Jewish humor and folklore have always been an integral fabric of Jewish survival throughout the centuries, affording the Jewish community another tool to rationalize the environment they found themselves in. A clear testament to this is the amount of Yiddish jokes and idioms that entered the American lexicon at the beginning of the 20th century.
Jewish folktales characters like the golem and the dybbuk were used to showcase the community's challenges and sensibilities. The folklore took on a new spin when it began to appear in the pages of comic books; as most newspapers and ad agencies would not hire Jews and most of the comic book publishers were Jewish, these books became a fertile ground for Jews to get out their message. Consequently, many of the creators of the most famous comic books, such as Superman, Spiderman, X-Men, and Batman, as well as the founders of Mad magazine, were all Jewish. This is illustrated in the TV show Mad Men, set in an ad agency during the 1960s. The Jewish aspect in the show emerged following the hiring of the first Jewish copywriter, named Ginsberg, in Season 4, which caused a great deal of brouhaha. Then of course there was Gregory Peck's masterful portrayal in Gentleman's Agreement of a journalist who goes undercover as a Jew to conduct research for an expose on antisemitism in New York City.
The above serves as the background for why Jews found a natural home in comics. Enter Fredrik Stromberg and his book Jewish Images in the Comics, in which the author traces Jewish history through comics looking at history, culture, antisemitism, the Holocaust, and Israel—all out of the lens of comics. Stromberg defines comics as "juxtaposed images in deliberate sequence." Others, like comic writer William Erwin "Will" Eisner, defined the entire art as "the arrangement of pictures or images and words to narrate a story or dramatize an idea." Both, however, agree that dramatizing and sequence are what tell the story. There is no doubt that much of Jewish history needs to be told, which Stromberg illustrates so well.
Furthermore, the uniqueness of this medium is that it allows the message to cascade without personal offense per se, as Stromberg demonstrates by lining up this historical visual while showing the Jewish values, aspirations, and anxieties that are sometimes deeply encoded in comic book characters.
Antisemitism in all its many forms, from the blood libel and Nazism to Islamism, has embraced cartoons as part of its soft-power campaign to propagate the notion that Jews are demonic and the root cause of all evil in the world. Stromberg here skillfully arranges the cartoons to depict the historical sequence and makes the message vivid and pertinent. From what he has done, it can be seen how antisemitism takes on different forms and continues to arise over and over with radicalizations through religion, genocide, or a combination of both. The identification of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a primary source is significant, because when one wants to track antisemitism, all one has to do is look for references to this pamphlet. Ayatollah Khomeini, Hitler, pre-eminent Islamist intellectual Sayyid Qutb, Arafat, and today Abbas are all graduates of the school of modern antisemitism, where they learned to circulate as many variations of the Protocols.
Despite all the use of cartoons to promote an antisemitic message, Stromberg concludes that he did find that Jewish artists are not any different from other comic artists, but rather an integral part of the long tradition of storytelling that has deep roots in the culture of comics. But above all, the author agrees that Jewish humor has had a tremendous effect on the field at large.
What is so evergreen about comics is that even more so in the age of social media, visuals speak louder than words, so the ability to capture moments and events in history and display them in a few slides carries a great deal of weight—more than any other historical text. Thus, as visual history continues to dominate the way history and culture are seen, it would serve all those who observe Jewish history to note how this history is depicted through eyes of the comic artist.