Con, and geek out about contemporary comics. He talked about how he, a Jewish artist, and his writer, an African American, had written a story about a white supremacist seeking redemption. He also discussed how he felt his Jewishness had influenced the way he draws (his characters exhibit neurotic tics, for example).

“My connection to comics is Jewish,” he said. “I’m going to contribute to this medium because I’m Jewish.”

Fans tended to be older men wearing superhero T-shirts, but they were a plurality, not a majority, and there was a diversity in age, gender, and level of religiosity of the attendees (including non-Jews).

Panels ranged from “The Jewish Root of Comics” to “Jewish Elements of Batman,” and guests included industry insiders. Greg Pak, for instance, was a big get—a current comics star who is partially known for writing Magneto’s definitive origin story as a Jewish Holocaust survivor. Tonally, these were a bit like Jewish comics Thanksgiving, where the whole family is at the table and trying to find common ground. One minute you would be discussing comics’ intersection with identity politics, and the next the conversation would turn into a truly horrendous punfest (e.g. Batman and Superman are like “Yid and Yang.” Oy.).

But here was the gendered elephant in the room: Out of all the panelists and tabling artists of the day, only one on the schedule was a woman, and she got sick and had to cancel. While there were certainly women in attendance (and who were way more likely to dress in costume and look amazing), the day had a very, very male energy, which has become increasingly unusual for mainstream geek conventions. The Batman panel, for example, mentioned in its description that Batwoman is a Jewish lesbian. But the all-male panel didn’t bring it up, and when a friend of mine tried to ask a question prompting them to discuss Bombshells, a series featuring female Jewish DC characters including Batwoman, the gentlemen largely seemed to draw a blank.

Sapolsky insisted that he did everything possible to balance the demographics, and invited a dozen female creators to the event. But despite his best intentions, the event certainly reflected the comics industry 70 years ago in more respects than the predominance of Jewish writers and artists.

Ultimately, I wonder: Is there a need for an event like Jewish Comic Con? I’d argue yes. The fact that Jews created a medium in which they still engage is worth examining, and I can say from experience that this fact gets ignored or erased at larger events. This was clearly a first step that traded depth for breadth. There was something for those who didn’t know anything about Jews and comics. There was something for those interested in the political subtext to early comics. There was something for families with children, or indie collectors, or those looking to break into the industry.

So what’s next? The possibilities are exciting. Big names tend to draw bigger ones to future events. I happen to know that a group of Jewish women wanted to organize a fan panel, which could crop up in future iterations of the convention. Or the event could integrate programs that don’t fit the panel format—imagine Jewish comic trivia, or a costume contest. These may seem trivial, but they allow for greater fan participation and interaction, rather than projecting the idea of attendees sitting at the knees of speakers and reaping wisdom. After all, the fans have plenty of wisdom too.

Just, pretty please, get some women next year. You don’t need to cut a minority in half.

Gabriela Geselowitz is a writer and the former editor of Jewcy.com.

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