Zap! Pow! Bam! Oy!


How a librarian in Cleveland is keeping teens on the edge of their seats with her knowledge of comic books and graphic novels.

Teacher: Wendy Wasman

Class: Zap! Pow! Bam! Oy! Jews, Comic Books & Graphic Novels

Location: Anshe-Chesed Fairmount Temple (Beachwood, Ohio)

Class description: Jews have been instrumental in the creation and production of comic books since two Cleveland teens launched Superman on readers who were hungry for a hero. Since that time, cartoonists such as Will Eisner, Joe Kubert, and Art Spiegelman have elevated comic books to a respectable level by producing book-length works called “graphic novels” or “sequential art.” Many other Jewish artists and writers have followed suit, and the last few years have seen the production of a wealth of high-quality graphic novels exploring the Jewish themes of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, belief, and survival. Students in this class learn how Jewish artists, writers, and businessmen influenced the comic book industry, explore a full range of graphic novels, and create their own comic or graphic story.

How did you become interested in Jewish graphic novels?

I grew up reading comic books as a kid—Archie, Peanuts, Casper & Wendy, and Superman. I also read Classics Illustrated, which were retellings of classic literature in a comic book format. Like most people, I put aside comic books as I got older, thinking they were childish. Then came Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which won the Pulitzer in 2000. In telling the story of the early days of the comic book industry and the Jews that ran it, Chabon opened up this world to readers. He made it cool to read comic books! A few years after I read Chabon, I picked up Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. I was completely hooked. I couldn’t believe how a story could be told in such an in-depth way with so few words. Then I read Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and I was haunted by the images.

How did you get involved in teaching this topic?

At the time, I was working in the libraries of two different temples. I noticed that there was a burst of articles in different magazines, such as Reform Judaism and Hadassah, about Jewish graphic novels and the influence of Jews in the comic book industry. I started reading more and more graphic novels, and I also read everything I could find about the format. That led me to create a presentation for my colleagues in other Jewish libraries. From that one presentation, I was invited to present at area temples and at a local conference. I then wrote a two-part article for Jewish Book World magazine. The topic remains hot, and there continues to be many new articles and books written on Jewish graphic novels.

Tell me about your first class…

I was asked to teach an elective at Anshe-Chesed Fairmount Temple (Beachwood, Ohio) in their Monday evening high school program. My class was called “Zap! Pow! Bam! Oy! Jews, Comic Books & Graphic Novels.” I had never taught a class before, and I was really nervous. I didn’t know if I would have enough material to cover 10 weeks! I taught two periods: first period was eleventh- and twelfth-graders, and second period was ninth- and tenth-graders.

What were your students most interested in about the course?

For each class, I scanned images from a variety of graphic novels, then created PowerPoint presentations. Sometimes I would scan whole stories or chapters, and other times I would just scan selected pages that exemplified the work. I followed a sort of chronological path with my syllabus. The first class covered the basics of graphic novels; after that I spent a class on the history of Jews in the comic book industry, focusing on Superman and the teenage boys from Cleveland who invented him. There had just been an exhibit at the nearby Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage on Superman and other superheroes, and most of the students had seen it, so it was nice to be able to tie that into my class. The next class delved into religion and superheroes; for example, I talked about the Thing from the Fantastic Four, and I showed the issue of the comic book when he “came out” as a Jew. There is a great panel in that issue where the Thing is kneeling down saying the Sh’ma. I also showed images of the Thing having his bar mitzvah. The students really liked that!

Did you have a favorite class?

My favorite class was the one on Israel in graphic novels. There have been a bunch of really good graphic novels that are coming out of Israel right now and I was very excited to show them to my students. Here are some of the ones that I love:

Exit Wounds, by Rutu Modan

Jamilti and Other Stories, also by Rutu Modan

Waltz with Bashir, by Ari Folman (also a movie)

Jobnik!, by Miriam Libicki

What was the biggest challenge of teaching this course?

I wanted to make the class participatory, so I envisioned that each student would create his/her own comic or graphic story. I spent the first class talking about the fundamentals of sequential art: panels, word balloons, character development, story arcs, etc. Each week, I brought in a crate full of books that they could use as reference material. I had a tub of colored pencils, markers, pencils, paper, etc., and I gave them about fifteen minutes at the end of each class to work on their own projects. The biggest challenge for me was that I don’t have any art background—I know and appreciate graphic novels from a literature standpoint, not from an artistic one—so I wasn’t really able to provide much instruction and support in the art area. After a few weeks, it became obvious that most of the students didn’t really want to make their own story, so I just dropped the idea.

Did you have any particularly memorable moment while teaching this class?

The students’ reactions to JT Waldman’s Megillat Esther stand out in my mind. It was the first time that I saw them get really excited about something. This was my first time teaching high school students and it was like pulling teeth to get them to share their opinions about the material I was showing them. I’m sure that some of it was because the class was at 6:30 p.m. and 7:45 p.m., and after a long day of school and extracurricular activities, they were worn out.

What one thing about this subject would you like our readers to know?

In many peoples’ minds, graphic novels are dumbed-down literature. Some graphic novels can be as complex as any work of literature. Reading the graphic novel format is in many ways more challenging than reading straight text. A reader has to be able to look at the art at the same time as reading the text. It can be a real workout for the brain.

Is there any question you’d like me to ask you, and what would be your answer?

What are your top 10 graphic novels? (not restricted to Jewish graphic novels, and not in any particular order):

The Contract with God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue, by Will Eisner (Norton, 2005)
Will Eisner’s New York: Life in the Big City, by Will Eisner (Norton, 2006)
The Complete Maus, by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon, 1996)
The Complete Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon, 2007)
Watchmen, by Alan Moore (DC Comics, 1995)
Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
The Rabbi’s Cat & The Rabbi’s Cat 2, by Joann Sfar (Pantheon, 2005 & 2008)
Little Vampire, by Joann Sfar (First Second, 2008)
Exit Wounds, by Rutu Modan (Drawn & Quarterly, 2007)

About the Author

author_wendyWendy Wasman
Wendy Wasman earned her bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology from Oberlin College and her master’s degree in library science from Kent State University. She is currently the librarian of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Wendy credits her interest in comic books and graphic novels with reading the Classics Illustrated comic books as a young child.

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