The Arts: A Graphic Coming of Age
Panel by panel, a fresh storytelling art is gaining attention and respect—and many of these tales turn to the Jewish experience, ancient and modern, for inspiration.
Walk into a Barnes & Noble bookstore. Go to the Science Fiction/Fantasy aisle, skip the shelves full of manga (Japanese comics) and there, flanked by pow-and-zoom superheroes and villains, are sophisticated, innovative gems of art and literature.
Stories about pre-Nazi-era Berlin; images of rain-drenched rabbis crying out to the divine; pictorial biographies of American Jewish working-class intellectuals; histories and morality tales and biblical narratives, all laid out in the evolving storytelling style called graphic novels. Though some writer-artists prefer to call the genre sequential art, others insist on comix. Art Spiegelman, creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus and more recently In the Shadow of No Towers, calls them “comic books that need a bookmark.”
Whatever their ultimate name, the medium is experiencing an American renaissance. Over the past five years, graphic novels by artists and writers worldwide have increasingly been showing up in regular bookstores. Libraries stock books like Marjane Satrapi’s Persopolis: The Story of a Childhood, a memoir of growing up in Iran, and Harvey Pekar’s series about a Jewish everyman, American Splendor. Movie adaptations of works such as Splendor and Frank Miller’s Sin City have brought some graphic novelists broad name recognition.
Jewish writers and artists have kept pace with this revolution, and a growing number of graphic novels—some even by non-Jews—feature Jewish themes.
Graphic novels vary in content and look. Subjects can range from crime noir to memoir, fiction to reportage, and the artistic style from cute animal cartoons to abstract collage. They all, however, share some basic elements. Similar to both comic strips and comic books, words and pictures are placed in a sequence of boxes (or panels). This creates a sort of word-and-art poetry, an amalgam of film techniques, script and design that appeals on both a visceral and intellectual level.
At the forefront of the convergence of Jews and “comics lit” (yet another term for the genre) is French artist-writer Joann Sfar. Renowned in France for his adult and children’s work, Sfar is making his American debut in August with The Rabbi’s Cat. The story takes place in 1930’s Algeria and centers on the lives of Rabbi Abraham Sfar and his daughter, Zlabya, seen through the eyes of their irreverent cat. Originally published in French, The Rabbi’s Catis drawn with an eye for emotional and background detail and a palette that reflects the mood of the characters and their surroundings: Algeria is an earthy range of browns, reds and yellows; the cat’s eyes flash green when he contemplates eating the rabbi’s pet parrot—or the stupidity of the humans around him.
The book is divided into three chapters. In the first, the cat gains the ability to talk; the second features a visit from the legendary Malka of the Lions; and in the third, Zlabya marries a rabbi from Paris. The stories are compressed into an even six panels per page, creating a keyhole view of the rabbi’s world. Like the cat, we are outsiders, witnesses to the drama of the family Sfar.
Threaded throughout are whimsical human tableaux. In one, for example, the rabbi, faced with the cultured, nonreligious Jews of Paris who seem to have a better life than the Jews he knows at home, goes into a restaurant and orders the “least kosher meal in the universe”: “ham…snails, seafood…oysters…. And a good wine named after a church or a Virgin Mary.”
Before eating, the rabbi asks God to intercede: “Tell me you’ll be sad if I break your Law.” (In a nearby panel, a strange being with tiny wings and a kippa—whether restaurant décor or supernatural visitation is left to the reader—looks at the rabbi with a smile.)
It is elements like these—philosophical and existential questions of ecclesiastic power and tradition—that take The Rabbi’s Cat beyond charming tales of an African shtetl. In 2003, it won the prestigious Jury Prize at the International Bande Dessinée (drawn strip) Festival of Angoulême.
Mark Siegel, editorial director of First Second, a new publishing imprint from Roaring Brook Press dedicated to graphic works, describes the artist as Chagall-esque. Like Chagall, Sfar populates his worlds with signature characters. In Sfar’s case, rabbi-mystics and comical yellow-brown golems with the word emet, truth, on their forehead.
“Chagall was developing a personal mythology, and if you look at his mythology as a sort of a code, his paintings become a bit like graphic novels,” says Siegel. “Sfar is constantly putting Chagall references all over his work.”
Sfar’s cartoony, lyrical style in the service of mature storytelling is typical of L’Association, a French comic publishing group of which he is a founding member. Included in the group is non-Jewish Christophe Blaine, whose first two Isaac the Pirate books were recently translated. In them, Isaac Sofer is a Jewish artist who comes, almost accidentally, to travel around the world with a pirate ship.
If Sfar’s drawings envision magical worlds, the harsh lines that fillBipolar, the first joint endeavor of Israeli twins Tomer and Asaf Hanuka, create a disjointed psychological landscape. The five-part comic series, recently translated into English, has gotten press and peer attention. Each volume of Bipolar has autobiographical pieces by Tomer and a chapter of “Pizzeria Kamikaze,” a story by Asaf and Israeli author Etgar Keret.
Tomer, who works as an illustrator and now lives in England, has produced short abstract meditations on love and life. Asaf, who studied art in Lyon, France, and now lives in Israel, has a more classic comic-book style. He has worked with Keret on a number of stories and published a couple of books with French authors. “I am not a writer,” he says. “I prefer to focus on the visual challenge.”
“Pizzeria Kamikaze,” which will be published separately in November, is adapted from Kneller’s Happy Campers by Keret. It describes a desolate black, white and gray afterworld filled with people who have killed themselves—from Israelis who have slit their wrists to Arab suicide bombers—all bearing the stigmata of their last wound.
Mordy, the main character, committed suicide over a broken heart and finds himself among the aimless wanderers. “It reminds me of Allenby Street,” he quips.
Asaf feels that “Pizzeria Kamikaze” mirrors the state of mind of Israeli youth. “What Etgar is saying and the metaphor I am bringing to life,” he notes, “is that we all live right now as if we are all suicides—we have given up our dreams. We are saying that this is Tel Aviv and everyone has died.”
In contrast to Sfar’s nostalgia-filled Cat, the universe Asaf and Keret have created is a sterile present. Yet they share a mystical bent and characters that yearn for a higher purpose, a connection to something greater. And in both there is an elusive divine response. Sfar’s hidden angel silently watches the rabbi; Asaf and Keret have undercover angels that guide the suicides and paratrooping mystical beings who collect the bodies of those who kill themselves again.
Asaf and Tomer’s comic-art education is typical of American graphic artists, from Spiegelman to newcomers Josh Neufeld and Neil Kleid. First, there is a childhood that is obsessed with comics from Peanuts to Superman and Batman—the Hanuka brothers had an American aunt who brought them comics. Then in their twenties there is an Aha! moment, an “I can use this form to explore other types of stories.” For Asaf, this happened during his time in the Israeli Army.
In Europe, however, artists have a tradition of sophisticated comics on a variety of topics, and in general the medium has a respectability that it has not yet gained in the United States.
“In the States, the comic-book business depends on teenage readers and muscle-men stories,” says Sfar. “In France, the festival of Angoulême has as much success as the film festival of Cannes…. Besides, the greatest American [graphic novelists] seem more revered in France than in the States! Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, Charles Schultz, Robert Crumb, Chris Ware….”
Other Jewish-themed works from the Continent include Italian Vittorio Giardino’s popular coming-of-age trilogy, A Jew in Communist Prague. His bright, beautiful drawings, very different from L’Association’s work, embody a trend that references, for example, the realistic work of the French Jacques Tardi and Hergé’s TinTin books about a traveling reporter. Giardino won an award at the Angoulême festival in 1995 for A Jew in Communist Prague.
“France has taken the lead in what was considered a native American art form,” says Terry Nantier, whose publishing house, NBM (www. nbmpub.com), has been bringing European comics to the United States for over 25 years. “Europeans have been viewing graphic novellas as an adult form since the 1970’s.”
This wouldn’t be true if it weren’t for the history of repression of the medium in America, explains Siegel. In the 1950’s, after starting to explore comics on all kinds of themes, the field suffered a backlash and official censorship. “It stayed in that uncomfortable adolescence,” he adds.
For years mainstream publishers focused on appealing to kids and teenagers. Today, the two huge comic companies, Marvel and D.C. Comics, churn out slick superhero books worked on by a team of writers, pencilers and inkers, colorists and letterers. D.C. publishes more idiosyncratic work under its Vertigo imprint.
It wasn’t that Americans weren’t producing serious comics during the 1960’s to late 1990’s, but they were under the radar of the average reader. Spiegelman, Peter Kuper, Crumb and Pekar—all Jewish—championed the use of the comic format in a broad range of themes in self-published magazines and anthologies that they called underground comics or comix. And in contrast to mainstream assembly-line work, these books are created by a single artist who scripts and draws the story, or a writer-illustrator team, a trend that continues with young artists today.
“Maus was the first big hit [in America],” says Nantier. “But it wasn’t really anything that started a gold rush….”
Today, publishers and readers are rushing to the field, treating it like a new discovery. “You have two kinds of things going on,” Nantier adds. “One, a lot more literary-type graphic novels…. This brings legitimacy to this form. On the other side you have the commercial success of manga….”
It has been a long journey, particularly if you use as a starting point the 1978 publishing date of Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, four short stories that revolve around a 1930’s Bronx tenement. Eisner, who died in January at the age of 87, coined the term graphic novel; one of the industry awards is named after him. A traveling exhibit of his work, “Will Eisner: A Retrospective,” will be at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York through September 9 (212-254-3511; www.moccany.org).
In his later years, Eisner was concerned with the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, and his final two works take on the literary excuses for that hatred. Fagin the Jew is a defense of the Charles Dickens character. The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, published posthumously in May with an introduction by Eisner and novelist Umberto Eco, is a history of the pernicious lie.
Eisner’s stock characters—The Plot’s Matthieu Golovinski, writer ofProtocols, is obviously a“bad guy” with his squinty eyes and piggish expressions—incredible draftsmanship and sure knowledge of comic design and layout make his work a good introduction to the form. His mastery of unconventional page format, where characters step outside the panel or whole pages use no frames whatsoever, the story carried by page composition and the placement of word bubbles, is a bridge to the more abstract styles and pacing of, for example, Spiegelman and Kuper.
Kuper, who has been working in the field for 30 years, has explored reportage, fiction and humor among other styles. His latest is a war parable with no words called Sticks and Stones. He is, however, best-known for adaptations of the works of Franz Kafka (Give It Up!and The Metamorphosis). His blocky, abstract images and scratched-out stick men suit Kafka’s anxiety-filled works.
A new generation of American artists has come forward, and many look to Europe as impetus to push the art form forward. Others are taking the same route as their underground predecessors—self-publishing, often with a grant from the Xeric Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting promising new graphic novelists.
“We are seeing a lot of work coming to fruition that has been worked on for a while,” says Kuper. “You have to learn how to draw, to write, then compose a page….” Maus, for example, published in book form in 1986, was originally produced as several small stories in Spiegelman’s self-published magazine, Raw, and took 13 years to create.
Among the newer of the new is Josh Neufeld. He has illustrated Pekar’s work and won a Xeric grant to publish A Few Perfect Hours, an account of his travels with his then girlfriend, now wife, writer Sari Wilson.
“When Sari and I went traveling, we left in 1993,” he says. “We took along a comic called Comics-Trips by Peter Kuper, a sketchbook-comic story about Kuper’s travels with his wife. It was completely eye-opening. Stories about dietary problems and gorillas—all sorts of strange things. I kept a sketchbook and I drew a lot….”
The short stories in A Few Perfect Hours are filled with intimate moments—for example, the couple’s awed reaction to a Buddhist prayer, an image of Sari and Josh with beatific expressions against an entire panel filled with ohms.
The gentle, slow pace and the crisp drawings of A Few Perfect Hours are reminiscent of the clean European style, with an American flair (Neufeld cites TinTin as an influence). Unlike Giardino’s blank, beautiful faces, Neufeld gives his characters individuality. Sari and Josh have an expressiveness, a hint of the cartooning seen in Eisner’s work, that creates an instant bond with the reader.
Only the last story is specifically Jewish in content. Called “Tribal Rituals, Part II: Cremation, Cubicles and Cant,” it compares the awkward funeral and shiva for Josh’s Grandma Gus to the intricate funeral rites the two travelers witnessed in Bali. Ultimately, the story is about a family not at home with its own traditions. “Unfortunately,” Neufeld says, “growing up I was never introduced to Judaism in a positive context….”
Neufeld’s awareness of his heritage does wind its way through A Few Perfect Hours, though again in a negative context: The final line of “How to Star in a Singaporean Soap Opera,” spoken by Josh, is “Do you think they’ll be able to tell we’re Jewish?”—a response to Sari’s suggesting they become movie extras in Cairo.
“Friends had acted as extras in Egyptian films,” says Neufeld. “One was Jewish, and he said…if they found out you are Jewish they wouldn’t want you in their movie.”
Kuper says his Jewish background comes out in his work, in the self-deprecating black humor of his storytelling. Neil Kleid, who is Orthodox, shows his roots on the final page of his Ninety Candles(www.rantcomics. com), published through a Xeric grant. The story of an artist’s life in 90 panels ends with an image of a gravestone upon which is carved a Magen David.
There are other artist-writers who, like Sfar, can’t but help express their heritage overtly. Philadelphia native J.T. Waldman’s Megillat Esther—a seven-year labor of love—will be coming out this summer (www.megillatesther.com). The book faithfully follows the Esther story with bold black-and-white illustrations, the Hebrew text and an English translation. One can use the abundantly, even overwhelmingly, illustrated work to follow the reading of the Megilla on Purim, though the flaunted sexuality may make it uncomfortable to bring to shul.
Waldman, who is self-publishing the book, grew up among secular and Reform Jews and became interested in Judaism during a junior year in Spain. “I found my Judaism in a Catholic country,” he says.
After Spain, Waldman spent time at Jewish Renewal weekends and eventually decided to create a comic that would reflect his new interest. “I decided on Esther because it was a more secular book,” he says, “Then I learned that the first full text a sofer [Jewish scribe] writes is Megillat Esther. That was a sign for me that it was the right fit.” His completed volume has an operatic scope, complete with the trappings—from architecture to hairstyles—of a corrupt Persian dynasty. By faithfully following the text, with the help of midrashim, Waldman has overturned a trend of playing down the more salacious aspects of the account. He reminds us that the real Book of Esther is a perverse Cinderella story, where the belle of the ball has to save her people from certain annihilation.
The sheer volume of upcoming Jewish graphic novels is staggering: Kleid will be publishing Brownsville, about two members of Murder, Inc. Hungarian-born Miriam Katin will be debuting a book about the year she and her mother spent hiding from the Germans during the Holocaust. In 2006, First Second will publish The Golem’s Klezmer Band, a Joann Sfar book; Homeland, the history of Israel from Abraham to the modern state by writer Marv Wolfman and artist Mario Ruiz, will be available from Valor Comics.
“There is real genius out there,” says Siegel. “If people don’t want to read it, that’s O.K., but they will miss out on something very, very good.
“What’s funny with comics is that people keep being drawn to do it—no pun intended,” he adds. “They keep being drawn to produce in that way.”
Perhaps along the way to the storyboard they’ll finally decide what to call it, too.
Jewish Graphic Novels
A Partial Listing
- Isaac the Pirate: The Capital; and Isaac the Pirate:To Exotic Lands by Christophe Blaine (NBM)
- A Contract With God: and Other Tenement Stories by Will Eisner (D.C. Comics)
- Fagin the Jew: A Graphic Novel by Will Eisner (Doubleday)
- The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion by Will Eisner (Norton)
- A Jew in Communist Prague: Loss of Innocence; and A Jew in Communist Prague: Adolescence; and A Jew in Communist Prague: Rebellio by Vittorio Giardino (NBM)
- Bipolar by Asaf Hanuka, Tomer Hanuka and Etgar Keret (Alternative Comics)
- The Jew of New York by Ben Katchor (Pantheon)
- Yossel by Joe Kubert (iBooks)
- Give It Up!: And Other Short Stories by Franz Kafka by Peter Kuper (NBM)
- The Metamorphosis by Peter Kuper (Crown)
- Berlin, Book One: City of Stone by Jaso Lutes (Draw and Quarterly)
- A Few Perfect Hours and Other Stories from Southeast Asia and Central Europe by Josh Neufeld (Alternative Comics)
- Best of American Splendor by Harvey Pekar (Ballantine)
- Maus: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelma (Pantheon)
- Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon)
- The Golem’s Mighty Swing by James Strum (Drawn and Quarterly)
- Megillat Esther by J.T. Waldman (Peartree4productions)