A Few Notes on Not So Funnyman


by

Friday, August 27, 2010


A little more on Siegel and Shuster this week. Funnyman—a six-issue series and short-lived newspaper comic, 1947-49, featuring a character who fought villains with pranks and gags—was Superman creators Siegel and Shuster’s last grasp at something all their own. It didn’t go so well. The feature is partially reprinted and extensively written about in Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon’s recent book Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero. It’s an odd entry in our current boom, situated less as a comic book of its time and more as an example of Jewish humor and the changing social mores possible for the artistic duo to capitalize on.

That can be a bit problematic because Andrae and Gordon lean heavily on the meaning of the authorship of the feature and of elements of Superman. Is a concept enough to make it “Jewish?” Or is it the creators? As drawn by a young Dick Ayers and who-knows-who-else ghosting for Shuster, it is not drawn in a way that reflects the comedic sensibility of Siegel’s attempted zaniness. And it has none of the more obvious visual ethnic references of, say, Eisner’s immediately post-War Spirit or the bulk of Jack Kirby’s work, both of which, in their frenetic, gnarled forms seem related (if not actually influenced by) Milt Gross and Harry Herschfield. And if it’s not actually drawn by Shuster, the scorned and now liberated (to draw sexy girls in an effort to assert his masculinity — though in fact he didn’t — not until the S&M stuff of the ’50s) Superman creator, then how does that affect the thesis of the book? Similarly, Andrae has Siegel creating Toyman and the Prankster as antecedents to Funnyman‘s brand of humor, but Siegel, in fact, did not create those characters. So… where does that leave us? Beyond the problematic claims for motivation, while Funnyman certainly, as Andrae and Gordon point out, exemplifies an ethnic “hero” and was based on Danny Kaye, he’s not stated as “Jewish,” which leaves a wide open door. I could list ten other heroes whose characteristics could be “Jewish.” Basically the authors are reaching here.

I’m not arguing for only one way of looking at comics, but it seems to me that any scholarship must acknowledge how these things were actually made, and when, and allow that to impact the analysis. Andrae and Gordon sort of forget about the comic itself. What works so well for Tom De Haven when he covers related ground in Our Hero is that he approaches his subject organically — from the inside out. He looks at what really went into making all the comics and TV and movies and analyzes from there, rather than applying a theory and then trying to find evidence for it in the texts and agency in the supposed authors.

In any case, I don’t want to be too harsh. I don’t love the “hook” of this book. But the reprints are solid and it’s interesting to see the work itself, which is really just average (or below) comic book stuff of the time. A chunk of the book is devoted to a history of Jewish humor, which is OK, but not unique, and there are some good bits of straightforward writing about the Jewish nerd stereotype, the emasculating treatment S&S received from National at the time, and how the changing nature of the Superman character may have impacted Siegel’s concept of Funnyman. So, while not essential, and in some sense a throwback to the earlier mode of comics history (sociology first, facts later) it does rate as an interesting oddity.

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9 Responses to “A Few Notes on Not So Funnyman”
  1. Scott Bukatman says:

    Interesting that he’s based on Danny Kaye, a jewish comic who was de-Semitized by Samuel Goldwyn (in much the same way as, previously, Eddie Cantor had been), turned into a white-bread, middle American figure. The authors seem to be on shakier ground all the time…

  2. Jeet Heer says:

    From what I’ve seen, the copious literature on “Jews and comics” suffers from the same problems Dan identifies with this book. A lot of these books seem half-baked or not very thoroughly researched. Usually they are written by someone who knows something about Jewish American history but not much about comics or conversely knows the comics history but relies on second hand sources for the Jewish history. I understand why this is a rich topic that people what to investigate, but this is a body of literature that needs to be challenged so we can get better work. (I say all this with the proviso that I haven’t read all the books and essays on this topic, so if there is something good out there, I’d like it pointed out to me.)

  3. Jeet Heer says:

    PS. I should add that when Ben Katchor was in Toronto he was rather scathing on the idea that there was any strong connection between Jews and comics. To him, the early comic book guys were plebian louts who knew very little about their ethnic heritage. Interestingly, Katchor was even dismissive of Milt Gross, who he felt just played Yiddish for laughs. He thought that Harry Hershfeld did a better job of conveying everday Jewish life and the daily vigor of Yiddish.

  4. patrick ford says:

    The strong connection is between Jews and comic books. Katchtor is correct the connection is not based on Jewish cultural heritage. Off the top of my head I can’t think of an early comic book creator speaking of his ethnic heritage. Their interests growing up were comic strips, films, books, the street. My impression is many of them saw themselves as poor, not as Jews.
    As pointed out by Gerard Jones in “Men of Tomorrow” DC publishers Jack Liebowitz, and Irwin Donenfeld had connections to, and were even friendly with famous mobsters like “Bugsy” Siegel, and Meyer Lansky.
    Gerard Jones indexes the “Jewish Experience” in his book. It isn’t a Jewish cultural heritage, it’s a social/economic heritage.
    David Hajdu pointed out in “The Ten-Cent Plague” that comic books being a “low class” business didn’t had few barriers, and you found a representation of minorities there as a result. Not only Jews, but women, Blacks, Asians, and other minorities found opportunity in the industry.

  5. Jeet Heer says:

    @Patrick Ford. I think that’s basically right. The comic book was a plebian form, thus it attracted many artists from a working class background, which in the 1930s and 1940s in New York meant many kids Jewish Americans (as well as many others with ancestors in Eastern and Central Europe, and also even a few African-Americans). Most of these Jewish-Americans weren’t especially conscious of their ethnicity, although a few became moreso later in life (Eisner being the classic case). Of course, there were ways in which their ethnic identity might have come through in their work even if they weren’t fully conscious of it. But still, this is a subject that requires a far more delicate and nuanced discussion than what we’ve so far seen.

  6. patrick ford says:

    From what I’ve seen the reality was miles from “Caviler and Clay.”
    My impression for the guys I’ve read about was a secular upbringing.
    The magic of early comic books is their “punk rock” kinship.
    Young kids, in love with comics, not “ready for prime time,” but full of youthful energy.
    There was also room for “King of Comedy” outsiders like Fletcher Hanks, and Basil Wolverton who’s work had a refinement of a type not in step with the big time (The Syndicate).
    If a person is committed, it doesn’t matter what outlet they have. If a person cares, and is not grinding out route formula the form will express their personality.
    The best of the lot were all cartoonists. They wrote and drew stories just as the language demanded.
    The downside was the publishers took advantage of youth, and even more so of weak bargaining position. And in the instances where there wasn’t a cartoonist (writer/artist) the publishers brought in writers who were often the opposite of the artists.
    The artists were almost without exception men/boys who loved comics. The writers (the ones who weren’t cartoonists) were almost entirely older men, recruited from the pulp magazines, who were basically hacks.

    The “story” is there were more women working in comic books than in other print media.
    This is likely true, and if it is, that is another minority which was represented.
    Most prominently Dorothy Woolfolk, a writer who doesn’t fit the mold mentioned above.

  7. thomas andrae says:

    Dear Dan:

    Thanks for mentioning my book and for your interesting review.

    There are a couple factual errors. Shuster did indeed draw Funnyman; he penciled the comic book stories. I have copies of the pencils that he drew for some of these tales. The Funnyman comic strip shows even more influence of his art, although he was assisted by ghosts.

    I didn’t explicitly claim that Siegel created The Prankster, but in fact he did. The Prankster first appears in a script that Siegel wrote. I was wrong abnout the Toyman being in his scripts.

    The Jewish influence on these stories is hard to prove but Siegel explicitly stated that he created Superman in response to the Nazi persecution of Jews. This is also true in his being inspired by the Golem film in his creation of Superman. In terms of Funnyman I find it interesting that it was only in stories about that character that Siegel used Yiddishisms, and no where else. Also, the representation of Funnyman’s masculinity seems to follow the Jewish stereotype of the feminized male, as does Kent’s persona– the figure of the schlemiel.

    Hope the above has been informative,

    Tom Andrae

    • Dan Nadel says:

      Hi Tom,

      Thanks for stopping by. I’m not so sure those are all errors. It’s pretty well acknowledged that Dick Ayers drew a chunk of the Funnyman comic books, and past about 1942, if not earlier, Shuster rarely worked without ghosts. So those pencils could be him, or more likely are his plus a studio. And I thought Don Cameron created The Prankster, but it looks like I stand corrected. My apologies. As for the Superman/Nazi connection: That seems unlikely, as the first iteration of Superman supposedly was created in 1934, just 1 year after Hitler rose to power. I can see how he would say that in hindsight, but the dates don’t really work. And the Golem film was but one of many influences. I’m not saying that, culturally, Siegel, as an assimilated Jew, wasn’t feeling the things you write about, but I think establishing those themes as dominant and uniquely “Jewish” (as opposed to universal to geek culture, depression-era fantasy, and teen angst) is the the tail wagging the dog.

  8. thomas andrae says:

    Dear Dan:

    Thanks for your rebuttal. Here are some further thoughts.

    Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in Jan., 1933; Superman was created in May, 1933. the Nazi party was formed in 1925 and its persecution of Jews well known in the 1920s and early 1930s.

    The golem film was only one influence on the creation of superman but there are Jewish accents about the character that have been well established by many scholars—e.g. the immigrant references, etc.. To my mind, Danny Fingeroth is a good reference. I shall show many more in a forthcoming work. The Jewish was one influence among others, but an important influence.

    Shuster worked with ghosts but established the basic look of Funnyman (including the layout, poses and faces of Funnyman) and his art was dominant in the newspaper comic strips.

    Thanks for the interesting discussion.

    Best Regards,

    Tom