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Series explores how Superman can take on immigrant issues

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

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If a group of people were asked to describe the iconic superhero Superman in three words, “immigrant” would most likely not be one of them. But an English professor at Ohio State says Superman, and many other comic book characters, are products of immigration in the United States.

As Republican presidential hopefuls battle each other in deciding who has the best strategy on immigration reform, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, in cooperation with the English Department at OSU, is bringing attention to the topic in their four-part series, “Immigration in Comics.”

The series’ first segment was held Jan. 9, but the second part will be hosted from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Jan. 30 in the Mortar Board Centennial Suite (room 202) of the William Oxley Thompson Memorial Library. The session will feature “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” by Michael Chabon.

“It is important to realize that this issue of immigration is not new,” said Jenny Robb, curator at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. “This is something that the United States has been dealing with for many, many decades since the 19th century.”

The idea to create a forum on immigration through comic books and graphic novels came when Robb and Jared Gardner, an English professor at OSU who is leading the series, heard about OSU’s campus-wide discussion, “Conversation on Immigration.”

“It struck me that there are a lot of comic books, or graphic novels as they are called now, that deal with the issue of immigration and would be very interesting to discuss,” Robb said. “So, I contacted Jared Gardner who is in the English department, and who is the director of the Popular Culture Studies program. … I asked him if he would be interested in leading this (series).”

Advanced registration is required to attend the series due to limited spacing. Robb said she was pleased with the audience’s size and diversity in the first reading and discussion. The registration list was full.

Steve Jones, a fourth-year in art, said the tales comic books tell will garner more attention for immigration because of the relative novelty of comic books as a medium.

“Using any kind of media that is not necessarily mainstream … would get people’s attention,” Jones said. “They would be like ‘Oh hey, what’s this?’ Instead of, ‘Oh yeah, on the news, whatever.'”

Where the first segment, “Immigration in Comics,” focused on the early 20th century migration of Japanese immigrants to the U.S., the second will be centered primarily on the role of first- and second-generation immigrants in the 1930s during the rise of the comic book industry. Featured in that category are Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of the DC Comics’ character, Superman.

“Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster were both Jewish kids from Cleveland who created Superman in high school. And Superman himself is an immigrant story,” Gardner said. “It’s the story of a young boy who gets sent from his home planet to the middle of America and takes on a new identity and lives always like all immigrants, like all Americans torn between two different identities.”

Historically, animated cartoons and newspaper comic strips were used to promote racially charged stereotypes.

In Gardner’s mind, when immigrants, or children of immigrants, use the form of comics to tell their experiences of immigration, they are able to rewrite their stories that were once exploited by using the same form of media that was used against them.

“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” is the story of Joe Kavalier and his escape from the Nazi occupation of Europe during the rise of the comic book industry in the U.S. In the story, Kavalier meets up with his cousin Clay in New York and they create their own Superman-esque comic book superhero who is a stand-in for the experience of being a Jewish-American immigrant in the late 1930s.

To register to attend the second reading and discussion of “Immigration in Comics” on Monday, email Nancy Courtney at courtney.24@osu.edu, or call (614) 688-8771. Name, phone number and email address, if available, are required for registration.

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