In her last posts, Miriam Libicki blogged on taking Egged buses across Israel and on her process of drawing comic books. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series.
I love exhibiting at comic book conventions. Without a big publisher — and, maybe more importantly, as a memoirist — the best way to introduce readers to my comics is to introduce myself to them, one at a time.
From my first comics, ripped out of my army diaries & turned in as assignments in art school, a year & a half after my discharge, my subject matter was controversial. My very first writing professor was dissatisfied with my examination of the social politics of burning the classified papers of a military infirmary, & implored me to address the politics of Israel’s existence instead. His critique, “It might be worth you considering who you feel is your intended audience — would it be your peers at Emily Carr, a community that is more familiar with the military situation in Israel, or some other group (or combination)?” led to the creation of the Jobnik manifesto.
(detail from the first page of the Jobnik Manifesto. To view the complete comic, go here.)
The manifesto was exactly what I didn’t want to write when I began putting my very personal, very small stories to pictures. I thought I could reveal Israeli life & humanize Israeli soldiers without being the spokeswoman for Israeli policy & the latest news story out of the Middle East. But if I was being forced into that role, I might as well own it. The four-page manifesto is now the flier I give away at cons, and a cornerstone of my booth setup.
This is my booth setup:
I wear my Jewiness & Israelitude not only on my sleeve, but across my chest and on a giant banner behind me. I have definitely become a magnet for everyone’s feelings about Israel & Judaism. Some people have really… interesting feelings. What follows are the parts of my table that get the most comment, & some adventures I’ve had trying to stay on everyone’s good side while being true to myself & not delivering a free two-hour lecture on the state of modern Zionism.
1. “Desire Peace and Chase After It.”
This shirt design is a mashup of my mother’s favourite Psalm (it’s 34:14) with an infamous road sign on I-5 near the Mexico-California border. Many people take the t-shirt as an opportunity to practice their rusty afterschool Hebrew. But even a completely nonspecific message of peace attracts political reaction-mongers.
An earnest young guy, who looked like he might be hiding a velvet kippah under his baseball cap, knew what it meant & the source, but asked, “What does that mean to you? What do you think it means, exactly, to chase peace?”
I was pretty sure he was fishing for my political stance, I imagined so he could classify me as Good for the Jews or Bad for the Jews. “It means — it means it’s not enough to sit around waiting for peace. You have to struggle for it.”
He gave up. I don’t think he ended up buying anything, but I felt I told the truth while avoiding pigeonholes.
“Oh,” said one middle-aged guy after I translated. “I saw it was Hebrew, so I assumed it must be Palestinians running from bombs dropped by my fellow Jews.”
I could not immediately imagine a response. He smiled triumphantly and walked away.
2. Towards a Hot Jew: the Israeli Soldier as Fetish Object
This essay was my senior project in art school. I didn’t originally intend to bind & distribute it as a comic, but it has become, as I say in my convention pitch, “my most popular and most controversial piece.” (I also say, “Makes a great gift for the hot Jew in your life!”)
Some people are horrified at such symbols of violence being sexualized at all (obviously, this is not at superhero-oriented comic cons). Many, many people want to tell me about Israeli soldiers they have lusted after. Most people, before reading it, have no idea if it’s a pro-Israel or anti-Israel screed, but are sure it’s one or the other. (Some people still feel that way after reading it.)
Another yeshivish-looking kid said to me with a big smile, “Thanks, but this book isn’t for me. I’m a Zionist.”
That time, I was quick enough to say, “Me, too.” We actually had a decent talk after that.
When “Hot Jew” was first published digitally, I got called an anti-Semite on the internet for the first time. One patriotic American Jew sent me a scolding email, saying, “I’m 17 years older than you, and I remember the pride Jews felt in the period after the Six Day War,” and that my essay was “parroted from what I imagine is the Northwest lefty-academic milieu that you live among.” That person went silent after I wrote back that I had not only lived in Israel, but served in the IDF.
I have yet to be called a Jew-hater by anyone who has completed IDF service.
Which brings us right up to…
So I get it from the right for “Hot Jew,” & I get it from the left for jobnik! I try to hand out my manifesto to anyone who stops long enough to make eye contact. But since they can’t read it all while standing at the table, I have a brief spiel too, about how I was raised in Ohio, came to Israel on a year program, fell in love (with everything and everyone), made aliyah, joined the army, and was totally unprepared for it.
Some people come over very serious at the “joined the army” part. “Were you unprepared for it because of culture shock, or because of the actions of the IDF?” asked a young white guy in Toronto.
I acknowledged that it was really the culture shock; when I thought of bad actions of the IDF, I thought of government policies, & military strategies that were evil or heavy-handed, not the ground troops, I mean, I know there are violent racists among enlisted soldiers, but I didn’t know any, or I don’t think I did…
An olive-skinned college-age girl asked me why I volunteered for army service, at SPX. I explained that service is compulsory for Israelis, so if I was making aliya at age 18, I felt it showed the seriousness of my commitment to join the army like a real Israeli.
“Is joining the army the only way to be Israeli?” she asked.
I admitted that many Israelis do civilian national service, and some get out on health grounds. But it seemed to me that the best way to prove my non-tourist-hood was to enlist.
She was very calm but persistent. It slowly became clear that she was Palestinian-Israeli (or Israeli Arab, or 1948 Palestinian). My innocent youthful crush on Israel was suddenly a big hole I had dug for myself. I didn’t have too much to say after that. I handed her a manifesto and abortively described my other comics.
I felt so bad afterward that I waved her down, an hour later, when she passed back through the aisle. I said I was sorry I didn’t ask her name, or about her own story. As she told me about her peace activist work in D.C., I found myself blurting out all the names & organizations of friends of mine in peace & coexistence groups, until she recognized a name (or pretended to). I felt even more ridiculous. But better a clueless defensive well-meaning colonizer, I guess, than a violent racist.
People have remarked that there’s a whole lotta bus ridin’ in jobnik. Even in the issue where Miriam is on furlough in the US and Canada, she spends a page riding a bus. Why?
Firstly, there was a whole lot of bus riding in my life at that time. I specifically asked for and got a permanent assignation “far from home,” meaning where you don’t go home every day. I was further from home than most; I lived in Jerusalem and served on a base about 30 minutes from Eilat, the southernmost tip of Israel. Each Sunday and Thursday, I spent 6 hours in transit, not counting local Jerusalem buses.
You may know that a soldier in uniform with proper ID can ride any bus or train for free in Israel. This is true, with the exception of the entire southern triangle of Israel, between Be’er Sheva and Eilat. Apparently, this area is too remote, too sparse, or in the case of Eilat, too touristy for a soldier to have a reason to go there without paying. Soldiers who serve or live in this area need to carry a special “Arava card” to be able to travel free on southern buses (Arava is the desert south of the Negev). This is just to illustrate that my service was bus-filled even by IDF standards.
One challenge of cartooning about my army service is that most of it was really, really boring. Somehow I need to depict tedium without being tedious; hopefully having a bus scene a couple times an issue gives you the feeling that that was indeed how a big chunk of my life was spent.
But Egged buses are also symbolic. To me, buses are a limbo state between identities. You aren’t anybody when you travel alone on a bus. If you’re listening to music and staring out the window, as I prefer, you’re practically disembodied. One of my favorite things to do was to get off at my layover in Be’er Sheva, walk across to the street to the mall, buy a magazine and order a fancy salad at a cafe. I relished that in my uniform, reading a magazine and eating a salad alone, I could be anybody. (Being from a large family, and growing up Orthodox in Columbus, Ohio where there weren’t any kosher restaurants, means I still feel like a woman of mystery when I eat at a restaurant alone.)
jobnik, as a proper bildungsroman, is about identity, trying to find identity, trying on and discarding identities. Israelis join the army at 18 after graduating high school, so almost everyone still lives with their parents whenever they’re not on base or in combat. I think this is an even more extreme condition of toggling between adulthood and childhood than the traditional American one of going away to college (I lived with my sister who was close to me both in age and emotionally, but there was a lot of my army life I kept hidden).
I noticed that not just I, but every soldier I knew, was a different person at home and on base. One of my favorite illustrations of this was when I visited my friend Yossi for Shabbat. He was a flamboyant, in-your-face gay man on base, while at home with his Orthodox Sephardic family, he was a twice as aggressively flamboyant gay man. Then out at gay clubs, he was practically demure. Clearly, the transformations had to take place on the public transportation between these spaces.
When I had that two-week furlough six months into my service, I spent it in Columbus, Toronto and NYC. I planned it that way because I had stuff to do in all three places, and bus-riding was so thoroughly entrenched in my identity, maybe I thought I couldn’t go two weeks without it. The bus rides from Toronto to New York, and then Manhattan to Poughkeepsie, were also significant for me at the time. In the first case, I spent twelve hours on a bus, and then learned when I disembarked that my parents had been frantically phoning and emailing people on both sides, because they had expected me in New York a day earlier. This reinforced my belief that when I was out of sight of people who knew me, I ceased to exist. Which was comforting, given how painful existing often is.
Going to Poughkeepsie in the middle of the night wasn’t an adventure; it was exile from the proper Orthodox world of my sister and her new boyfriend. I thought that after my longest bus trip ever, I would be able to stay still somewhere. But I barely had time to unshoulder my giant backpack before I found out my slutty girl cooties had to sleep several counties away, to preserve tzniut.
That’s the drawback of having a transitional identity, not properly belonging anyplace; sometimes people call you on it, and make you leave.
Then, of course, there’s terrorism. Blown up and upended like a whale skeleton is how most non-Israelis think of Egged Buses, the ones who do think of Egged buses. The second intifada started in jobnik! issue 2, here at jobnik! issue 8, it’s the following March. Suicide bombings haven’t really begun in earnest yet, but they’re coming.
Miriam Libicki, an American Jewish girl from a religious home, enlists in the Israeli Army one summer against everyone’s better judgment. Many qualities seem to make her unsuited for IDF life: her Hebrew isn’t great, she is shy and passive, and she has a tendency to fall in love with anything that moves. If that weren’t enough, the Al Aqsa uprising, a.k.a the second Palestinian Intifada, erupts a few weeks after she is stationed as a secretary in a remote Negev base. Will Miriam survive threats of terrorism, the rough IDF culture, and not least, her horrible taste in men?
I chose this page more or less because it was the page I was working on when I was offered to blog about my process, so I was able to un-tape it from my drawing board and scan it several times before I finished it. Below, find more detail on my process than anyone could possibly want!
I script a whole issue and break it down into pages before I start drawing, though I will sketch out the amount and configuration of panels as I am scripting. After a few years of writing comics, I have figured out how much text/dialogue I can fit in a panel and how many panels/scenes I can fit on a page (the answer to both is: a lot less than you’d think) without shortchanging the drawings.
Then I will make thumbnail drawings in an 8.5″x5.5″ sketchbook. I try to lay out the pages facing each other the way they will be when printed, so that I can design a two-page spread in a harmonious manner if possible.
This page has three scenes on it. I originally had each scene occupying one row of panels (I think in proper comix speak they’re called “tiers”), but when I got to my thumbnails, I thought the second scene wouldn’t be well served by really skinny panels, and the third scene wasn’t important enough to get a whole tier to itself.
So I’ve got the last panel of scene two occupying the same tier as scene three. My solution for visually differentiating the two was to shrink the final panel, and surround it by a lot more white space (“gutter” in proper comix speech). This also serves to reinforce how minor it is as a scene. Also, because Miriam is a limited first-person narrator, the very look of each panel is influenced by her mental state. Here, she feels small. Get it?
This sounds so dumb when I have to explain it. I really love how the comix medium allows one to show instead of tell in a more literal manner than text literature.
Note that some figures in a thumbnail are extremely rudimentary, and some of them are a lot more worked through, as I try to practice the facial expressions I want, as well as tricky poses, like how your hands look when you’re opening a tub of cottage cheese. Also note that I add speech balloons but not text. This is to give me a basic idea of where and how much space I need to give for the text. Since I already have the script, it wouldn’t do me any good to actually write the words in.
Computer layouts is something I only started doing when I started hand-lettering. I don’t have enough of a sense of how to form aesthetically pleasing text-shapes or good enough printing to letter completely freehand, so instead I trace printed text. I print the layouts of the panels along with the text because it saves me some time. If I’m using direct photo reference (*cough* tracing), I’ll also paste it into this document. I format this all in Illustrator, referring to my script and thumbnails. Then I print it out the size of my Bristol boards, and trace it using graphite transfer paper.
As it happens, I felt like I needed more help with Adi M.’s pose in scene two, so I posed in front of my computer’s camera, once for each panel. My characters’ anatomy is, uh, stylized enough that it wouldn’t have done me any good to trace these photos, but having them to look at next to my page was very helpful.
This is my final page, after I had traced the text and layouts and roughed in the figures. I said earlier that my printing isn’t neat enough to letter freehand but you’ll see that’s not exactly true; after I’d traced this page I realized I left out some crucial text, namely, the date and the translation of a Hebrew term I used in panel 1. So I did write these in freehand, using rulers to ensure a minimum of regularity. It turns out, through sheer repetition of my tracing process, I actually have developed some handlettering skills. But I guess I still need my crutch.
I didn’t trace the panel borders straight, because this issue is mostly an extended flashback. Wavy and not-as-thick panel borders is a way I am hoping to make the flashback pages visually distinct from the “present time” pages. I don’t yet know if readers will pick up on this, cause the issue isn’t published yet.
I added a lane behind the formation of soldiers with another division marching through. I did it cause the composition seemed unbalanced, and I like having the reminder that these twelve girls are just one of dozens of divisions going through exactly the same thing at the same time on this base.
I should have probably ruled all of panel 1 out using three-point perspective. But I decided to just eyeball it instead. I think if you have practiced drawing in perspective enough, you can fake it in a pinch, especially since the only thing in this pane is people, who are lumpy and squishy and irregular anyway. At least jobnik people are. I used 1-point perspective in the last panel, because it has more straight lines in it.
These are pretty much the “final pencils,” before I start “inking” with, in my case, softer pencils. If you care, my penciling pencils are 2H and H, and my “inking” pencils go from B (for flashbacky panel borders, and the smallest or most distant objects) to 3B, then I shade in tones with 3Bs-5Bs.
This is where I put in faces, clothes and any other details. At first I thought I could get away without drawing the endless rows of mess hall tables behind the characters, but then my husband pointed out that even though there are previous scenes in the mess hall, people cant be expected to assume that anytime characters are at a long table, they’re in the mess hall. So I got out my rulers and vanishing points and added in the tables and windows.
I didn’t add any people though, mostly out of laziness, but also because one of the biggest things I still struggle with in comix drawing is how much background to put in, so that there is atmosphere and context to a scene without muddying it up and taking focus away from the main action.
This is after the “inks” and tones, scanned in, but before more fixes in Photoshop. I use different softnesses of pencil when I “ink.” The softer the pencil, the darker and usually thicker the line it produces. So like in panels 2-4, the girls’ bodies are drawn with a 3B, while the distant tables are drawn with a B. Most of the lettering is done with a 2B, while the emphasized words are done with a 3B.
In Photoshop, I darken up my page more so that the darkest pencil lines are black, and it’s a fuller tonal range for printing. It also wasn’t ‘til I scanned it in that I realized I left out an asterisk in the footnote of panel one, so I was able to fix that with cut’n’pasting (not shown).
Um. Any questions?