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Archive for the ‘Popular culture’ Category

Jack Kirby's cover for Captain America #1

Over at the Globe and Mail last week I published an article about the evolution of Captain America. A few errors crept into the article, so I’ve tidied it up. The preferred version is below:

It was the punch that sold a million comics, the sock in the jaw that amazed newsstand readers in 1941 and still carries resonance to this day. Right on the cover of Captain America #1, the star-spangled superhero gives a knuckle-sandwich to none other than Adolf Hitler while a group of Nazi storm troopers stare on in amazement.

To understand why Captain America was an instant sensation when he was first created and remains enough of an iconic figure to headline a Hollywood summer blockbuster, it’s necessary to remember the historical circumstances that gave birth to him. Captain America was co-created by two young Jewish cartoonists, named Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg). As historian Gerard Jones argues in his 2004 book Men of Tomorrow, Mr. Simon and Mr. Kirby were the children of immigrant Jews and both strongly identified with American nationalism.

“What Simon and Kirby together brought to the superhero was the passion of the immigrant, of the Jew,” Jones noted. “Captain America brought … metaphors of masking to a new poignancy. Steve Rogers shuffles into a secret lab scrawny and slump shouldered, then is given an injection of a super-solider serum and is transformed into an Adonis. … The underfed ghetto kid transformed into a roof-rattling power by seizing American opportunities, the weary old-country survivor reborn as the new fighting Jew through the crucible of American freedom and violence. And through that immigrant passion Simon and Kirby captured an entire national awakening: America the provincial stirring itself to become a world power.”

The cover of Captain America #1 made a spectacular impression because it came out in March of 1941, 10 months before America was attacked at Pearl Harbor and entered the war. At the time, much of the country was still isolationist and many in the media were afraid of featuring Nazis as explicit villains for fear of offending those who wanted America to stay out of the war. While there had been patriotic superheroes before Captain America, notably an also-ran called The Shield, no previous character was so forthrightly advocating that America become a global dynamo.

“It was a provocation for intervention as well as an anti-Nazi commentary,” notes Matthew J. Costello, a professor of political science at Saint Xavier University and author of the book Secret Identity Crisis, in an e-mail interview. Since his birth as a Nazi-fighter, Captain America has remained the most topical of superheroes, with adventures that have reflected the vicissitudes of American foreign policy from the early Cold War to Vietnam to the current war on terror. Yet despite the changing political tenor of the times, Captain America has persisted as a symbol of American exceptionalism, the belief in America’s invincibility, its inherent goodness and its world-historical destiny.

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Salt Lake Tribune May 05, 1913

While researching something else I came across this curious article from the Salt Lake Tribune of May 05, 1913. This article praising Harry Cooper as as “Jewish impersonator.” It’s not clear from this article whether Cooper is Jewish himself or just an actor who specializes in playing Jews. According the article the actor was “a wonderful  impersonator of the typical Jew.”

So the question I have is: to what degree was being a “Jewish impersonator” a recognized profression? Or was this just an awkward phrase invented by a reporter of the Salt Lake Tribune? Was Cooper just a Jewish comedian, a precursor to Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld? Or is this something different? Any advice from historians out there would be appreciated.

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Art Young, "The Political Circus" from 1921

Art Young (1866-1943) was arguably the greatest radical cartoonist America has ever produced and also one of the very few political cartoonists whose work gives me continuous aesthetic pleasure. Via my friend Warren Bernard,  here is an Art Young cartoon from 1921 which seems surprisingly timely.

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Below is a fascinating interview of Cyrus Habib by Chesa Boudin; I am reprinting it from The Rhodes Project. I am proud to count Cyrus as a friend, and I have also had the pleasure of meeting Chesa on a few occasions. Apologies for my obscure Hegelian pun in the title of this post.

Chesa Boudin earned two master’s degrees from Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship (Illinois, Merton and St. Antony’s, 2003). In April 2009, Scribner published his latest book, Gringo: A Coming of Age in Latin America. He is currently in his second year at the Yale Law School.

Cyrus Habib (Washington and St. Johns, 2003) an interview

Chesa Boudin

At the Bon Voyage Weekend in September 2003, my class of newly-selected Rhodes Scholars descended on the Jury’s Hotel in DuPont Circle. Cyrus Habib (Washington and St. Johns) was easily the best dressed member of the group. His Armani tie complimented his tailored shirt and crisp pinstripe suit. He had a penchant for details – manicured fingernails, a unique wrist watch, cufflinks, and matching accessories. No matter the setting, he had on perfect designer sunglasses and would often switch between several in the course of a day. This focus on the aesthetic may seem odd for an intellectual powerhouse like Cyrus – or for the introduction to this interview. However, his attention to visual detail is particularly noteworthy because Cyrus is completely blind.

As a child Cyrus was diagnosed with Retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer that attacks the retina. In his case it struck one eye, and then the other. He was lucky to receive world-class treatment that prevented the cancer from metastasizing to his brain; he was unlucky in that it left him with no eyesight whatsoever and unable even to distinguish light from dark. Unlike someone blind from birth, Cyrus has an abundance of vivid visual memory from before he lost his sight. Since Cyrus lost his vision in 1989, he imagines everyone today with mullet haircuts and plaid polyester pants. While he can no longer see red or green, he has an acute visual image of those colors and knows not to mix and match them except during the Christmas season. And if Cyrus has a conversation about a skyscraper or a forest, he can actually picture the subject in his head, rather than understanding or imagining it through verbal context as someone blind from birth would have to do. These memories, combined with an uncanny sense of physical space allow him to navigate the world so smoothly that on first encounters he often passes as not being blind at all. Yet for the last twenty years his brain has not accumulated any new visual memory, leaving space to develop in other areas – his sense of smell and hearing, his memory, and his ability to master complex information quickly epitomize the word “extraordinary.”

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It won. This narrow, simplistic, disappointing little film won the Oscar.

No, I’m not shocked. Nor am I disappointed with the Academy — though it has been on an admirably strong run in this century (No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire), this is also the group that elevated both Shakespeare in Love and Titanic to the pantheon. But I am annoyed that such a flawed movie has managed to achieve this amount of acclaim, and that The Hurt Locker is, even more gratingly, regarded now as an “important” film. It is not important – not in the way, at least, that great works of art (cinema included) are capable of being.

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Tubby: a boy with a rich imagination.

Over at the Inkstuds radio program I spent a very enriching hour talking with Gail Singer and Frank Young about the work of John Stanley, the journeyman cartoonist who wrote the great Little Lulu comic book series of the 1940s and 1950s.

One of the impressive things about Stanley’s work is that his characters do seem real, as witness the way Frank and Gail could easily talk at length about the personalities of Lulu and her friends.

At one point Gail asked what Lulu would be like if she grew up and suggested that she might have become Barbara Amiel, the conservative journalist who married Conrad Black, Lord of Crossharbour and convicted felon.

Barbara Amiel and Conrad Black: great comic book characters.

Frank and I demurred from this idea. Lulu seems much smarter than Amiel (a.ka. Lady Black of Crossharbour). Lulu is  also kinder and more civic-minded, and in general much more of an authentic human being, although she is only made of pen and ink. Still, Gail’s notion was suggestive in one direction.

If Lulu isn’t quite like Amiel, it is true that there are similarities between Lulu’s best male friend Tubby Tompkins and Conrad Black. Both Black and Tubby can be described as romantic egoists who try to bend reality to their wills, often with disastrous results. Just as Tubby likes to play detective, Black likes to imagine himself as a great military leader such as Napoleon. Tubby, a pre-teen boy, is fond of toy soldiers, as is Lord Black, who remains somewhat boyish even behind bars.

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Mickey Rooney: The Father of Hip Hop?

Off and on I’ve been reading National Review for three decades now, which comes as a surprise to friends since I don’t share any of the magazine’s politics. But National Review has published some fine writers, along with the usual assortment of conservative hacks.  First and foremost, the magazine published many reviews by Guy Davenport, one of the greatest essayists of the last century. And of course Hugh Kenner was one of the great literary critics and a master stylist. Below that Olympian level there were many excellent writers: D. Keith Mano, Richard Brookhiser, Garry Wills, Joan Didion, Arlene Croce, Theodore Strugeon, and Jeffrey Hart. Even Joseph Sobran was capable of a fine turn of phrase when he reined in his racism and paranoia about Jewish power.

Having said that, there were always issues on which the magazine could not be trusted. Off the top of my head, I could never believe anything the magazine wrote about black people, the civil rights movement (they once asserted that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a poor public speaker!), intelligence tests, Latin American dictatorships (especially Chile), South Africa (and really the whole continent of Africa), climate change, the Viet Nam war, the theory of evolution, anything to do with the Middle East or Islam, supply side economics, the Shakespeare authorship question (the magazine allowed Sobran to indulge his pet theory that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays). This is only a partial list but gives you an idea of the magazine’s blind spots.

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