Jewish Immigration, Popular Culture, and the Birth of the Comic Book

by Roberta McCutcheon

Background

The study of immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries goes beyond the study of the ethnic make-up of the immigrants of this era, the challenges and hardships they encountered in the United States, and their place in urban and/or labor history. While each of those areas of immigration history holds an important place in any study of the twentieth century, these immigrants also made a significant contribution to the emerging twentieth century popular culture. Using the classroom as an historical laboratory, students can use primary sources to research, read, evaluate, and interpret one of the genres of this popular culture, the comic book, born in the twentieth century.

Objectives

  • Students will be able to create a model to be used to evaluate the validity of historical evidence.
  • Students will examine primary documents and factual references to analyze the history of immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, focusing on Jewish immigration.
  • Students will be able to identify the major social and economic events in the first half of the twentieth century.
  • Students will be engaged in historical research and the critical analysis of popular culture in this era.
  • Students will be able to examine the effects of this era of immigration on the cultural landscape of the United States into the twentieth century.

Student Exercise One

Have students research the immigration of the late nineteenth century. For a general account, have students explore the essays in the Immigration and Migration section of the Gilder Lehrman website

The following web sites provide a photographic account of immigration:

Discussion should begin with the characteristics of the "new immigrants" of this era and then focus on the experience of Jewish immigrants.

Student Exercise Two

Analysis of biographies of four comic book authors/artists: Will Eisner, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and Bob Kane (Bob Kahn) on the following web sites:

Begin a discussion about a strategy for identifying information in the biographies. The students should formulate questions they might ask in order to identify relevant information about these individuals:

  • Where and when were they born?
  • What is their family history and religion?
  • What historical events affected their lives?
  • What common experiences did they share?
  • Is it significant that these individuals are not first-generation immigrants?

Analysis of some of the comics these four authors created. Write a model for analysis that will help the students read the documents with a critical eye. Students should understand that they will be using their research to develop an understanding of how the comics reflected the lives and experiences of the authors, and the culture and time in which they lived. Their research will also enrich their understanding of that era in history.

Questions should cover the identity of the hero, the theme or plot, and when and where the story takes place.

Questions about the author's purpose and the sources for his ideas will also help to clarify the context in which the comics were written. Guide the discussion toward questions about the intersection of religion, ethnicity, and class.

Student Exercise Three

Divide the class into three groups. Assign each group the sites associated with a comic book hero.

The following websites provide digitized images from the works of the four authors/artists:

The Spirit

Superman

Batman

Ask the students to use the model to read the comic segments and evaluate the information found. Each group should compile the information gleaned from the assigned comic.

Restructure the groups so that each new group has a representative from each of the original groups. Ask these restructured groups to share information from the documents.

Ask the students to come together as a class and to draw on the information they have gathered to discuss the following question: What generalizations can be made about the lives and times of the heroes and their creators?

Create Pop Culture

  • Research the experiences and historic times of another ethnic group that immigrated to the United States.
  • Create a comic book or graphic novel that reflects the experiences of the ethnic group.

Essay

Ask the students to write an essay that focuses on the following question: In what ways did the experience of Jewish immigrants (both first- and second- generation) in the United States give rise to the comic book in popular culture?

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