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Monday, March 7, 2011

COMIC BOOK COMPULSIVE — Seymour My Son/More Seymour

While the core Riverdale Gang remains exclusively white Archie (the company) has done a fairly good job of introducing kids of color into their comics.  Currently attending Riverdale High is Raj who’s Indian, Japanese Kumi and Mexican Toño.  And a quick trip to Wikipedia (the lazy writer’s best friend) shows that while they may now show up in the stories often enough there’s another half dozen Asian and Latino kids in the class roles.  And if you really want to talk diversity there’s Kevin Keller, Archie Comic first openly gay character (which, to me, holds the promise that Archie has a closeted gay character they’re keeping in reserve until they really need a lot of free publicity).

But did you know that in 1963 Archie had a Jewish character named Seymour?

To put this comic into historical context in the early 1960′s American popular culture discovered Jews.  Of course there’s always been an undercurrent of Jewish humor running though it but with a only a couple exceptions (like The Goldbergs, a comedy-drama which ran on radio from 1929 to 1946 and television from 1949 to 1956) it stayed for the most part subterranean.  You didn’t often even hear the word ‘Jew’, even in well meaning attempts to deal with racial intolerance, because it was so often used as an insult.  Which is how we came to have the less threatening, less definitive  Jewish (to me it always sounds like ‘I’m not exactly a Jew, but kind of, you know, Jew like).  The thinking apparently being that the word is a trigger, you use it and not only do you agitate anti-Semites you bring ugly anti-Semitic attitudes to the surface of people who don’t consider themselves to be anti-Semites.  So in an attempt to be ‘sensitive’  it seems to have been decided that the politest, most supportive thing mainstream, American society (which was always presumptively assumed to be Christian by default) could do for Jews would be to pretend they didn’t exist.

That started to change in the 1960′s.  Like…

The 1960 movie The Little Shop of Horrors which is full of blatant Jewish humor (a character is named Mrs. Shiva!).

In 1961 Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner starting doing their The 2000 Year Old skits on television and records where Brooks spoke in an obvious Jewish accent.

But the direct ‘inspiration’ for Seymour was almost certainly Alan Sherman’s 1962 My Son, the Folk Singer. At the time it was the fastest-selling record album and spawned hit novelty single Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah. I could try to explain what was going on  but I think I’ll just quote a paragraph from an article Shine on, Harvey Bloom: Why Alan Sherman made us laugh I fought at The Free Library:


“There was once a time in American life when being Jewish was, in itself, a funny thing. A Jewish name was enough to make its owner a comic figure in a joke, a story, a film, a television show, or a song; Jewish delicacies were funny; Jewish mannerisms were funny; Jewish ways of speaking were funny – well, enough already, you get my point.”

As we all know Archie Comics loves to jump on the bandwagon of a passing fad so in 1963 they came out with the one-shot comic Seymour My Son which was also published as the Belmont Books paperback “My Son the Teenager: A cartoon satire by a celebrated father who prefers anonymity”.  Instead of being strictly a story the material in Seymour is just a day in the life of the character (which of course involves Archie-type teen misadventures) that’s narrated by his comically exasperated father.

It’s a fairly unusual comic for Archie  to have the adult be the point of view character in one of their comics and while comically exasperated fathers are not unknown in Archie Comics there’s definitely a bit more of an edge here than can be found between Archie and his dad.  If anything  the relationship between Seymour and his dad kind of reminds me of Herbert T. Gillis’ attitude towards his son in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (a then contemporary TV sit-com).

Seymour My Son was written Frank Doyle and drawn by Dan DeCarlo and while not really all that different from other Archie comics of the time it’s still absolutely solid material.

The issue ended with this page, not just asking for feedback from readers but willing to to pay for it.

Apparently “My Son the Teenager” was something of a failure but Archie was willing to give Seymour another chance so in the same year published More Seymour which was also done by Doyle and DeCarlo. The relationship between Seymour and his dad was the same but Seymour became the point of view character.

It’s important to note there isn’t anything explicitly Jewish, either religiously or culturally, about Seymour My Son or More Seymour.  It’s implied, a reader is supposed to assume they’re Jewish from the title “My Son, The Teenager”  as well as Seymour’s dad’s exaggerated gestures and body language.  Seymour and his dad are what I like to call Stealth Jews.

It seems insane but even in today’s world it seems like while the majority of America seems to be ‘o.k.’ with Jews and what is perceived to be Jewish culture and Jewish humor, at least on television (can you imagine a bigger hit than Seinfeld ?) Hollywood regularly refuses to identify Jewish characters as Jews.   I could give you endless examples but the most obvious, recent one is undoubtedly Dr. Henry “Hank” Lawson from the USA series Royal Pains.  It’s pretty clearly implied that the character, his brother and especially their father are Jewish.  USA has made a series of public service announcements to promote tolerance where various actors from their shows announce their religious affiliation (or lack thereof) to the camera.   And the one featuring the actor who plays Dr. Lawson, Mark Feurerstein, has the line is “I’m Jewish …. obviously”*

My best guess; this is a conversation that America still just isn’t comfortable having.

In 1963 Archie launched two new characters that were drawn by Dan DeCarlo; the other was She’s Josie — we know what happened to her Poor Seymour just disappeared without so much as a cameo in the background of an issue of Archie & Friends. I can’t actually say that I’m dying to see the return of Seymour & Dad, but would it hurt to have them make an appearance in a story that acknowledges Hanukkah Harry visits Riverdale?   Plus, they could finally give his father a first name.

*BTW and FYI; on Royal Pains Dr. Lawson lives like so much Magnum on the estate of a wealthy German nobleman so, maybe it’s the elephant in the room, but you’d think that at some point somebody would say something about it.


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