Last year I took my art appreciation class at Monmouth University to see an exhibit of work at the library there. On display were prints by the artist Jacob Landau; the university is the recipient of a large collection of his work. The art was very political, very graphic, and very 1960s à la Push Pin Studios. Many had sequential panels and were very much like comic pages. The student docent, when giving Landau’s bio, said that after Landau graduated from college he worked as an illustrator and in comic books. When I asked which comics, she said Marvel. There was a 20-minute video on Landau playing in the adjoining room. Near the beginning, the narrator said that he had worked on “Captain Marvel comic books.” As this was said, the video quickly showed three Jack Kirby covers from the 1960s, Captain America, The Avengers, and Sgt. Fury. Since Captain Marvel was published by Fawcett and the work shown was by Marvel, I knew this required further exploration.
Jacob Landau was born on December 17, 1917, in Philadelphia. He started drawing as a toddler, and at age 12 he began studying art at the Graphic Sketch Club (now the Samuel Fleisher Art Memorial). At 17 he won a competition in Scholastic Magazine, illustrating Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and he won the competition the following year as well, winning himself a scholarship from the Museum of Industrial Art (today the University of the Arts) to study illustration, printmaking, and painting. Upon graduation in 1939, he moved to New York City to begin his professional career.
According to Landau, the first work he found, through an agent, was in the burgeoning field of comic books, and in their fading cousin, the pulps. He used several nom de plumes, including “J” and “Jay,” to “avoid anti-Semitism,” according to Rosa Giletti of the Jacob Landau Institute. One of the nascent comic books he worked on was Captain America, which Landau declared to be “great fun.” Indeed, throughout his life he mentioned this experience often.
The singular evidence of Landau’s comic book work is on The Sniper, in Military Comics #10, published by Quality Comics with a cover date of June 1942. If indeed Captain America was his first comics work, and given the lag between production and publication, this would put him in the heady mix of myriad inkers who worked on the first ten issues, from late 1940 to late 1941.
Captain America was created by the team of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, who began producing comics under the studio name of Simon and Kirby. Commissioned by Timely Comics publisher Martin Goodman (today Marvel Comics), this was comics’ second patriotic-flag-costumed hero (the first was The Shield over at rival MLJ). The first issue, cover dated March 1941, went on sale in December 1940. The team went on the produce the first ten issues before they moved on to the greener pastures of National/DC comics. Those issues were a hodgepodge of various artists, many undocumented, who assisted the team to produce 64 pages per issue under strict time constraints.
Over the years there has been much study as to which artists were involved. The artist and writer Norris Burroughs has dedicated an entire blog to examining those first ten issues. While we can never be sure of Landau’s involvement, he thought enough of the comic book medium and the Captain in particular to have 1960s and ’70s Jack Kirby Marvel issues in his personal effects decades later. What we do know is Landau also produced illustrations for the pulps and, significantly, illustrations for more than 100 children’s and adult books.
Drafted in 1943, Landau served overseas in the Mediterranean Theater. While stationed in Italy, he continued his artistic pursuits for the special services magazine At Ease, working as art editor, illustrator, photographer, and reporter. Discharged in 1946, he used the G.I. Bill to continue his art studies at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He met and married Francis, had a son, and relocated his family to Paris, to study at the Academie Julian and the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere. While there, Landau met the American printmaker, sculptor, book illustrator, and designer Leonard Baskin, who taught him the medium of woodcuts.
Returning to the states and his hometown, Landau taught at the Philadelphia College of Art from 1954 to 1957. He then moved onto to teach at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for the next 20 years, eventually becoming the chair of the graphic design and illustration department. In 1975 he also became a faculty member of the Artist/Teacher Institute, a ten-day summer residency program sponsored by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. While his work took a more personal turn, he also created woodcuts for album covers for Columbia and Vanguard, as well as work for CBS, American Heritage, and selected books.
A child of the Great Depression, Landau was deeply affected by the war, the Holocaust, and Hiroshima, and his artwork began to reflect serious themes, often drawing on biblical and literary sources, reflecting the human turmoil of the 20th century. “I see myself as an artist in the role of witness,” he said. “I don’t think the way an artist affects people works as propaganda, but I do believe it works subconsciously and can lead to gradual transformation.”
Socially active throughout his life, Landau was involved with numerous organizations, including the Alliance for Arts Education, the American Humanist Association, the Association for Humanistic Psychology, and the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament, among several others. He said:
I am proud of what we accomplished. I was involved in organizing, along with others, a cultural workshop in New York City. . . . We created art for trade unions and farm cooperatives. We presented shadow plays, puppet shows, elaborate theatre productions, musical events, exhibitions and publications, all dedicated to democratic ideals. We had exciting cultural events on Saturday nights, parties to raise money for the various activities we were engaged in. People like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and so many others came ‘round to help us raise money by singing at these affairs.
It was the actual beginning of what later became the folk-music craze, long before it was popular. We had a printing press in our headquarters and we turned out leaflets for the Trade Union Movement in New York City. We put out several portfolios of prints which we sold through galleries and dealers, in emulation of the Mexican workshop, the Taller Graficas Populares, a group of radical artists. But, I found, after a few years, that I couldn’t do any of my own work. I was too busy organizing the work of other people.
Nevertheless, the influence of comics was often evident in his work, which employed dramatic figures, panels, and occasional sequential storytelling. This is apparent in his stained glass windows for the Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania (see below).
Landau and his wife eventually moved into the Roosevelt, New Jersey, home of their friend and fellow artist Ben Shahn. Roosevelt was created as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal; it was home to a cooperative farming and manufacturing project founded primarily for Jewish garment workers from New York City. Following the war it became an artists community. Other Roosevelt residents included the illustrator and designer David Stone Martin, the painter Gregorio Prestopino, and the documentary photographer Louise Rosskam. In 1983, Landau had a major retrospective at the New Jersey State Museum.
Jacob Landau died on November 24, 2001, at the age of 85, and is buried in the Roosevelt Cemetery. After his death, the Jacob Landau Institute was formed to preserve his legacy. Landau’s works can be found in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, and the National Gallery.
To learn more about Jacob Landau, visit JacobLandau.org.
Special thanks to Rosa Giletti and David Herrstrom of the Jacob Landau Institute, as well as Norris Burroughs and Steven Rowe for their help and guidance.
“A Voice From the Past Speaks to the Present: An Interview with the Artist Jacob Landau,” 1978: http://www.jamesyarosh.com/jacob070409_3.html
Denicola, Linda. “Artist Jacob Landau Gone, but his work survives.” Tri-Town News.
“Landau Marks a Lifetime in Art,” The Examiner: http://www.jamesyarosh.com/jacob070409_3.html
Stein, Judith. “Jacob Landau: Old Man Mad About Drawing,” January 5, 1996: http://judithestein.com/jacob-landau-old-man-mad-about-drawing
“The Prophetic Quest: The stained glass windows of artist Jacob Landau”: http://kenesethisrael.org/Museum/LandauWidows/LandauWindows.htm#QUEST
For more on the dawn of comics, check out 1000 Comic Books You Must Read, now on sale at MyDesignShop.com.