Jobnik!: Sex, Guns, and Hot Israeli Soldiers (An Interview)

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The title of artist and writer Miriam Libicki‘s comic series Jobnik!: An American Girl’s Adventures in the Israeli Army made me wary at first. The first thing you think of when someone name-drops the Israeli army is, it’s going to be fiercely political and partisan. And when you think about political comics, you can be forgiven if the image your mind conjures up is pro-Palestinian protesters or boring Israeli propaganda.

jobnik 8 miriam libickiJobnik! is decidedly more personal. After an intensely candid prologue in which Miriam is diagnosed by a military psychologist — “Overly emotional, disconnected from reality, possessed of anxieties (especially social), unable to form interpersonal bonds, sexually conflicted…sure you haven’t considered suicide a little bit?” — she’s introduced to her new Hebrew-speaking coworkers and her new job: secretary to an overdemanding, office-supplies-stealing sergeant.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Israel that Miriam (the author) portrays and that Miriam (the character) stumbles through in this “sometimes autobiographical” series is a multi-layered one filled with sex and sexism, adventures and concerts and lonely soliloquies, all punctuated by lots and lots of bus rides. The Miriam of the story is a character in flux: torn between being religious and being secular, the social pressure to date and the desire to play the field — coupled with, of course, the fact of being on an army base in the middle of nowhere with a whole platoon of sexed-up twentysomethings in peak physical condition.

Libicki’s portrayal of the Israeli army includes a lot of what, in our American Western minds, we’d think of as matter-of-fact sexism. Her officers flirt with her. She embarks into hook-ups with other soldiers, relationships that aren’t relationships, dangerous flirtations, bizarre social schemes. Some scenes totally confound our sensibilities, like where the female soldiers discuss whether different uniforms make a character’s thighs look big. It’s a different world they’re living in.

And Miriam is living in an even different world than that. She is an expatriate several times over, traveling through the shidduch-dating world in New York and the underground folk-rock scene in Toronto — as well as the after-hours Israeli military social scene — without fitting seamlessly into any of them. A just-released compendium collects Jobnik!‘s first six comics in a 200-page full-book format, while the newest issue follows Miriam back to Israel after a hiatus in North America and introduces a new potential storyline, and two new potential love interests.

What are you working on now?

Jobnik! is continuing. The graphic novel that I published is supposed to be the first in a trilogy of books that are about that size. It’s still the idea that I always had — I served for a year and 9 months in the army, and I wanted to do a book that took me from the first month till the last month. I sat down with my old army diaries and an overview of the intifada and I basically did a very, very rough outline of everything else that’s going to happen.

So you have a master plan? You know what’s going to happen, say, in issue #17?

Right now I do. It could all change. There should be 18 issues altogether. If you go to my Livejournal, you can see the first page of issue 8, although I’m really really way far behind on where I should be. I wanted to have it finished by the summer, and I had the thumbnails finished by New Year, and the final pages I’ve done this winter. I have some commissions, and then I have everything else going on, too.

jobnik by miriam libickiWhat’s “everything else”?

I have a part-time day job, which I didn’t have for the rest of the time I was making comic books. I always kind of planned to get a day job; I thought it was something people should do.

I’ve gotten to the point with my comic book where I don’t lose money, where I recoup travel costs and printing costs, but I don’t make enough to pay my rent. So I have a part-time job and it’s working with kids, which is fun, but very tiring every day. I’m furthering my education in teaching children, but leaves less time for comic books — well, not less time, but less energy.

Do your kids know about your secret life?

Not at all — it’s something I try to keep really separate, because Jobnik! is a comic book, and some of the stuff in there isn’t really — well, people who aren’t familiar with the history of graphic novels would expect it, but people expecting Sunday morning cartoons would find the content to be really shocking. {laughs} I really hope that the parents of the children I teach don’t find out!

How long have you been away from Israel? Do you have to look at visual cues or old scrapbooks to jog your memory, or do the feelings and visual memories of Army camps and Egged buses just naturally come to you?

I was discharged in May 2002, and I left the country two weeks after. I’ve been back — over half my family still lives there. My parents made aliyah after I came back. I still go back often, but not as often as I like — I’ve got two siblings with their families there. I try to visit, but that works out to less than once a year.

I’ve had a couple of articles in the Israeli press. In fact — probably the article that gives me the most pleasure is the IDF international magazine that gets sent around to all the bases, they did a feature on me.

What do they think of your comic-book double life?

Well, they’ve always encouraged me a lot artistically. My father is somewhat of a prestigious artist, and we were always encouraged to draw — we were always critiqued more than other kids. When I went to art school, they never really pushed me into doing something more practical.

With the comics, it’s not completely positive — there’s dirty laundry involved — but they’re very happy about the fact that I’m doing comic books and getting myself out there, and that it’s had a teeny tiny amount of success. My father is very tickled whenever I send him an article or anything, and that makes him happy, but he doesn’t read Jobnik! himself — which I think is a good call on his part.

In Jobnik!, you’re straddling the religious divide — in the Miriam character, you identify as religious, but you’re also experimenting sexually, doing things that most people would say was way not religious, and then not doing them…

It’s something that’s just not written about. It’s not uncommon, but you don’t see it written about much, people who grew up with religion but fall into it and fall out of it, whatever your life at the time seems to allow for. This isn’t a book about my religious crisis. It has that, but — spoiler! — religious crises aren’t what the plot is going to turn out to be about.

I’m always trying to negotiate my religiosity with the rest of my life. For me, being religious has always been more about practice than faith. I come from a Modern Orthodox practice, where faith is de-emphasized, as opposed to what you do.

Do you think you’ll tell that story in your future?

I don’t think so, because that isn’t my story. My attitude toward religion hasn’t changed a lot. Looking at theology, I’m now more aligned with Conservatism, even though I like the rituals and practices of Orthodoxy — although I don’t do all of them. I guess there are those sorts of people in New York, but there aren’t really any of those in Vancouver [where she lives now].

I’m also at a strange place in my Judaism now, being married to a Buddhist. I keep Shabbat to some
miriam libickiextent, being married to a Shabbos goy. I still keep kosher, even though I’ll eat out at dairy restaurants, which is not something I did growing up in Columbus. But it’s still an important part of my identity to do those things.

Is it weird to be spending so much of your life talking about a part of your life that happened so long ago?

Not really. I think it’s the richest part of my life, storytelling-wise, and when I get a bit bored with it, I do a drawn essay. But it’s something I can use to beat myself over the head with. I can calculate how much time it’s spent writing about vs. doing it — it’s taken five years to write a story that’s seven months long so far. It sounds a little pathetic when I say it like that –

No way! It sounds pretty wild, actually.

It’s an interesting story to tell. It’s just a very drawn-out process. It’s funny that even — I think if I weren’t writing about this, I wouldn’t have as many army dreams as I’m writing about right now.

What sort of dreams — terrorism dreams? Israel dreams?

No, not really. When there is an enemy, I’m basically running from Nazis like Indiana Jones. Not even like my grandparents. Like Indiana Jones.

I’m definitely going to get more into this in volumes two and three, because that’s when the terrorism really kicks up in Israel. That’s when the terrorism becomes really pervasive and affects you, but i think that, like many Israelis, it was this mind-numbing depressive thing rather than this panic thing.

It’s kind of nuts to read how, together with all the army insanity and the relationship insanity, you use news reports and terrorist alerts. It’s like Israel becomes an allegory for you.

That’s definitely intentional. I needed to include the news and the Intifada because that’s the hook of the story — “teenager making poor relationship choices” is not a great hook. When I use the news bits, it’s not my memories I’m working off. Most of these, I don’t have a clear memory of where I was when this bombing began or where that treaty happened. I guess it’s a very intense way, but Israel is an intense place to be, back then, and even more so now.

In Vancouver, I feel like I’m in a sort of exile in a way — it’s a quiet place, and a safe place. In my spare time, I have the freedom to write this book.

Miriam Libicki is the artist and writer behind Real Gone Girl Studios. The collected Jobnik!: An American Girl’s Adventures in the Israeli Army is available now.

Posted on April 23, 2010

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