When the artists Rutu Modan and Yirmi Pinkus formed the publishing house Actus Tragedus in 1995, it was, in Pinkus’s words, “an effort to find ourselves readers outside of Israel” for their comics and illustrations. Actus published books in English, an act that Modan and Pinkus said was seen at the time as snobbish and unpatriotic, even anti-Zionist.
But for Modan, publishing in English found her an international audience for her two graphic novels, “Exit Wounds” — published in the early 2000s, a love story whose themes reflect the impact of the Second Intifada on Israeli society — and “The Property,” which takes a young Israeli woman and her grandmother to Warsaw, ostensibly in order to pursue the restitution of lost property.
“In Israel — a country almost entirely bereft of homegrown graphic novels — Rutu Modan is a one-woman industry,” Tal Kra-Oz wrote when he interviewed Modan for the Forward in 2013.
“I wrote what I consider to be my first graphic novel when I was in second grade during the Yom Kippur War,” Modan said at London’s Jewish Book Week earlier this month. “I grew up in a hospital because my parents were both doctors. During the Yom Kippur War, soldiers were coming back from the front, with the helicopters landing in my neighborhood.” Her drawings were generic, rather than of that war Modan was too young to comprehend, but they depicted “dead people and wounded people, as seen through the eyes of a child.”
Miss Lasko-Gross’s shrewd, poignant “Henni” (Z2 Comics) arrives at a charged moment for cartoons and religion. In the graphic novel — a marked departure from Lasko-Gross’ acclaimed autobiographical comics “Escape from ‘Special’” and “A Mess of Everything” — the female lead abandons her village in a quest for knowledge. The blind followers, cynical leaders, and “disruptors” she meets along the way enact a sly parable for the chains of religious absolutism — and the book sounds a call to reject mindless submission to dogma of any kind.
Lasko-Gross’s painterly style and unflinching eye make “Henni” as hard-hitting as it is heartrending. And like all of her work, it avoids easy answers to complex questions. The artist spoke to the Forward from her home and studio on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Full Disclosure: Lasko-Gross is one of the artists in “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” the traveling exhibition which I curated, and the Forward sponsored.
Michael Kaminer: Resistance to religion is at the center of “Henni”; has the Charlie Hebdo attack galvanized your feelings around the message and the medium?
By Rutu Modan, translated by Jessica Cohen
Drawn & Quarterly, 232 pages, $24.95
The past takes many forms in Rutu Modan’s graphic novel “The Property.” There is Regina, an elderly woman returning to Poland from Israel for the first time in over 60 years; overzealous re-enactors encountered by her granddaughter Mica on the streets of Warsaw; slides of far-off nations that Roman, a novelist, looks at as he recalls his youth; and a graphic novel with its roots in Polish history being written by Tomasz, who becomes smitten with Mica while working as a tour guide.
The premise of the book is ostensibly simple: Mica and Regina are visiting Warsaw to inquire about property owned by their family that was confiscated during the war. But nearly every character has secrets, desires, and information that they withhold from others. The weight of history is nimbly evoked here, but Modan’s most impressive feat is numerous plotlines using art, dialogue and language.
Characters in “The Property” communicate in Hebrew, English and Polish, but few speak all three, leading to isolated revelations in public settings and confessions in unlikely locations. Modan uses different text styles for each of these languages; in scenes from the perspective of specific characters, unintelligible languages are rendered as a kind of scribble. This can easily lead to comic misunderstandings or jarring revelations, and Modan makes use of both.
Earlier, Boaz Yakin wrote about empathy and conflict. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
In New York City, in our Upper West Side apartment, my little brother and I watched my father act out the events and characters of his youth in British Mandate Palestine. He was a pantomime by trade and a teacher of physical acting, and when he told a story he didn’t just relate it with words— he performed it with every muscle in his face, with every physical gesture in his vast repertoire. And even then, though I thrilled and laughed at his exploits, I suspected that perhaps there was something exaggerated, slightly of the grotesque, in his portrayals of the multifarious denizens of that remote, ancient city; a city on the one hand so tiny and provincial, on the other so vast and timeless and redolent of eternity. A city against whose harsh, stony face the human dramas enacted by my father stood out in sharp, colorful relief, like a commedia dell’arte performance. Tragic, hilarious, and surely daubed with a huge dollop of fancy.
Boaz Yakin’s most recent graphic novel, “Jerusalem: A Family Portrait,” illustrated by Nick Bertozzi, will be published later this month. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
It seems to me that it’s hard for a feeling, empathetic person to know where to place himself in the midst of conflict. Since most people possess some degree of feeling and empathy, in order to live with themselves they don’t necessarily divorce themselves from these senses as they make decisions as to how and where to direct them. These decisions are determined by a host of factors — different in each individual and situation.
The bravest among us, of whom there are few, courageously allow their empathetic sense to extend outward in a manner that generously encompasses a wide variety of people, perspectives and feelings that might be in violent, seemingly intractable opposition to one another — and even more courageously allow their practical behavior and decisions to be strongly influenced by that understanding.
Miriam Katin appears naked in one panel of “Letting It Go,” her new graphic memoir about coming to terms with her past as a Holocaust survivor. But the rest of this novel-length confessional comic is even more revealing.
Her first full-length work since 2006’s award-winning Holocaust memoir “We Are On Our Own,” “Letting It Go” chronicles Katin’s emotionally charged visit to Berlin after her son and his girlfriend relocate there. Katin’s fury over the move mellows to resignation, and finally acceptance, though her emotions surrounding her own history remain ambiguous. The book spares no one, least of all Katin, who unflinchingly depicts her self-doubt, angst, and bodily functions. Her cartooning style is masterful, maintaining classical elements while subverting genre conventions into a singular work that’s fluid, vibrant, and potent. It’s also hilariously funny.
Katin’s work is part of the exhibit “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” which I co-curated and which the Forward is sponsoring. The traveling exhibit will open at the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach in October. Katin spoke to The Arty Semite from her home in New York.
Michael Kaminer: “We Are On Our Own” was published in 2006. Why so long between books?
The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song
By Frank M. Young and David Lasky
Abrams, 192 pages, $24.95
With a recent issue of Time magazine declaring “The Carter Family” to be one of the seven best comics of 2012, artist David Lasky has ascended to the top tier of Jewish-American comic artists, an august group that includes Art Spiegelman, Ben Katchor, veteran Sharon Rudahl and newcomer Dan Asher, on top of a considerable list of others. This is not exactly a surprise. Lasky’s drawings, mostly in alternative comics anthologies, have been highly regarded by comics insiders for a decade or more. With this latest subject and the four-color precision of the result, Lasky, along with his collaborating script-writer (who also did the coloring) Frank Young, have hit a big number.
The “Midwest school” of comic art, appearing in daily papers in the 1920s and ‘30s, is now long gone. At that time Sidney Smith of “The Gumps” and Frank O. King of “Gasoline Alley” as much as invented “continuity,” moving away from four-panel gag to story lines about daily life and sometimes high adventure. Within this style, “Little Orphan Annie” achieved a peak readership among countless story-line, syndicated strips. “Joe Palooka” and “Li’l Abner” apart, they had non-Jewish creators and with few exceptions, were politically conservative.
“The Carter Family” might almost be accused of returning to Al Capp’s hillbilly vintage, except that Capp specialized in ridicule, while Lasky and Young have gone in the other direction, towards a documentary look at the lives of the 20th century’s most important country music innovators.
JT Waldman co-authored and illustrated the new graphic novel “Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me” with writer and frequent David Letterman guest Harvey Pekar. Read more about their relationship here and Harvey Pekar’s legacy here. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
As a public speaker and comic book educator, people often ask me to recommend comic books or graphic novels of Jewish interest.
Of course, I have to recommend my own graphic novel, “Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me,” which is just being released. However, all self-promotion aside, I thought I would also take a look at other Israel-themed comix. (Point of clarification: “comix”= comic books, graphic novels, webcomics, zines, etc.)
Some readers might be well versed in this literary nook of novel stories, memoirs, and editorial essays. Joe Sacco’s work with “Palestine” and “Footnotes in Gaza, Miriam Libicki’s “Jobnik!,” and Sarah Glidden’s “How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less” are well regarded examples of personal accounts of Israel. However, I wanted to share some comix that continue in that vein but also veer into other territories.
JT Waldman co-authored and illustrated the new graphic novel “Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me” with writer and frequent David Letterman guest Harvey Pekar. Read more about their relationship here. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
It is true enough to say that he was the “poet laureate of Cleveland” or to describe his “American Splendor” as “Homeric,” but those descriptives are still inadequate. He was the perfect man for his times, straddling… everything: the underground comic revolution of the ’60s, the creation and transformation of the graphic novel, independent film, television, music (the classic jazz he championed relentlessly throughout his life.
He was famed as a “curmudgeon,” a “crank” and a “misanthrope” yet found beauty and heroism where few others even bothered to look. In a post-ironic and post-Seinfeldian universe he was the last romantic — his work sincere, heartfelt, alternately dead serious and wryly affectionate. The last man standing to wonder out loud, “What happened here?”
- Anthony Bourdain, July 13, 2010
Before Harvey Pekar self-published American Splendor in 1976, there were no publicly distributed memoir comic books. Sure, people doodled in their journals or sketchbooks, and some super-hero artists/writers included themselves in their fantastic stories, but before American Splendor, comix were synonymous with fiction and fantasy.
JT Waldman is the author of “Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me” and Megillat Esther. Visit his official website here. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
I met Harvey Pekar in 2005. On a whim, I gave him a copy of my book, and he really liked it. A series of awkward interactions at comic book signings led to a small collaboration for the foreword of a book about the history of Jews and comics. A few months later he asked me to work on an entire book with him about the history of Jews and Israel.
In 2008, we began what is now known as “Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me,” a graphic novel published by Hill & Wang and available here. The graphic memoir interweaves his gradual disaffection with the modern state of Israel with a comprehensive visual history from Biblical times to the present. Told over the course of a single day in his hometown, the book follows Pekar and myself as we wrestle with the mythologies and realities surrounding the Jewish homeland.
Crossposted from Haaretz
Israel — its conflict and its paradoxes — has become a source of inspiration for cartoonists from all over the world, who seek to explore this hot topic through a combination of graphics and narration. In 2008, the Quebecois comic-book author Guy Delisle moved to East Jerusalem for the year, following his wife, who worked at the time for Medecin Sans Frontiere.
“We only found out we were going there a month before we moved. We thought we were going to Japan. I had no particular interest in Israel and the conflict at the time,” Delisle said in an interview with Haaretz.
It is probably this fresh look on the conflict that has made “Chroniques de Jerusalem” — the graphic novel he would eventually publish at the end of 2011 — so appealing to the French audience, where it is now becoming a best-seller.
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
I’m often asked how to go about extending the shelf life of yesteryear’s Jewish cultural treasures. It seems to me that studying them in class is one way to keep them fresh and evergreen. Another is through creative recycling.
A lively, smart example of how to preserve Jewish culture by rethinking and extending its meaning, context and form can be found these days at Sixth and I synagogue, where a modest and unassuming exhibition, “Liana Finck: The Bintel Brief,” has just opened.
Taking her cue — and her material — from the Forward’s pioneering, and justly celebrated, advice column, Bintel Brief, which debuted in 1906, Liana Finck offers a decidedly postmodern interpretation.
On Tuesday, Trina Robbins wrote about a Jewish woman who drew comics. Her posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite, courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Last month I flew to Seattle to attend the first GeekGirlCon (but not the last!). GeekGirlCon is for the Rest of Us; maybe not 99%, but definitely 52%, the women who have for so long been shut out of a male-dominated comics industry, and from all the related male-dominated industries, like computers and gaming. It’s for us geeky girls who spent our high school years as outsiders, never cheerleaders, never dating the members of the football team (often never dating at all!), our noses buried in science fiction or fantasy books or comics. All those geeky girls have grown up into enthusiastic and talented young women who are making great clothes and jewelry, creating wonderful new comics — and with not a superhero in the bunch. The energy level in the rooms was high and optimistic.
Instead of complaining about the insultingly gigantic-breasted women in the mainstream, male-oriented comics, the GeekGirls are drawing comics for themselves, which means for us. They’re telling stories that we GeekGirls (and as the oldest person at that convention, I’m still a GeekGirl) can read and identify with, and drawing them beautifully. I was on a panel devoted to Womanthology, a new women’s anthology project that raised their goal of $25,000 in production funds via Kickstarter in under 20 hours. By the end of the fundraising period a month later, they had raised $109,301, making Womanthology the most-funded comics project to date. I’m honored to be one of the contributors. I told the audience about my Lily Renee graphic novel, and one woman said to me after the panel that she was moved to tears just learning about Lily’s story.
Trina Robbins is the author of the just-released “Lily Renee, Escape Artist,” the Jewish superhero comic book “GoGirl!” and many other books. Her posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Today I’m recovering from my annual Worst Cold Ever, trying to take it easy with a book and hot chai — and I’m angry. The book I’m reading is “Suite Francaise” by Irene Nemirovsky, written in pencil in tiny cramped handwriting on the pages of a worn notebook while she was hiding from the Nazis in 1942. Nemirovsky was already a famous and successful author, but that didn’t matter to the Nazis, who eventually found her, arrested her, and murdered her in Auschwitz. Her two young daughters spent the war years in hiding, first in a convent, then moving from house to house. When they fled from the Vichy gendarmes Denise, the older daughter, took Nemirovsky’s notebook with her, not because she knew what was in it, but because it was something of her mother’s that she could keep. It was many years before the sisters could bring themselves to read the contents of the notebook, but when they did they realized that they had been carrying around their mother’s last novel, about Parisians fleeing the 1940 Nazi invasion.
“Suite Francaise” was finally published 64 years after her death.
The book trailer is out for Art Spiegelman’s much-anticipated “MetaMaus,” a look at the creation of his iconic “Maus” graphic novel, now celebrating its 25th anniversary.
In the video Spiegelman says that “Maus” is more about the relationship between a father and son “trying to understand each other” than it is about the Holocaust. In the original “Maus,” Spiegelman tells the story of his father, Vladek, from before the Holocaust to his later life in New York.
In “MetaMaus” Spiegelman portrays himself dealing with the unexpected success of his creation and always having to answer the same three questions: “Why Comics? Why Mice? Why the Holocaust?” “MetaMaus,” Spiegelman says, is an attempt to answer these questions once and for all.
Watch the book trailer for ‘MetaMaus’:
On Monday, Galit and Gilad Seliktar shared the making of the first story in “Farm 54,” “The Substitute Lifeguard.” Today, they share the background behind “Spanish Perfume,” the second story in their graphic novel. Galit and Gilad Seliktar’s posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Galit: In 1982 my father was enlisted to the First Lebanon War and my mother was left on the farm with four young children. Communication with the northern frontier was carried out through rare phone calls, messages from those who came home to the village for a short vacation and censor-approved green military postcards that my father would send each one of us. When I found some of those postcards several years ago — my mother’s, Gilad’s and mine — I recalled those chaotic days on the home front and this triggered the writing of “Spanish Perfume.” I was reminded that when my father was away in Lebanon, my mother hit our German shepherd with the car and then asked me and two of my siblings — Sharon and Oren — to take the dead dog out of the basement and bury it outside. Gilad, the youngest, was forbidden from going down to the basement. I also remember that my mother used to pass the stressful wartime evenings playing cards with “men that nobody wanted at war.”
If I had my druthers I’d do a universal search/replace on the Internet, find all instances of Harvey Pekar, who died one year ago at age 70, being lazily labeled a “curmudgeon,” and switch each misnomer to “mensch.” It’s not that he was always cheerful, as those who knew him, or read his autobiographical “American Splendor” comics, or saw the movie of the same name starring Paul Giamatti, knew. It’s just that like in the news, the negative gets more play.
Much of the misconception stems from the film, a half-biopic, half-documentary. Because it can only show so much in two hours, perhaps it overemphasized Harvey as a downer, and downplayed how much of an enthusiastic, gracious, child-like serial appreciator he was. About 50% of his work, in comics and prose, was not complaining about minutiae, but championing unheralded writers, musicians, artists or just people he knew and on whose lives he cast a non-sugarcoated yet affectionate eye. This was especially true of not famous or successful geniuses like saxophonist Joe Maneri, whom Harvey frequently raved about for Jazz Times.
What is on Gary Shteyngart’s mind? Only a clairvoyant would know. It’s much easier to surmise what’s on his bookshelves.
The Strand Book Store in Greenwich Village has set up a display in which well-known writers take turns exhibiting their favorite books. In June, it looked as though a bookcase in Gary Shteyngart’s living room had come to life, strolled into the book store, and tripped, dropping all its contents neatly onto a table.
Shteyngart has bonded with the store. As he writes on the store’s website: “When I was a half-starving New York writer (1995-2002), the Strand offered salvation in its 50% off aisles, cast-off reviewer copies that lined my first IKEA bookshelves.” He adds: “I will never forget the days of saving up two $20 bills to score a whole bagful of books from the Strand, my stomach filled with cheap hot dogs and a poor man’s version of Pepto Bismol…”
Mirka Hershberg is a normal 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl. She attends school, polishes the candlesticks for Shabbat, does her homework, gives tzedakah, fights trolls and dreams of slaying dragons.
Well, maybe not your typical 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl.
Written by illustrator Barry Deutsch, “Hereville” is the story of Mirka’s quest for a dragon-slaying sword. Originally drawn as a comic strip on Girlamatic.com, Deutsch recently developed it into a graphic novel.
Raised in the remote village of Hereville, Mirka lives with her father, stepmother, and eight siblings. Though her stepmother tries to instruct her in the “womanly arts,” including knitting and crocheting, Mirka has bigger dreams for herself that don’t include domesticity.
She wants to fight dragons.
“Cookalein” is Yiddish for “a modest bungalow, usually in the Catskills” where mothers would cook for their vacationing families. It’s also the title of one of the more modest but moving works in “Will Eisner’s New York: From the Spirit to the Modern Graphic Novel,” which opened last week at Soho’s Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, running through June 30.
The exhibit showcases the work “of the comics and graphic novel master that was inspired by, and which spotlighted, his hometown, the city he always held closest to his heart: New York,” according to its website. Progressing from the iconic early “Spirit” cartoons to his prodigious later output of graphic novels — most with Jewish themes — the show offers a rare opportunity to see Eisner’s original work up close. While much of his graphic-novel portrayals are “affectionate, and softer-edged in terms of social commentary,” co-curator Danny Fingeroth told the Forward, “some works are as savage as any Philip Roth or Saul Bellow on the less pleasant sides of the Jewish-American experience.”