While various critics have noted the strong influence that Jews have had on the creation of American comics, few have fully explored the role of Jewish women. Yet Jewish women have often been at the forefront of creative explorations in the graphic narrative form. And in many of their comics, Jewish identity is a fertile site of exploration of the unstable, contradictory, and ambiguous figurations of the self in a postmodern world.
In a June 23 talk at the New York Public Library in connection with the Forward-sponsored “Graphic Details” exhibit, I will discuss how Jewish identity figures in the works of various contemporary cartoonists, especially those of Aline Kominsky-Crumb. In her autobiographical comics, Kominsky-Crumb plays with long-held stereotypes about Jewish women and their bodies, about women and their bodies more generally, and about the representation of such bodies in the interface of various autobiographical modes. While her work has caused some to refer to her as “sexist and anti-Semitic,” Kominsky-Crumb does not simply reject such bodily codings in favor of new, more politically correct portrayals of Jewish women. Instead, she confronts stereotypical representations of Jewish women by recognizing how ingrained they are in her subjectivity and by portraying them as a constant and sometimes even productive influence in how she sees herself and others. Her work offers up the possibility that longstanding categorizations of the Jewish woman can become empowering, depending not only on who is making the statement (or creating the image), but also on how it is being made.
Fans of comic books and graphic novels are mourning the death of Harvey Pekar, who died today in his Cleveland home at the age of 70. Pekar was mainly known for authoring the autobiographical series “American Splendor,” which documented his lower-middle class Jewish upbringing in Ohio. Pekar also wrote “Our Cancer Year,” after being diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in 1990, and more recently, “The Beats,” a graphic history of the Beat generation.
Even after Pekar’s death, however, there are things to look forward to in the world of Jewish comic books and graphic novels. On September 25, “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women” opens at San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum. The Forward is an official media sponsor for the show, which will travel in April 2011 to Toronto’s Koffler Centre for the Arts, and which features such prominent artists as Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Sarah Glidden, Miriam Katin and Ilana Zeffren.