I keep a collection in my head of the names of stories, movies, pictures that seem perfect to me. They all have a certain feel to them.
“The Artist of the Beautiful,” a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne
“The Black Monk,” a story by Anton Chekhov
Charulata, a movie by by Satyajit Ray
The Rules of the Game, a movie by Jean Renoir
The Deleuge at Norderny, a story by Isak Dinesen
The Tempest, a play by William Shakespeare
The Enchanted Castle, a novel for children by Edith Nesbit
Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
Ponyo, an animated movie by Hayao Miyazaki
Aladdin and other stories from the Arabian Nights
A lot of Japanese prints, Chinese scrolls, Islamic pictures
What do these things have in common? A certain magic. I think it’s that they are all miniatures, stories glimpsed through a keyhole. I think comics are miniatures, too.
For this story about Nasye Frug, I borrowed the butterfly (not introduced in this page) from The Artist of the Beautiful, aspects of the garden from The Black Monk, the marriage from Charulata, the observant girl character from Alice in Wonderland.
I think Nasye was the most ambitious of the stories I made for this project. I’ve had to do it over a few times to simplify it. I do my first drafts painstakingly, with a lot of different types of pens and white-out. Then I scan the pictures into the computer and change them around a lot in photoshop. I make later drafts by printing out the first draft drawings, and tracing them quickly on a light table. These later drafts are a lot of fun because I know what I’m doing and am confident enough to improvise. The first drafts are stressful.
This is a page from the tenth and last story. A girl, much like Nasye, is wrestling with the angel of death, a cartoon, after having lost her fiance in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. This story was influenced by a comic I looked at but didn’t read by Racheli Rottner called The Other Side of the World. I like when more or less realistic characters interact with imaginary ones. I think comics are the best medium for treating fantasy as reality. Because they’re so simple, and drawing in different styles on one page is like having a conversation in your head with imaginary friends, different versions of yourself.
People I’ve spoken to about the Bintel Brief agree that Abraham Cahan wrote some of the letters himself. The connective tissue of my comic, the part of the book I’m still working on, will revolve around this mystery. It will be very loose and light and I’m nervous about making it come out just right, which is why I’ve saved this part of the book for last. I hope it will leaven the stories somehow. Anyway, fun fact about this narrative: whenever any character sets out to do something (Abraham Cahan sets out to help the woman whose watch was stolen, I set out to learn about my culture and heritage) he or she will wake up, disoriented, in his or her bed.
Liana Finck is adapting old Yiddish press self-help columns into a book. This week, she’s letting us peek behind the curtain at her source material.
This is the text from the second story (translation by the excellent Jordan Kutzik):
Honorable Mr. Forvertz Editor,
Allow me a little space in your distinguished newspaper to tell your esteemed readers about what transpired at my house in the month before my wedding. As you probably know the bride whom God has blessed with many good friends receives various gifts for her wedding. I too have many friends as well as many acquaintances from the old country. A week before my wedding they all gathered at my mother’s. They brought a whole wagon full of wedding gifts to my room.
Among my countrymen, however, there was also a man who was considered to be somewhat of a “crank.” (I didn’t consider him as such, just my countrymen.) When he saw the presents that they had brought, the spirit took him and he began to scream. “Fools! What exactly have you all brought here? Four muslins, ten lamps, three sets of beddings for a couple…Come, it would be better if we all came into this room here and had a meeting to decide what every individual should bring based on what the couple needs to have, and what not to bring if they don’t need it.” But as my clever countryman is of course a “crank,” nobody paid much attention to his proposal.
Therefore I turn to you Mr. Editor. Tell me who’s right, the “crank” with his proposal to give me one coordinated set of wedding gifts or the rest of my fellow countrymen, who’ve brought me four sets of beddings?
And here is a page from my version of the story. This is the one I was least faithful to, and the first one I made.
This is the first page of a comic book I’m working on. It’s based on the Bintel Brief, a popular Yiddish advice column published in the Forvertz Newspaper beginning in 1906. It was the brainchild of Abraham Cahan, the man behind the huge success and sophistication of the Forvertz newspaper and the mastermind of the Bintel Brief.
About this page: Jacob Zemsner is a fictional character, and this myth about the tears is fictional too, but Abraham Cahan is one of my favorite real characters ever, a self-made American. His face really was vaguely heart-shaped, and he was cross-eyed and terribly embarrassed about that. More facts: he loved Charles Dickens. He was a humanist from a distance, a misanthropist close-up. He was an anarchist (he had to flee Eastern Europe at twenty-two because he was involved with the group that had assassinated the Czar), then a socialist, but not enough of a purist to satisfy any die-hard idealogues. He kept remaking himself. I completely recommend his autobiography, the Education of Abraham Cahan. A page-turner. Also his novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, which is slightly dated but no less wonderful because of that. And easier to find in a library than the autobiography is.
Seven of the ten stories I made are adapted from Bintel Brief letters that hadn’t been translated into English yet, and lifted the other three stories from the collection of Bintel Brief letters in English, owned by most grandparents.The book is not finished yet, and I’m often asked why I chose to make it. I’m not sure. I was raised in Jewish circles but never could kindle much of a feeling of belonging to any group. And why comics? I had to start forcing myself to learn about comics a couple of years after deciding (late) that comics would be the easiest artform for me to squeeze my interests (drawing, telling stories) into. So I’m not a Jew in the traditional sense, and not a comics artist either, but the one thing I feel strongly about is that honesty is not something you can aim for.
In art you have to painstakingly build a story (first you have to painstakingly build a self to tell it). Once your house is complete, down to the artificial windows, real light will shine through. I hope something will shine through these stories, in the lines and letters. Whatever the outcome, I’ll make comics for the rest of my life. Time is a good tool for art.
Here’s the first page of the first story. This story is based on the actual first letter that was written to Cahan. Cahan wrote about the letter in his autobiography.