The life of Herb Perr, as seen by his son Joey—the scriptwriter and artist of this volume—is a slice of lower-class Jewish-American social history, presented in the format of a serious, well-wrought comic. You could call it a graphic nonfiction novel, even, documenting ordinary Jewish life between the starvation-and-tuberculosis 1890s and the prosperous suburban era of the 1950s-’70s and beyond.
Like many other nonfiction novels, including the Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965) and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979), both prominent murder books, Hands Up, Herbie! delves into the lower depths, where criminality is anything but abnormal. At the same time, it is a portrait of the artist as a young man. Joey Perr also gives us scenes from his own life as a college art teacher and sometime social critic and peace activist. In short, he is the left-liberal academic notoriously hated by the ultra-right but anonymous on the streets of Brooklyn—his story told in an art form once seen as coming from the wrong side of the tracks.
Let us ponder, for a moment, the long arc of the comics, bending towards respectability. The very phrase “comic art” is of recent vintage. Long considered a singular contribution of U.S. culture to the world, the comics started out in the once-ubiquitous daily newspapers, as the most popular page, along with sports. The “funnies” expanded into magazine form during the 1930s-40s. At that point, exactly, the Jewish presence at all levels of the comics became crucial. The lower rungs of the magazine industry including comic books, offered special places for Jewish businessmen with little capital but large ideas.
Hands Up, Herbie! is both part of the comics renaissance and something rather beyond it—something new. The Jewish role in American crime is a subject long regarded as shameful and unsuitable for scholarly attention, even while registering in the interstices of popular culture.
In time, waves of social panic were unleashed over the sex, violence, and moral ambiguity suggested in some comic books. Congressional hearings and a widespread censoring of comics—specifically, EC graphic horror comics published by William Gaines—during the 1950s happened to coincide with a decline in pulp publications thanks to the spread of television viewing—only to give way to the uncensored “Underground Comix” that rose and fell with the counterculture. Then came the legitimation of “comic art” that began in the 1980s as a treasure trove of “classic” comic art—from strips appearing in the early twentieth-century press to comic books of the 1950s—rather suddenly returned in deluxe editions, at elevated prices. Scholars examine these works and begin to compile a canon.
By the time Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer for Maus in 1992, certain new comics began to be treated as art, even by such gatekeeper publications as The New York Times and The New Yorker. Certain definite, serious genres with an adult or young adult audience emerged in the book market. Among these, biographies play no small role. March, a three-volume biographical study of Civil Rights icon John Lewis, has won major awards and sold millions of copies within the last few years. More modest efforts have returned to subjects long favored by biographers at all levels, children’s books to scholarly tomes: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and other political giants to grand musicians (e.g., Thelonious Monk), modern dancers (Isadora Duncan) and many other categories. The combination of words and images made comics an ideal way to narrate social movements world wars, and so on.
Hands Up, Herbie! is both part of the comics renaissance and something rather beyond it—something new. The Jewish role in American crime is a subject long regarded as shameful and unsuitable for scholarly attention, even while registering in the interstices of popular culture. Consider the stories of Damon Runyon, the hugely popular, 1920s-30s newspaper and short story writer, whose curiously lovable criminals, not to mention failed horse-players and assorted other gamblers, are often unmistakably Jewish from their nicknames and physical descriptions. Gangsters in the Golden Age of film were more frequently Italian-American, but with Jewish characters in the background, as boxing fight managers and lesser criminal types. By the time of The Godfather epics, not to mention television’s Sopranos, the Jewish crime bosses, competing for control of this or that syndicate, came out into public light.
Comic art has touched upon the Jewish criminal, here and there, over the last thirty years. Jules Feiffer finds a thug or two among the 1930s-40s fictional “characters” recalled in his own late-life trilogy climaxing in The Ghost Script, a Graphic Novel (2018). Neil Kleid and Jake Allen, in their Brownsville: a Graphic Novel (2006) devoted more than a few pages to Jewish criminals, and filled out the personal saga of a few leading gangsters. A year earlier, the mainstream comics artist (and notable teacher) Joe Kubert offered up Jew Gangster (2005), a singular saga of brutality.
If Jewish boxers continued to have a stigma (their mothers disapproved, while the fans loved them), Jewish gamblers flourished. Bets on horses, football, baseball, and basketball teams had their connections in nearby walk-in parlors until home telephones became ubiquitous.
This is, of course, all fiction. Hands Up, Herbie! is real life. In the building trades, in transportation and elsewhere, even the “Jewish trades,” i.e., garments and related work of the early immigration generations, the mob had its influences and regular collections. If Jewish boxers continued to have a stigma (their mothers disapproved, while the fans loved them), Jewish gamblers flourished. Bets on horses, football, baseball, and basketball teams had their connections in nearby walk-in parlors until home telephones became ubiquitous. At the fringes of legitimate enterprise, mob connections served to get a “slow” relative a job he could handle, a quick exit from jail for a troubled teenager, or a whole host of services that the non-connected could not obtain.
In sum, the mob was, in its own way, a welfare state of its own, more so than outsiders would ever understand. The artist’s father, Herb, was an organic part of this world from childhood—fortunate to be able to escape it in fact, without ever leaving it behind in memory. That he is plagued with the contradictions of moving from Brooklyn (a very special, ungentrified Brooklyn: Brighton Beach, next to a perpetually decaying Coney Island) to Manhattan is not singular. But he arrives, happily, as bohemianism takes on new stages, and he is swept into the 1960s, beginning to end. That he manages to become an artist, an art teacher and social activist is perhaps best seen as fulfillment of what came before.
Joey Perr’s deceptively simple sketch work combines with a sophisticated choice of color palate to frame social scenes and personalities in revealing ways. It is, in effect, a fusion of comics and postmodern art, true to inclinations of son and father.
We have here a wonderfully rich story of his development in a new life, his relationships with painter-giants of the time, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko and Helen Frankenthaler, and his recognition of the reform movements within the art world itself. The struggles for women and for artists of color, the sentiments for peace and human rights during the Reagan Era, caught him up, even as he realized that he would not bend his own art toward the styles required by the art market.
The artwork of Hands Up, Herbie! is also unique. Joey Perr’s deceptively simple sketch work combines with a sophisticated choice of color palate to frame social scenes and personalities in revealing ways. It is, in effect, a fusion of comics and postmodern art, true to inclinations of son and father.
I leave aside the warm, often touching family stories, the ways in which a middle-aged Herb learned to become a loving father and to cast off the rage of his own upbringing. Readers will find their own way here. Perhaps the most startling revelation along the way is a subtle one. “Hands Up, Herbie!” sounds very much like a hold-up. No, it is only a demand for a boy to show that his hands have been washed. Even in the depths of crime-ridden lower-middle-class Jewish life, so much is normalized.
What we see, in all, is the richness of a life, in some ways an ordinary life but most definitely a Jewish-American life, as never seen before. Reader, enjoy and appreciate what is before your eyes.