WESTPORT – If the pen is mightier than the sword, and a picture is worth a thousand words, what happens when word and image collide?
Moved by the turmoil of the Middle East and his childhood love of superheroes, professional illustrator Arlen Schumer of Westport decided to use his craft to make a difference for Israel.
A prolific artist and author of several histories of comic books, Schumer also lectures widely on the art-form.
He spoke with the Ledger about his passion for superheroes and Judaism, and how the two came together in his latest creation, a Jewish superhero for our time.
How did the classic American comic books influence your early and professional life?
A: I grew up enamored of the work of Hall of Fame comic-book artist Neal Adams, the most influential artist of the late ’60s and early ’70s, whose photo-realistic style changed the look of comic-book art itself. He was the inspiration for my wanting to become a comic-book artist when I was a teenager. But by the time I got to art school, I ended up majoring not in illustration, but in graphic design, which seemed to cover the entire spectrum of verbal and visual communication, and which appealed to me more. Upon graduation, I ended up working in New York City, first for the graphics departments of WNET Thirteen and NBC, then as an assistant art director in an ad agency. After that gig ended in 1983, I wasn’t sure what to do. I knew Adams was operating a commercial art studio, so I worked up the courage – easy when you’re out of work – to go up there and show him my sketchbook. I was hired the next day. I ended up being his right-hand man, penciling comps, storyboards, and animatics for ad agencies, which he would ink in black line and others would color. I worked there for a little over two years, then left to be a freelance artist.
At the time, Neal was doing mostly advertising production art, which was preventing him from taking on all the finished-illustration comic book-styled ads that were coming in. I reasoned that one guy could make a pretty good living just on the work he was turning away, and that was what I set out to do full-time upon leaving Continuity in 1986.
Neal had previously done, I thought, the best comic advertising to date. I could never compete with him on a pure drawing level – who could? – but I thought I could differentiate our work by emphasizing overall graphic design and good hand-lettering, influenced mostly by the early ’60’s DC covers and house ads by Joe Leterese.
Were you interested in pursuing a career in comic book art?
A: I had no desire to do comic-book art for the companies, as I was probably just too slow for the field, and didn’t really have the burning desire to tell stories anyway; I had more of an illustration and poster-design mentality. My goal was to bring comic art into the commercial art world with the same impact Roy Lichtenstein had brought it into the fine art world; here is where I felt I could do my part to uplift the medium in the eyes of the mainstream.
Since 1986, I’ve created hundreds of images, with my most visible mainstream work probably being an ad for HBO’s “Tales From the Crypt” that appeared throughout the ’90’s, a series of Trojan Man ads, magazine covers for Forbes, Publishers Weekly, The New York Times Magazine, and New York Magazine, an eight-page comic on the story of Charles and Di that appeared in the 20th- anniversary issue of People in ’94, and recent illustrations for Entertainment Weekly, Vibe, Rolling Stone, TV Guide, Time, and Newsweek. I’m probably only known to the comic-book world through a series of ads for Three Musketeers that appeared in comics in the early ’90s, and a series of Superman and Batman pop-up greeting cards for PopShots that came out in the mid-’90s.
How was Captain Israel born?
A: In 2002, I was watching the second Intifada unfold and thinking, how can I help Israel? I was never an organizational Jew, so I didn’t know how to plug into existing efforts. I thought about Captain America and how he was created by two Jewish artists, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, and how he was used to galvanize Americans behind the war effort. In 1940 and 1941, Captain America stumped for U.S. War Bonds.
I thought, if two Jews could create Captain America, one can create Captain Israel. So I made an initial image, a superhero standing by the Temple in Jerusalem holding a Star of David shield. My idea was create a fundraising poster that could be up in every Jewish home, and the money would go to Israel to help victims of bombings and terror attacks, and a costumed Captain Israel could make public appearances for the cause.
I sent out the Captain Israel image to a bunch of Jewish organizations, along with some fundraising ideas, including to StandWithUs [an international organization dedicated to bringing peace to the Middle East through education and challenging the misinformation associated with the region], which was only a year old in 2002.
In 2002 I get a little nibble from StandWithUs and then I don’t hear from them. Picture the calendar pages in a movie flipping month after month for eight years. Last fall I’m sitting at my computer and I get an email out of the blue from the executive director, Jerry Rothstein saying that they want to do Captain Israel.
The first issue debuted late last year.
Many superheroes are the alter-egos or reflections of their creators. How does Captain Israel relate to your own Jewish upbringing and identity?
A: I’m a typically assimilated American Jew. One of the things I’ve always admired about Judaism is that we welcome debate and opposing opinions, and even debate with God. It’s what keeps the religion alive and healthy.
When I came up with the idea, at first I was hesitant because I don’t keep the mitzvot. I thought, what kind of Jew am I? I’m as assimilated as they come but am I a Jew, and am I proud of my Judaism? I like to believe that if your heart’s in the right place, God’s not going to look at me and say, “You didn’t keep the Sabbath, you didn’t keep kosher,” and there will be a long list, but I’m hoping he’ll say that, on the other hand, that light unto nations idea did some good, and maybe outweighed the 613 mitzvot I break every day.
I believe that American Jews have to basically stand up and be proud of their Judaism. I find that most are in the closet, but when I’m in a public space, I’ll come right out and say that I’m Jewish. It’s essential to get American Jews who are in positions of power and the public eye to stand up for their Judaism. Do you think the Nazis had one gas chamber for Orthodox Jews and one for Reform Jews? Our enemies laugh when they see us arguing because in their minds, we’re all going down together.
Antisemitism is like a Kraft Single: you peel one off the top and it’s right there, just beneath the surface. I thought that a concept like Captain Israel – a proud, strong Jew – may be how you get American Jews to at least acknowledge their Judaism so that we don’t make the same mistake as the German Jews did in the ’30s.
One of your lecture topics is “Jews ‘n’ Comics.” How does Captain Israel fit into that picture?
A: There have been a couple of Jewish superheroes, like Shalom Man, but they were more self-deprecating. Mad Magazine had some Jewish-y, nebbishy superheroes. Captain Israel is the first unapologetically Jewish, take-no-prisoners superhero, unabashedly inspired by Captain America. The tagline, “a Superhero for our time” has two meanings, referring to the present and what’s happening in Israel and the Middle East, and that we Jews have created enough for others; now it’s time to create for ourselves.
Captain Israel’s uniform is based on the Israeli flag. His armband is a tefillin design and he has the letter “Shin” on his forehead, for “Shechina,” the name for the presence of God. He wields a Star of David shield and a menorah.
The first issue of Captain Israel talks about Jewish history, up until the establishment of the State of Israel. The second issue will deal with the Global BDS Movement, a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel. With a possible vote coming up in the UN this fall on a Palestinian state, I’m hoping to create a third issue as a call to action.
This is what I’m trying to do to promote Judaism, and the strong Jew. Jews are portrayed as wimps because of the Holocaust, but don’t we have great Jewish warriors in our tradition? Masada, the Warsaw Ghetto, the modern Israeli soldier. I incorporate positive images of the Israeli army defending the country, led by a Jewish superhero – based on the images of Captain America leading American troops against the Nazis during World War II.
The one way Jews can fight is with our wit and witticism and humor and creative smarts and talent. I’m doing my part and I’m lucky enough to have an organization like StandWithUs behind me.
To learn more about Captain Israel and StandWithUs: www.standwithus.org. Read an interview StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein in the Jewish Ledger here.
To learn more about Arlen Schumer and his work: www.arlenschumer.com