It’s a rule of thumb that film festivals are only as good as their sidebar presentations, and by that standard, this year’s Toronto Jewish Festival looks to be in good shape.
Curated by Ellie Skrow, People of the Comic Book, considers the influence of Jewish writers, animators and publishers on a century of American popular culture, a mandate broad enough to include screenings of both 1972’s X-rated cult cartoon Fritz the Cat and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Skrow has also lined up an impressive array of guests, including the well-known author — and comic-book expert — Paul Buhle, who will host a panel discussion with well-known contemporary cartoonists Ben Ketchor and Harvey Pekar at the Al Green Theatre Sunday.
“I seem to have become the go-to guy for this sort of thing,” says Buhle, a retired Senior Lecturer at Brown University who has also written extensively about the history of American radicalism and the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s.
“It’s a gigantic question,” says Buhle when asked if he can account for the influence and prominence of Jewish artists in the American comic-book industry. “A big part of it is the role that (Jews) played in the pulp magazine trade in New York in the 1910s through the 1940s. It was an industry that was easy to enter into — at miserable wages — and then rise through the ranks — an early parallel to the Jewish role in Hollywood.”
On this note, Buhe explains that Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is a film with deep cultural resonance.
“It’s a film about Hollywood in the late 1940s, and how a shared vision amongst artists of a business independent of the power of the banks was crushed. That’s how Jewish victims of the blacklist tended to see Roger Rabbit. It’s also a film that marks a turning point in the history of animation, because it showed that animation could be marketed to adult audiences — and thus made The Simpsons possible.”
Buhle says that he appreciates TJFF’s attempt to extend their programming into the realm of animation, and also in some cases past the screen altogether: space will be be made for an exhibit put together by students from Buhle’s former class at Brown.
“It’s greatest value, besides showing a wealth of illustrations, is in suggesting what 19-year-old kids are interested in the history of comics,” says Buhle. “So sex would be one big topic. I described this class as ten aggressive girls and four nervous boys, so depictions of angst or embarrassment are obviously going to be central.”