Many of the classic comic books -- including Superman, Batman and Spider-Man -- were created by the children of Jewish immigrants struggling to assimilate into mainstream America.
Jewish authors creating contemporary graphic novels -- cartoon books with more sophisticated themes -- continue that literary tradition, softening heavy issues with ample doses of Yiddish humor.
McDaniel College's Hoover Library in Westminster is hosting a five-part discussion series this fall on this evolving genre, titled "Modern Marvels: Jewish Adventures in the Graphic Novel."
In a joint application with Carroll Community College and the county public library system, McDaniel was awarded a $2,500 grant from the American Library Association to host the series. Hoover Library is one of 250 collegiate and public libraries nationwide to gain funding for various Jewish book programs, sponsored in part by Nextbook, a nonprofit organization that promotes Jewish literature and other arts.
"You don't have to come from this culture in order to appreciate the books' universal themes," said Michele Reid, director of Hoover Library.
Themes to be addressed concern such age-old topics as the battle between good and evil. How do you respond to suffering? How does one live a moral life?
These issues will likely crop up during Tuesday's discussion of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust as depicted in Art Spiegelman's The Complete Maus: A Survivor's Tale. Narrated by Spiegelman's father, the book recounts his coming-of-age in Poland on the eve of World War II and eventual survival of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
In Maus, Art Spiegelman appears as a character listening to his father's story while growing up in Queens, N.Y.
Despite the gravity of the subject, Spiegelman injects some satire into the story. As in George Orwell's Animal Farm, he depicts his characters as anthropomorphic animals. Spiegelman draws Jews as mice, Nazis as cats, Poles as pigs and Frenchman as frogs. The images marry with the text to make incomprehensible horrors more vivid for the reader.
"It's almost a kind of frozen film: it's got the words, it's got the pictures," said Arthur Lesley, the Baltimore Hebrew University literature professor leading the discussions at McDaniel. "I think of these [graphic novels] as being almost an inversion of the happy Disney and advertising use of cartoons."
McDaniel College decided to apply for this Jewish literature series grant to continue conversations initiated by Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel's visit to the campus in April 2005.
At the same time, Reid said, faculty and students alike have expressed interest in graphic novels as the genre has grown more trendy. English professor Kate Dobson devotes an entire course to the books.
As incoming freshmen, McDaniel's class of 2010 was required to read Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's graphic memoir about growing up in Iran amid the overthrow of the Shah, the Islamic Revolution and Iran's subsequent war with Iraq.
Reid said she tries to involve the larger community in programs at Hoover Library. McDaniel's relationship with Carroll Community College and the public library stood out to the Chicago-based American Library Association, said Mary Davis Fournier, a project director for the association's public programs office.
Hoover Library used the grant to purchase copies of the five graphic novels featured in the series, Reid said. After Maus, the program will feature three more graphic novels. Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, by Ben Katchor, will be discussed Oct. 23. Katchor's books and acclaimed weekly comic strips depict a dreamlike lower middle-class New York City with a Yiddish flair.
The Nov. 6 program will feature The Quitter by Harvey Pekar, the author and subject of the film, American Splendor. The son of Jewish immigrants who ran a small grocery store in Cleveland, Pekar narrates his stories of failure and survival with sardonic wit and gritty images.
The series concludes with The Rabbi's Cat by French cartoonist Joann Sfar on Dec. 4. Set in 1930s-era Algeria and Paris, the colorful story was recently translated into English.
The program began in September, with Will Eisner's A Contract with God. Set in the tenements of the 1930s Bronx, Eisner's book was considered the first graphic novel when it was published in 1978.
Professor Lesley said he hopes those attending will learn from each others' comments. "You'll learn how others are reading," Lesley said. "These [graphic novels] aren't unimportant. In fact they're quite moving."
"The Complete Maus" will be discussed at Hoover Library, 2 College Hill, Tuesday at 7 p.m. For more information, call 410-386-4488 or visit www.carr.org/jl.