Comic book superheroes created from 1938 to 1950, such as Superman and Batman, are presented in this exhibition. The show includes art by 15 Jewish comic book artists and writers — among them, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, and Bob Kane and Bill Finger — and illuminates how the comic characters these artists created explored the battles of good and evil before, during, and after World War II.
As Michael Chabon made clear in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the work of comic artists in the 1940’s was inextricably linked to the socio-political realities of America at the time. At this moment, young artists, primarily immigrants in urban realms from Cleveland to New York City, were pioneering the creation of the comic book. This mode of art-making and storytelling would become one of the most popular visual genres of all time.
With the creation of superheroes and super villains, these artists and writers not only reflected their own experience as immigrants—frequently Jewish immigrants from European countries—but explored the very real battles of good and evil that were being fought internationally during WWII. Superheroes who echoed characters from Greek mythology and biblical narratives now came to life in the pages of comic books to fight Hitler. The young comic book creators, often keenly aware of their own sense of cultural marginalization, struggled to define themselves in terms of mainstream American culture. By extension, they created characters whose identities largely reflected this aspect of the immigrant experience. Superheroes were almost exclusively characters whose alter-egos were ordinary, even shy and distanced people. Once transformed into their superhero, special power-endowed selves, these characters fought to right the ills of the world, often ills they had witnessed firsthand. These powerful figures came to secure truth and justice the American way—forging an Americanness that was extremely important for many of these immigrant children and immigrant artists.
The Jewish Museum explores these themes in Superheroes. Over 70 works and artifacts from the golden age of comic books (1938–1950) are on display. The exhibition showcases the work of fifteen Jewish comic book artists and writers from this era, including Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, who created Superman, and Bob Kane and Bill Finger, who created Batman. The exhibition is curated by Jerry Robinson, who joined the Batman team in 1939 and is credited both with creating the infamous villain, Joker, and giving a name to boy wonder Robin, among many other significant achievements.