With Christmas songs, movies, TV specials, and other forms of festive entertainment permeating throughout pop culture as the weather gets colder, it should come as no surprise that Christmas comics are popular every December. From the recognizable hijinks of the Archie gang to a superheroic Santa Claus origin story that reimagines young St. Nick as a sexy action hero, there’s something for just about everyone at your local comic shop every holiday season.
As long as that holiday is Christmas.
Even so, one would think that since the comic book industry as we know it was built primarily by Jewish Americans, there would be more Chanukah comics. But let’s back up a bit.
Humans have been creating sequential art for millennia, so a broad definition of “comics” includes ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and medieval tapestries (see Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics for more on this). But the comic book industry as we’ve known it over the past century was mostly a Jewish American invention.
1935’s More Fun Comics was the first comic book to feature exclusively new material rather than reprinted strips which had previously been the standard of the day. Yet with 1938’s Action Comics #1, marking the first appearance of Superman, Jewish-American creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster forever changed the way we think about comics. Comics can be — and are — about anything and everything, but by ostensibly inventing the superhero genre, Siegel and Schuster arguably also invented the American comic book industry.
From there, the enormity of Jewish contributions to the development of the comic book industry was undeniable, especially Jews from poor immigrant families in New York City. Bill Finger and Bob Kane — the creators of Batman in 1939 — were both Jewish, as was Martin Nodell, who created the original Green Lantern the following year.
Captain America debuted in 1941 from Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, young Jewish creators who were concerned about Hitler’s rise to power overseas before the United States joined the Allied Powers in World War II. 20 years later, Kirby entered a pivotal new phase of his career teaming up with Jewish writer and editor Stan Lee as they co-created the Marvel Comics superhero universe, starting with the Fantastic Four. Together, they’d also co-create The Avengers, X-Men, Black Panther, and dozens of other characters you’ve heard of.
Superheroes weren’t the only kinds of comics Jews left their mark on. Superheroes waned in popularity following World War II, so when Simon and Kirby returned from their military service, they invented the popular 1950’s genre of romance comics, with an eye toward female readers. Hawkman and Sgt. Rock creator Joe Kubert was one of the most influential artists of the war comics subgenre, and founded the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art in 1976.
EC Comics publisher William Gaines co-founded Mad in 1952 (with influential Jewish-American cartoonist and editor Harvey Kurtzman) and was instrumental in the rise of controversial crime and horror comics. Although senate subcommittee hearings led to the creation of the censorial Comics Code and the shuttering of EC, Gaines is remembered by many as a champion of First Amendment rights.
Then there’s The Spirit creator Will Eisner, for whom the comics industry awards The Eisners is named after. He popularized the term “graphic novel” with 1978’s A Contract With God — a decidedly grown-up collection of vignettes surrounding Depression-era Jewish tenement life in New York — and was among the first to formally study comics in an academic manner with books like Comics and Sequential Art.
Other influential Jewish comic book creators include Harvey Pekar, who wrote the groundbreaking autobiographical comic American Splendor for over 30 years; Art Spiegelman, who emerged out of the underground “comix” scene to create Maus, the Pulitzer prize-winning account of his father’s experiences in the Holocaust; and Neil Gaiman, whose early success as the co-creator and writer of the acclaimed fantasy comic The Sandman led to his continued popularity as a prose novelist, screenwriter, and more.
So with all of these Jewish creators laying the foundations of what we now know as “the comic book industry,” why is it still hard to find Hanukkah comics every holiday season?
There are a few reasons, and one of them is quite simple: Hanukkah isn’t all that important. Don’t get me wrong, Hanukkah’s great! There’s presents and chocolate gelt and fried foods like sufganiyot and latkes. It’s a fun holiday and I look forward to it every year. But historically, it’s been considered a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar. The most important Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are known as the “high holy days.” That’s not to say Hanukkah doesn’t have theological significance, but it’s not foundational to Judaism the way that, say, Passover is.
The perception (at least among non-Jews) is that Hanukkah is as important to Jews as Christmas is to Christians, and is largely a result of the overwhelming influence of Christian hegemony in the United States. For example, up until the past several decades, the practice of exchanging presents was not directly associated with Hanukkah. But when you’re a Jewish kid in America watching your Christian friends receive extravagant gifts from their families and Santa, wouldn’t you want presents too? Hanukkah was always a festive winter holiday anyway, so it made enough sense for a generation of Jewish-Americans to add gift-giving to more traditional Hanukkah festivities like dreidels.
Plus, let’s face it: way more people around the world celebrate Christmas than Hanukkah. Only about 2%of the American population identifies as Jewish, while Jews only represent 0.2% of the global population. Clearly, Hanukkah content does not have the inherent mass appeal that Christmas content does. That’s likely why the animated Adam Sandler film Eight Crazy Nights — probably the only Hanukkah movie with a real cultural footprint — is simultaneously a Christmas movie.
There’s a larger conversation to be had about how white Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, much like Italian Americans or Irish Americans, were eventually folded into the American perception of “whiteness,” that I have neither the expertise nor space here to dive deeper into. Yet the fact remains that Jews have been and still are a minority. Antisemitism has never gone away, and it was especially rampant in the 1930s and 40s, the comics Golden Age.
There’s an anecdote about Jack Kirby that illustrates what I’m talking about. He and Joe Simon had recently released Captain America Comics #1 in 1941, and it was an instant smash. You may have seen the iconic cover: Captain America punching Hitler in the face as a Nazi bullet bounces off of Cap’s shield. “The only real politics I knew was that if a guy liked Hitler, I’d beat the stuffing out of him and that would be it,” Kirby said years later.
He meant it. One day, a group of Nazi sympathizers gathered outside of Simon and Kirby’s studio in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, trying to intimidate the young men who had dared mock their führer in a hit comic book. Kirby, a short but notoriously tough guy who was never afraid of a fight, shouted at the agitators from the window before calling their bluff. By the time he got downstairs, fully ready to kick Nazi butt, they’d run away.
The story is beloved among comics history buffs for good reason, but it demonstrates the seriousness of anti-Jewish (and, more broadly, anti-immigrant) sentiment in American life at that time. It was dangerous to be openly, visibly Jewish, and it’s reflected in the work of some of the most formative Jewish cartoonists.
That’s part of the reason why Siegel and Schuster (as well as other creators that followed) made several coded references to Superman’s implicit Jewishness, even though he wasn’t and never has been “canonically” Jewish. Would the world have embraced Superman the way they did had he debuted in 1938 as unambiguously Jewish? Call me cynical, but I doubt it. Nonetheless, it’s easy to see how Siegel and Schuster were influenced by their own upbringing: Superman’s escape from a home that had grown unsafe; the parallels to baby Moses; being forced to hide his true identity when he presented himself in public as Clark Kent; the comparisons to the heroic Golem of Jewish lore.
Even 20 years later, during the peak of comics’ Silver Age in the early 1960s, none of the seemingly-countless superheroes co-created by Stan Lee were explicitly Jewish. Ben Grimm, a.k.a. The Thing of the Fantastic Four, was clearly inspired by his co-creator and Lee collaborator Jack Kirby (they were both cigar-chomping hotheads who grew up in the Lower East Side), but his Jewishness wouldn’t be made canon until decades later.
Peter Parker/Spider-Man, whom Lee created with artist Steve Ditko, was also coded as Jewish. He lived in the historically Jewish neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens, peppered his speech with Yiddish, and regularly asked himself the kind of anguished ethical questions that may be familiar to anyone who’s taken a Torah study class. The most straightforward indication of Spider-Man’s Jewishness was in the 2018 film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, when a montage introducing Peter B. Parker includes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of Peter “breaking the glass” at his wedding to Mary Jane — a staple of traditional Jewish weddings.
Like Superman, Spidey has been known to celebrate Christmas, but that often feels less like an indication of the characters’ religiosity than a compromise with mainstream expectations. Christianity is the “default” religion in America, so if comic book characters can’t celebrate Hanukkah, they might as well celebrate Christmas like everyone else.
Hanukkah comics — like Hanukkah movies, TV specials, songs, you-name-its — almost certainly will never be as ubiquitous and Christmas content, and that’s fine. Christmas is an exponentially more popular holiday than Hanukkah, and is more important to the people who celebrate it than Hanukkah is to Jews. Hanukkah is a fine holiday on its own terms, without forced comparisons to Christmas. That said, Hanukkah comics have quietly become more common in recent years, especially in Marvel and DC holiday anthologies that, naturally, mostly feature Christmas stories.
My favorite Hanukkah comic is “Coming Down Easy,” a short story from the DC Holiday Special 2017. Written by Tom King with art by Francesco Francavilla and letters by Clem Robins, it tells the story of Private Hammerman (a reference to the heroic Maccabees in the story of Hanukkah), a Jewish member of Easy Company led by classic World War II character Sgt. Rock. Hammerman gets fatally injured while escorting a Nazi POW through the snowy woods, and manages to stay alive for eight nights in a tense standoff with the prisoner.
I do, however, have to give a special mention to “Hot Claws for Hanukkah,” a single-page gag comic by Charles Soule, Ryan Browne, Jordan Boyd, and Travis Lanham from 2018’s The Merry X-Men Holiday Special. Those who don’t regularly read X-Men comics probably won’t get the joke, but it’s enough to make fans laugh out loud. The anthology also features glimpses of how Jewish X-Men Kitty Pryde and Magneto celebrate Hanukkah, not to mention 20-odd fun and funny short Christmas stories.
I’m also fond of 2018’s Rugrats: C is for Chanukah, a one-shot written by Daniel Kibblesmith and Cullen Crawford, with art by Kate Sherron and letters by Jim Campbell. As a 90s baby, the Rugrats Chanukah episode was formative to me, as was the Passover special that preceded it. When I was four, it meant the world to find out that Tommy Pickles, the lead character of my favorite cartoon, was happily Jewish. Not only does this all-ages comic perfectly capture the humor and heart of classic Rugrats, but its plot centers around a delightfully kid-friendly take on the Golem.
There are morsels of Hanukkah comics if you look for them, but speaking strictly for myself here, I can’t say I go out of my way to seek them out. If my non-Jewish friends need a month’s worth of Christmas-themed pop culture to get in the Christmas spirit, that’s fine with me. I love Elf and Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” as much as the next person. When it comes to Hanukkah, all I need are latkes, my family…and maybe one or two of the four different versions of Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song.”