Books: Jewish Graphic Novels: Stories in Bubbles and Boxes
Add the Wild West to the folktales of Sholem Aleichem, mix in a bit of inspiration from Russian author Isaac Babel and artist Marc Chagall and what you get is Klezmer, Book One: Tales of the Wild East. Joann Sfar’s rollicking graphic novel takes place in the Old World but with a Western frontier twist: a Jewish, harmonica-playing wanderer forms a band with a rebellious yeshiva student and a Gypsy.
Sfar is far from the only artist-writer exploring Jewish themes in graphic novels. Taken together, recent publications have created a cross-time exploration of the Jewish experience, from 1930s gangsters to a missing-person search in modern day Israel to Jewish fables set in a Rocky Mountain town, all told through art styles as widely disparate as the stories themselves.
Regardless of focus, the best graphic novels utilize the sequential art form—panels, word bubbles and other comic book conventions—to make a whole that is not just an illustrated book and not simply a narrative but different and greater than the sum of its parts. And Klezmer (FirstSecond, 115 pp. $16.95), written and illustrated by Sfar, an award-winning French graphic novelist, and translated by Alexis Siegel, is certainly one of the best.
The first in what will be a four-book series, Klezmer forays into an imagined Eastern Europe, a surrealistic ink-and-watercolor landscape through which Sfar’s protagonists look for work, companionship and adventure. Sfar’s other Jewish graphic novel series, The Rabbi’s Cat (Pantheon), riffs on stories from his father’s Moroccan past; this one travels to colder, less civilized climes, what Sfar calls a “snow-covered desert,” as a tribute to his mother’s Polish-Ukrainian roots.
Brooding, bald musician Noah Davidovich, dubbed Baron of My Backside, is the sole survivor of a group of Jewish musicians wiped out by a gun-toting, rival hasidic klezmer band. The Baron’s revenge is the opening story in Klezmer; in a musical showdown reminiscent of a vaudeville-tinged spaghetti Western, he challenges and defeats the murderous klezmorim. Such vivid musical interludes are the heart of Sfar’s novel—expressions of defiance and bittersweet joy in a harsh land.
Characters sing and play Yiddish favorites such as “In Odessa” or “Tumbalalaika,” appropriately described through Sfar’s expressionist, loose drawings and splotches of lucent watercolors (above left).
The Baron is joined by voluptuous, sensuous Chava, who left her Jewish village to escape her fate: “I’m allowed to choose between three or four boys,” she says. “They’re all stupid and they’re all ugly.”
Yaacov, a teenage Talmud prodigy, was expelled from his yeshiva because he stole the head rabbi’s coat. The light-haired, blue-eyed innocent is the leader of another group of wanderers: the hypochondriac, sleepwalker and violin virtuoso Vincenzo, another yeshiva reject, and the fun-loving Gypsy Tshokola. Yaacov’s looks belie his personality and his subversive comments, comparing a yeshiva to a mental institution and declaring he has renounced God to a group of pious hermits, add a sly touch of humor.
Awareness of their tenuous status as Jews and Gypsies haunts them all. The threats of death and rape hover over the scene when Chava and the Baron perform Jewish songs before four peasants—rendered as monstrous blobs with sneering faces. Vincenzo and Yaacov save Tshokola as he is being hanged by Cossacks, punishment for defending his family.
The two groups of misfits make their way to Odessa, where they hope to find an audience for their music. For these outsiders, the city is also a place where they may find acceptance.
Odessa, as Sfar quotes Babel, “…is a town in which you can live free and easy. Half the population is made up of Jews….” In Odessa, the two groups join, and the book ends, to be continued in the next installation, Happy Birthday, Scylla. And that is one quibble with this work—it feels too much like a setup to a more exciting tale. Sfar includes endnotes in which he entertainingly philosophizes on Jews, the Old World and life. On klezmer music today, he muses:
The fact that klezmer is still played…and with such gusto, and with so many non-Jews on stage and in the audience…says that plenty of people are willing to carry a bit of Jewish memory on behalf of the Jews….
Exit Wounds (Drawn & Quarterly, 160 pp. $19.95), art and text by award-winning Israeli illustrator Rutu Modan, is an offbeat love story and a journey of personal discovery. It presents a striking contrast to Klezmer—and a historical and emotional continuation. Exit Wounds takes place in Israel, where modern day Jews, many of them children of those who had suffered in Eastern Europe, are, finally, the insiders. But Israelis have also inherited an emotional burden from their diaspora ancestors. They remain outsiders, alone in the crowd.
Koby Franco is adrift. The young man makes a living driving a taxi in Tel Aviv; he interacts somewhat with his family, but generally has few goals—until he gets a phone call from a female soldier, Numi. She claims that the unidentified victim of a suicide bombing in the city of Hadera is his father.
Numi is the opposite of Franco. She is from a rich family, lives in a mansion, yet she is just as adrift—an outcast because she will not conform to societal ideals of demeanor and beauty. Forming an uneasy partnership, they retrace the last months of Koby’s father’s life, starting at the morgue, with its cheerfully macabre attendants and banal attitude toward death, and on to a bus station with bodega managers looking to make money, and then to makeshift memorials to terrorist victims set up on a Coca-Cola display stand.
With detailed, precise imagery—Modan’s linear style (above) with flat color is reminiscent of Georges Remi Hergé’s Tintin adventures—Modan takes Koby and Numi through the many strata of Israeli society. In one matter-of-fact scene, she describes the anonymity of illegal immigrant workers: Koby and Numi are directed to a Philippine cleaning woman who witnessed the bombing, but find that the original janitor had left, frightened by her experience. Another illegal worker had taken her place and no one had noticed.
Without stooping to sordid images of carnage, Modan gives a firsthand perspective on a society where violence has become mundane. Few can even keep track of the suicide bombings.
In one of their initial conversations, Numi asks, “Remember that suicide bombing in Hadera three weeks ago?” Koby responds, “Hadera? You mean Haifa”; a casual perusal of a Franco family group portrait includes Koby as a child and his cousin Tulik, who, Koby offhandedly remarks, was killed in Lebanon.
Despite everything, along their journey, Koby and Numi learn to love and provide each other a measure of companionship—a hope Modan holds out for all the people of Israel, as she hints in her poetic surprise ending.
Violence is an integral part of life for Jews who want to get ahead in the gangster tale Brownsville (ComicsLit, 200 pp. $18.95, cloth; $12.95, paper), written by Neil Kleid and illustrated by Jake Allen.
This 1930s story of corruption follows the life of Albert (Allie) Tannenbaum, from his innocent childhood to his increasing involvement with the real life New York gangsters of Murder, Inc.—Louis Lepke Buchalter, Abe Reles, the Shapiro brothers, Dutch Schultz—to the mob’s eventual downfall.
Initially it is difficult to tell one large-nosed, wavy-haired Jewish tough from another, but Allen’s atmospheric black-and-white caricatures are largely effective (below). Kleid keeps the story compelling, though the insertion of Yiddish words and Jewish concepts—Reles stops at his mother’s house to drop off some wine for Shabbos before reporting on a hit to his Mob boss—is startling, purposely so.
Gangsters have always been a popular subject for graphic novels, and Brownsville is a worthy addition to the Jewish side of the canon.
Miriam Engelberg took to cartooning to deal with her diagnosis of breast cancer at the young age of 43. The result is Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person: A Memoir in Comics(HarperPaperbacks, 126 pp. $14.95). Engelberg, one of a number of women who brought their battle with the disease to graphic novel form, took an offbeat approach to a serious subject (Engelberg passed away several months after the book was published). Her witty, frank vignettes of her experiences, musings about sex, buying the right wig and questions about a God who could randomly inflect such a disease are at odds with her childlike black-and-white figures. But the contrast adds the right touch of pathos.
A guide to cancer resources completes the book.
God is also brought into question in We Are on Our Own (Drawn & Quarterly, 136 pp. $19.95), a moving World War II memoir written and illustrated by Miriam Katin.
With impressionistic pencil drawings, Katin’s semiautobiographical work describes two harrowing years of her childhood spent in hiding in the Hungarian countryside at the end of the war; her mother, Esther Levy, decided to disguise herself as a peasant with a bastard child to keep the two of them safe.
Katin, represented by Lisa, heartbreakingly reflects on how her terrible experiences—recounted through a child’s disjointed memory—destroyed her faith.
Belief is not a question for Rabbi Harvey—wise man, sheriff and hero of The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West (Jewish Lights, 144 pp. $16.99), written and illustrated by Steve Sheinkein.
The graphic novel takes place in the unlikely, almost all-Jewish Elk Springs, an 1870s Colorado frontier town. Sheinkein’s 10 yarns are mostly retellings of timeless Jewish folktales, while the imagery—simple renderings of people and places reminiscent of woodcuts—are often just a way of keeping track of who is talking.
Affable Rabbi Harvey dispenses justice with equal parts humor and Talmudic logic.
At times the frontier setting is mostly background, such as in “Rabbi Harvey: Bearded Chicken,” where he helps a boy who thinks he is a chicken. But, “There’s a New Rabbi in Town,” where he outthinks a band of outlaws—Daniel “The Lion” Levy, “Big Milt” Wasserman and Moses “Matzah Man” Goldwater—has a genuine Wild West feel.
While Rabbi Harvey is not specifically geared to children, youngsters who have not yet been exposed to the stories of Chelm and other Jewish folktales will appreciate this collection.
And whether through stories of a frontier rabbi doling out justice in the Rockies, images of a young woman sweetly singing “Sheyn vi di Levone” in Odessa or the pop of bullets on a New York street, graphic novelists today are clearly sharing their appreciation of the many fascinating stories that make up the Jewish narrative.
Pictures Help the History Go Down
Kids and comics are a natural connection, but quality Jewish graphic novels are few and far between. However, a number of books for preteens and young adults address the lack.
The Center for Cartoon Studies’s first foray into the genre, Houdini: The Handcuff King (Hyperion Books for Kids, 96 pp. $16.99), text by James Lutes and art by Nick Bertozzi, is the perfect introduction to the American Jewish legend. It focuses on a single day in the life of the famed Jewish stage magician and escape artist—May 1, 1908—and one particular feat, when, shackled at the wrist and ankles, Houdini jumped off Boston’s Harvard Bridge into the almost frozen Charles River. Simple but elegant black, white and gray illustrations (right) and a pared down narrative follow Houdini from preparation for the escape to a press briefing to the event itself. Throughout, small details add depth and insight, creating a snapshot of America 100 years ago: “Hey, is it true what they say ’bout him havin’ horns on account o’ bein’ a Jew and in league with devil?” a policeman asks a member of Houdini’s entourage in a conversation that attests to the casualness of anti-Semitism of the time.
Lute and Bertozzi are masters of dramatic story pacing. To illustrate the heightened tensions of the climactic jump and the feel of the crowd, vertical panels showing Houdini struggling in the murky depth of the river enclose a series of square panels. These change subject and perspective, panning from faces in the crowd (worried bystanders; Houdini’s wife, Bess, with a smug, confident smile) to the manned boat waiting for him to surface to a close-up of a hand holding a ticking clock, marking the time the magician is under water.
A preface introducing the life of Houdini as well as a collection of discussions at the end of the book are included. They detail the magician’s personal life, including his storybook romance with Bess, and explain certain attitudes and trends of the era—useful for educators. However, for most readers, it is the elegant art and well told story, which, despite their simplicity, will get and keep attention.
Simplicity was not a priority for the creators of Homeland: The Illustrated History of the State of Israel (Nachshon Press, 128 pp. $34.95, cloth; $19.95, paper). Writer Marv Wolfman and artist Mario Luiz have ambitiously recounted the history of Israel from the time of Abraham to today. Homeland is informative—Henrietta Szold appears during a discussion of the development of the Jewish state; the intifada and Hezbollah are discussed—and well drawn. Many of the full-color pages are almost photorealistic, and there are interesting photo collages about specific events. But ultimately, readers are left to feel as if they had picked up a brightly colored encyclopedia of Israel or been subject to an overly long lecture—a shame considering the many fascinating stories that make up the saga of Israel.
History lessons may be a growing trend in graphic novels for kids. Recent publications have seen a number of nonfiction characters in the extremely popular Manga style. (Manga are Japanese graphic novels, which have a distinctive visual style. Most are written in Japanese, and even in translation are read from right to left, much like Hebrew.) Anne Frank (DMP, 158 pp. $9.95), written by Etsuo Suzuki, illustrated by Yoko Miyawaki and translated by Sachiko Sato, brings the well-known Holocaust tale to the medium. While the story may be informative for those who have never heard of the young girl, there are some oddities—for example, the book has her and her family eat eel for supper in the Secret Annex. And, for a comic written in Japan, that the Japanese were Germans allies in the war is an obvious omission. However, for elementary schoolchildren growing up with Japanese-style cartoons and comics, Anne Frank may be an effective introduction to a disturbing topic.
Lauren R. Weinstein’s Girl Stories (Henry Holt, 237 pp. $16.95), a 2007 American Library Association Great Graphic Novel for Teens, is geared for an older group. The 36 short tales are semiautobiographical snapshots of a teenager’s experiences, rendered with shifting lines and sketchy evocativeness—a primitive version of the art of underground cartoonist R. Crumb—and often jarring, fluorescent colors (left). But the art is appropriate to the in-your-face, disarmingly honest and outright funny stories of crushes, being “cool,” bullying and self-image. In one, Lauren, the main character, suddenly ditches her close friend for a group of more popular kids; in another, a navel piercing has unfortunate side effects, both on her love life and her health (Weinstein’s drawing style is disturbingly effective at drawing rashes). The only overtly Jewish story is the snide “Chanukah Blues,” complete with an imagined Latke Boy who teaches Lauren the true meaning of the holiday in a country oversaturated with Christmas cheer—receiving those eight days of gifts, of course. —L.F.F.
The Gravedigger’s Daughter
by Joyce Carol Oates. (HarperCollins, 608 pp. $26.95)
One does not normally think of Joyce Carol Oates as a Jewish American writer but, according to Jewish law, she most assuredly is. No less a figure than Cynthia Ozick has pointed this out to Oates, explaining that having a maternal grandmother who was Jewish confers “Jewishness” on her mother, and then onto her.
Like Oates, I am not sure what to make of this, especially in light of the way she sometimes turns her fierce imagination to Jewish subject matter. Take, for example, The Tattooed Girl, a novel that puts an anti-Semitic young woman on a collision course with a dreamy Jewish intellectual. Not since Bernard Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel”—a short story in which a lonely, desperate young rabbi falls in love with a prostitute—has there been such an unlikely, potentially disastrous romance.
As a study in anti-Semitism, The Tattooed Girl had nothing new to say; an early conviction that Jews own the banks and manipulate the world is, unfortunately, standard fare for people in the protagonist’s lower economic strata. The Gravedigger’s Daughter, however, adds another perspective to Oates’s rumination about American Jews. In 1936, the family of Jacob Schwarts flees Nazi-era Germany—Rebecca is his daughter—for the safety of America. Schwarts had been a high school math teacher but, in America, he is forced to settle for a job as gravedigger and cemetery caretaker.
Upstate New York, where Oates herself grew up and where much of her fiction is set, breeds equal measures of hardscrabble poverty, anti-Semitism (the word “Jew” is usually preceded by the adjective “dirty”) and violence. When a Halloween prankster defaces the cemetery with swastikas, Rebecca’s older brother takes revenge on the boy he imagines is the culprit by carving a swastika into his forehead.
Later, Rebecca’s father becomes so consumed with hatred that he murders an anti-Semitic neighbor and then turns his shotgun on his wife and, finally, himself. The Gravedigger’s Daughter painstakingly recounts Rebecca’s journey up the American social ladder. “Keep going” is the novel’s mantra, and, in Rebecca’s case, this means escaping from an abusive husband and protecting her son who, early on, shows promise of becoming a pianist extraordinaire.
Given Oates’s habit of telegraphing her punches, it is hardly surprising that Rebecca ends up walking the grounds of an extravagant mansion with a father-in-law who is a media mogul and a millionaire many times over. What Rebecca learns, however, is that anti-Semitism is as commonplace among the swells as it is among working stiffs.
The Gravedigger’s Daughter ends with a strained correspondence between Rebecca and a cousin she dreamed of playing dolls with but whose ship was not allowed to dock in America. The cousin is bitter about an America that did nothing as the world of East European Jewry was systematically destroyed, and in the process, Rebecca learns just how widespread and deeply rooted anti-Semitism is.
The Gravedigger’s Daughter is a major work of fiction that gives us more proof (as if more were necessary) that Oates is a social realist who probes the underbelly of the American landscape with uncompromising honesty and enormous cumulative power. —Sanford Pinsker
by Esther Schor. (Nextbook/Schocken, 368 pp. $21.95)
What we know about Emma Lazarus is this: She was a Jewish woman of the 19th century, born to a well-to-do Sefardic family in New York, and she wrote that poem, “The New Colossus,” promising a welcoming home to immigrants who are met by views of the Statue of Liberty. In recent years, a trove of her letters became available, and it is these documents, along with a sensitive reading of the body of Lazarus’s oeuvre, that Esther Schor, a professor at Princeton University, draws on as she gracefully presents Lazarus as an intriguing personality we might wish to meet.
And intriguing she is! Through her bold writing denouncing anti-Semitism and her humanitarian efforts on behalf of Russian Jewish immigrants and the Jewish homeland, she fashioned a life that was “more of our time than of her own,” writes Schor, who is a poet herself.
As a precocious teenager, Lazarus strove to master the formal techniques of poetry; in her meditations on the Civil War, she is already giving “voice to the wretched and despised.” She sought out Ralph Waldo Emerson as a mentor, pestering him for affirmation and support.
In her twenties, her reading of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda awakened her to the idea of building a Jewish homeland in Palestine, a possibility she promoted; in effect, she became one of the first American Zionists.
Lazarus articulated her relationship to Judaism; essentially, she defined herself as what we would now readily recognize as a cultural or secular Jew, one for whom Judaism is expressed by an embrace of three essential commitments: monotheism, morality and a brotherly love fueled by the imperative to repair the brokenness of the world. With courage and passion, she claimed that her Jewish heritage made her no less a patriotic American, no less a serious artist. Lazarus never married, finding deep companionship with her siblings and women friends, and died in 1887 at 38.
Vanessa L. Ochs is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and author of Inventing Jewish Ritual: New American Traditions (Jewish Publication Society).
Jewish Best Sellers
- The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: A Novel, by Michael Chabon. (HarperCollins, $26.95)
- The Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer. (Ecco, $24.95)
- The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. (Knopf Books for Young Readers, $16.95)
- Rashi’s Daughters, Book II: Miriam, by Maggie Anton. (Plume, $15)
- The Saturday Wife, by Naomi Ragen. (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95)
- Night, by Elie Wiesel. (Hill and Wang, $19.95, cloth; $9, paper)
- The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, by Lucette Lagnado. (Ecco, $25.95)
- Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson. (Simon & Schuster, $32)
- I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, by Nora Ephron. (Knopf, $19.95)
- Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, by Michael B. Oren. (W.W. Norton, $35)
Courtesy of www.MyJewishBooks. com; titles selected based on sales.