Jewish American Illustrators
JAHM’s 2019 theme provides an opportunity to recognize the many American Jews who have helped create the nation’s beloved children’s books, iconic graphic novels and their superheroes, and syndicated comics and illustrations. These Jewish artists, illustrators, and writers have been shaped by American life, society, and culture, and in turn enriched America’s imaginative landscape. Through the prism of their Jewish identity, and often by approaching their work through the lens of social justice, they have been able to make poignant observations about the world around them, offering powerful commentary on issues of the day through their unique and universal medium.
Roz Chast has spent decades mining the craziness of her life and her imagination as one of the most popular staff cartoonists of the New Yorker. Chast earned a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1977, but chafed against the school’s highbrow aesthetic and scorn for cartoons. She moved to New York and began creating comics for Christopher Street and the Village Voice before selling her first cartoon to the New Yorker in 1978. Chast’s work owes much to both New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams’s unconventional Addams Family and to underground comix pioneers like Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Lynda Barry, with her shaky line drawings and her focus on neurotic families and the minutia of everyday life. Besides the New Yorker, her work has appeared in Scientific American and the Harvard Business Review. She has written or illustrated over a dozen books, including two collections of her New Yorker cartoons, The Party After You Left in 2004 and Theories of Everything in 2006. In 2014 she was a National Book Award finalist for her graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? about her parents’ decline and deaths.
Courtesy of Jewish Women’s Archives.
Maira Kalman was born in Tel Aviv and moved to New York with her family at the age of four. She was raised in bucolic Riverdale, in the Bronx, and now lives in Manhattan. She is a world‐renowned artist, writer, illustrator, and designer. She has published more than twenty-eight books and creates editorial work for many magazines; she has illustrated many covers for The New Yorker. She has exhibited her work at institutions such as the Cooper Hewitt Museum (NYC), ICA (Philadelphia), The Jewish Museum (NYC), Madison Children’s Museum (Madison, WI), Monticello (Charlottesville, VA), and Skirball Cultural Center (Los Angeles). She is represented by the Julie Saul Gallery and owns a pair of Toscanini’s pants.
In 2008, The New York Times declared that Maurice Sendak's "originality and emotional honesty have changed the shape of children's literature." In 1964, the Brooklyn native won the Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are, with its benevolent monsters and the defiant boy Max who confronts them. Both as author and illustrator, Sendak has brought to children (and their parents) such classics as In the Night Kitchen (1974) and The Sign on Rosie's Door (1960). In addition, he has designed the sets and costumes for several operas, ballets, and theater productions, and has produced animation for television.
From the fertile mind and nimble pen of Stan Lee have sprung such notable superheroes as the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, the Mighty Thor, and X-Men, not to mention the movie megastar Spider Man. Born Stanley Martin Lieber, the American comic-book writer served as editor, and then president and chairman of Marvel Comics for over three decades. During his tenure, Marvel grew from a small division of a publishing house to a multimedia giant. Critics and readers credit Lee with breaking with tradition in creating nuanced personalities for his superheroes by endowing them with human faults and frailties.
Ezra Jack Keats
Born in 1916, the son of Eastern European immigrants, Keats grew up poor in Brooklyn. An interest in drawing led to a career as a commercial artist. Tired of dealing with antisemitism he faced because of his name, Katz changed it to Ezra Jack Keats.
Keats’s first solo author-illustrator effort, The Snowy Day, was published in 1962. In 40 pages filled with colorful collaged images, Keats told the story of a little boy exploring the wonders of an overnight snowfall in the city. The book was unusual, even revolutionary: The little boy, Peter, was Black. The Snowy Day marked the first time that any full-color American picture book featured an African-American main character.
The Snowy Day won the 1963 Caldecott Award, and inspired other artist/authors to bring more diverse characters into their works. Today, it is considered among the most important American children’s books of all time.
Waber, the son of Eastern European immigrants, grew up in an observant Jewish home, spoke Yiddish, and considered Jewishness central to his identity. He studied at the Wharton Business School before changing directions after WWII and enrolling as a commercial-art major at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art (now University of the Arts). For most of his adult life, Waber worked in New York City, initially as a designer for Condé Nast and then at Time, Inc., where he worked on publications such as Life and People. Encouraged by an art director who saw the potential in his whimsical drawings, Waber began to develop and submit his own story ideas to publishing houses.
Eventually Houghton Mifflin (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) offered him a two book contract for Lorenzo and the House on East 88th Street – the first book in the Lyles eries. Over his 50-year career, Waber created more than 30 picture books which sold over 1.75 million copies.
Liana Finck finds new angles of approach into her life and Jewish history through her whimsical and expressive autobiographical cartoons. Finck graduated from The Cooper Union in New York in 2008 and earned a Fulbright Fellowship in Belgium to work on a project about the life of Georges Remi, the cartoonist who created the Tintin books. It was there, in 2010, that she first got the idea for her graphic novel, A Bintel Brief, which she published in 2014. The graphic novel interweaves illustrations of the eponymous advice column that ran in the Forward newspaper in the early 1900s with vignettes on Finck’s imagined conversations with the paper’s editor, Abraham Cahan. In 2012 she also created a short collage series on the golem for Tablet, and for several years ran an illustrated column in the Forward online. As of 2017 she regularly draws cartoons for the New Yorker and on Instagram, where her 40,000 followers devour her illustrated commentary on heartbreak and social anxiety.
Courtesy of Jewish Women’s Archives
Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster
The men who went on to change the world of comic books forever met as high-school students in Cleveland, while working together on their school newspaper. Jerome Siegel (1914-1996) and Joseph Shuster (1914-1992) created the prototype for Superman, who first appeared in 1938 on the cover of Action Comics comic book series. Shuster, who drew the character, later said he based the hero on the actor Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and the meeker alter ego, Clark Kent, on both himself and another actor, Harold Lloyd. The caped Superman soon began his long run as the star of newspaper comic strips, television shows, and movies, ultimately becoming one of the most recognized superheroes in the literary world.
In collaboration with Stan Lee, innovative artist Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), Lee created the Fantastic Four, the first comic in what came to be known as the “Marvel Universe.” FF featured different types of superheroes—outsiders like “The Thing,” a metaphor for minorities who felt out of place. Lee and Kirby also originated outsider heroes Iron Man and the X-Men. These and other iconic characters—notably, Spider-Man (created with artist Steve Ditko)—infused Marvel’s comics with an urban Jewish sensibility, resulting in tales filled with ironic humor, violent loss, and monumental regret that mirrored the global Jewish experience in the 20th Century.
Lee and Kirby went on to introduce ethnically specific characters, such as the first black superhero, the Black Panther, and Izzy Cohen of the Howling Commandos.