(CLICK IMAGE FOR LARGER VERSION)
In superhero land, a "shazam" always turned Billy Batson, an otherwise common orphan, into Captain Marvel. In time for this week's arrival of Hanukkah, one "oi-vey" and Al Wiesner's Jewish comic book superhero, Shaloman, is up, up and away to his innocents in distress.
The Judaic cry for help sends a signal to Mount Israel, where a rock in the shape of the Hebrew letter "shin" (which Shaloman wears on his chest like Superman's "S") morphs into Shaloman, aka the "Man of Stone," the "Kosher Crusader" and the "Defender of the Downtrodden," the hero of oppressed Israelis and sworn enemy of criminals and terrorists everywhere. The Jewish greeting "shalom" means peace.
Shaloman has it all: indefinable strength, sensor vision, enhanced hearing and the ability to fly fast enough to create a vortex that launches him into orbit. He's clad in a skintight white bodysuit with navy blue trunks (the white and blue of the Israeli flag) with a gold belt. His yarmulke is white.
"I've created someone who is strong, who can keep the peace," says Warminster's Wiesner, a 77-year-old Korean War veteran and former hairdresser who worked in Center City, Logan and Oxford Circle neighborhoods for 45 years before retiring in 2000 to his artwork. "Today, there's more of a need for the good people because there're more bad people."
His comic book hero, who turns 20 years old next spring, surfaces twice a year, at Hanukkah and in the spring near Passover. The current issue, "Chanukah & the Holocaust," is unique. It's the first with a PG-12 rating, graphic violence and stories of living people, Holocaust survivors. He's tied Hanukkah to the Holocaust because in both instances his people were overcome by a foreign power.
In the current edition, Mr. Donald Nyer — an undisputable Hitler look-alike — plays a bigot "denier" (hence his name, his first initial "D" plus Nyer). As the book opens, he's on a street corner preaching that the Holocaust was a sympathy-attracting invention. That stance changes when Shaloman swoops down and takes him on a trip back in time for two history lessons.
First, they travel to 165 B.C. for Israel's victory for religious freedom when the Hasmoneans overcame the Greeks, rededicated their temple and witnessed one day's worth of holy oil burn for eight days — the miracle of Hanukkah.
Then, on the way back to 2007, they stop in Europe in the 1930s. It's when the book's PG-12 portion takes flight. Wiesner graphically depicts Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust: yellow-star markings, boxcar transport to forced labor camps, shootings, mass burial graves, medical experimentation and poison gas baths.
"People should know it really happened — it's not just a comic book story," the artist says. "By bar mitzvah age, our children should know their heritage."
The story provides an education for everyone — including a one-page year-by-year Holocaust time line — but mostly D. Nyer. He often covers his eyes, then come several epiphanies: "Now I can see it was true and just as bad as the survivors say!" Later, he says, "Horrible! It's so horrible!" Later still, "I was wrong! OK? I was wrong!"
At the end, Nyer's preaching again: "If people forget history, we are doomed to repeat it! Any people can become victims if the rest of the world becomes bystanders! We must remember these atrocities and say, 'Never again!'"
Wiesner's drawn some frames from actual photographs. He also incorporated survivor stories: Warrington's Daniel Goldsmith was taken into a Catholic convent, then a boys orphanage; the Northeast's Klara Vinokur was hidden with a willing gentile family; and Itka Zal, who smuggled food to save others.
(CLICK IMAGE FOR LARGER VERSION)
"The further away we get, the more survivors die, and then there are less of them to tell you firsthand what happened," Wiesner says. "As the years go by, it'll be in the same category as George Washington and Valley Forge — historical fact that you have no connection with."
Wiesner checked facts with Michael Berenbaum, an adjunct professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. "It's as accurate as it could be without living through it," Wiesner says, though he's of Holocaust age. "I lived through the Holocaust the only way I could — I was over here [his parents came to the U.S. from Austria-Hungary between 1908 and 1909]. We were safe, so to speak."
A comic book fan as a kid in West Philly and the Northeast, Weisner would pull ideas from multiple books — like Superman or The Triple Terrors — and redraw a panel or two. Eventually, he'd have a whole story, staple it, then concoct a title. He called his first Smash Comics, "like it was a brand name," he says.
About half of the 38 issues he's self-published (plus three initial Mark I Comics books about Shaloman and other characters) have sold in synagogues and Judaica and comic stores. His books would probably be more popular if they featured girls with torn clothes or vampires and gore, but he maintains they're for "people who just want a good story."
"[A Mormon] once told me you can comfortably show my books to your grandchildren and not be ashamed," Wiesner says. "Plus, he said you don't have to be Jewish to understand or appreciate my books."
He's designed and packaged them in volumes entitled "Adventures" (which includes "Tale of the Last Gold Bingo" and the only color issue, "Speak of the Devil") and "Legends" ("Meet the Hammer," "The Matzoh Chronicles" and others). The current series is "Sagas" (including "From the Cradle to the Brave," a Passover book about hope). Cost is $1.75 to $2.75 per issue (although the initial Shaloman-only issue, "The Unkosher Clone," brings $5). The complete set runs $99, including shipping. "Plus, they can be autographed upon request," Wiesner says.
He's also a freelance caricature artist, and recently drew six anti-violence cartoons for a National Liberty Museum contest that ends Dec. 31. One depicts a handshake and the caption, "Hands that are doing this don't have time for violence." His favorite is "Law & Order." He's drawn a policeman writing on his memo pad, "like a waitress," and two hands holding a menu that reads "Philly's Best Restaurants." The entrées: "No more violence," "No more murder," "No more arson," "No more robbery" and "No more hate." At the bottom, the menu offers "Brotherly love ... available upon request."
So when will Shaloman save Philadelphia?
"Hopefully the new administration can do it," Wiesner says. "Let's hope we don't need to get outside help. But if someone's in trouble and says, 'Oi-vay,' he'll be there."
Wiesner's comics are available at Bala Judaica, 222 Bala Ave., Bala Cynwyd, 610-664-1303; Fat Jack's Comicrypt, 2006 Sansom St., 215-963-0788; Comic Collection, 931 Bustleton Pike, Feasterville, 215-357-3332; and Rosenberg's Hebrew Bookstore, 409 Old York Road, Jenkintown, 215-884-1728. They're also sold at jewishstore.com and kewlju.com. Or write Mark I Comics, P.O. Box 5097, Philadelphia, Pa. 19111, or call 215-441-5108.