Joyce Brabner/Mark Zingarelli
“Joyce Brabner, best known as Harvey Pekar’s widow and collaborator, has released a graphic novel about early efforts in a New York gay community to fight the AIDS epidemic.”
So began a recent Cleveland Plain-Dealer review of “Second Avenue Caper” (Hill & Wang, $22), a deeply moving and bitingly funny new graphic novel authored by Brabner and drawn by revered comics illustrator Mark Zingarelli.
For a fan of Brabner’s work, the Plain Dealer’s praise feels double-edged. Three years after her late husband’s death, Brabner still gets tagged as his widow rather than a key comics figure in her own right.
Brabner’s actually been writing comics for decades, including 1989’s “Brought to Light: A Graphic Docudrama” and 1987’s acclaimed anti-war “Real War Stories,” drawn by legendary comics creator Alan Moore. She also co-wrote “Our Cancer Year” with Pekar, considered a touchstone in autobiographical comics.
Second Avenue Caper fits squarely in that tradition. Set in Manhattan in the darkest early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis, Brabner’s vivid script tells the story of a band of friends – her friends – who plotted to smuggle illegal drugs from Mexico to help beloved comrades desperately ill and abandoned by the medical establishment. The story unfolds through the account of Ray, a male nurse and drag-show producer; his Jewish partner, Benny, becomes a collaborator.
Characters disappear the way Brabner’s circle did at the height of the epidemic. Zingarelli’s realistic, classical style gives the story an unsentimental edge that only amplifies its power.
Second Avenue Caper is Brabner’s first solo project since her husband’s death. The writer spoke with the Forward from her home in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
Michael Kaminer: Is it a stretch to say that in terms of fighting tragedy with humor, Second Avenue Caper feels like very Jewish story?
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.
Josh Frankel is an unlikely publisher and an even more unlikely entrepreneur. Yet he’s the founder of Zip Comix, the publisher of “Cleveland” — the critically acclaimed posthumous work by underground comics legend Harvey Pekar, author of the long-running autobiographical series American Splendor.
Both Frankel and I went to Drew University, where he was a year ahead of me. At Drew, Josh was mostly known as the founder of the Comic Book Club, which boasted an impressive string of high-profile guest speakers from the comic book industry. But mostly people dismissed him as a nerd — or worse, a fanboy, that particular species of comic book nerd that can spend hours discussing an obscure inconsistency in an early issue of “Superman.”
Then Frankel surprised everyone by securing an investor and starting Zip Comix; he not only published his own one-shot comic book, which was accepted by Diamond, the comic book distributor without whom it’s nearly impossible to sell a single issue of any comic, let alone a self-published one. It was called “The Schizophrenic,” about a superhero whose adventures are really his own hallucinations come to life. When I ran into Josh at a party earlier this year he told me that he was the publisher of Pekar’s book, and he’s now contemplating a second printing. I sat down recently with Frankel to ask him about Yiddish storytelling, the industrial middle class and his relationship with Harvey Pekar.
David A.M. Wilensky: How did you end up publishing “Cleveland”?
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.
In 2000, filmmaker Alan Zweig gained modest success on the festival circuit with “Vinyl,” a documentary probing the quirks and eccentricities of compulsive record collectors. (“Compulsive” referring not to some guy with a few hundred LPs, but to some guy who rents a U-Haul locker on the edge of town to serve as a supplementary storage archive.) In a highly conversational, and often confrontational manner, Zweig pressed his subjects to spill the beans about their hoarding impulses, their loneliness, and all of their other personal peccadilloes. And it was all intercut with shots of Zweig interviewing himself in a vanity mirror, mining his own emotional depths.
It’s a style that Zweig — a former taxi-cab driver who shares an affinity with the bare-all first-person narratives of Charles Bukowski and Harvey Pekar — would employ in his subsequent studies of human loneliness: 2004’s “I, Curmudgeon,” 2007’s “Lovable,” and 2009’s “A Hard Name.” In the post-“Bowling For Columbine” climate of documentary filmmaking that favours glossy production values, didactic voice-overs, and dumbed-down argumentation, Zweig’s films reek of bluntness and sincerity. Their ostensibly slapdash quality (he doesn’t light his subjects or use crews; it’s all Zweig and his camera) suits their anxious, candid approach — the cinema of emotional crudity.
Now Zweig, 59, is being honoured with a retrospective of his work at the 2011 Canadian International Documentary Film Festival (more colloquially, Hot Docs), which runs from April 28 to May 8 in his native Toronto. It’s a fitting homage, given Zweig’s cult status in the Toronto film scene. I spoke with Zweig in a coffee shop in the Roncesvalles neighbourhood, one of the city’s less gentrified quarters, where the he makes his home.
John Semley: How did you land on the particular style, or non-style, that defines your work?
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.
The past year has seen a bumper crop of Jewish-themed graphic novels, with subjects ranging from the recent history of the Middle East (Joe Sacco’s “Footnotes in Gaza”) to the ancient mythology of the Middle East (R. Crumb’s “Genesis”) to the poets of the Beat Generation (Harvey Pekar and Ed Piskor’s “The Beats”).
Still, the torrent of graphic productions continues. Most recently, a portion of “Farm 54,” an Israeli book by siblings Gilad and Galit Seliktar, has been published by Words Without Borders, an online magazine that regularly provides translations of works by international authors. As the pre-amble to the excerpt describes it, “Farm 54”
brings together three semi-autobiographical stories from the childhood, puberty, and early adulthood (military service years) of its female protagonist, growing up in Israel’s rural periphery in the 1970s and 1980s. The stories present the disturbing underground dimensions of adolescence, and the dangers and traumas that subvert the superficial tranquility of youth in the countryside.