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 From 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.
Best of Enemies:A History of US and Middle East Relations, Part One: 1783-1953
By Jean-Pierre Filiu and David B. Abrams Books
For a straightforward narrative that also includes some amazing illustration, check out this book. David B. is the artist that brought you Epileptic and his work is amazing. If books like this existed while you were in history class, all those wars, treaties and dead politicians would have made a lot more sense, or at least have more personality. A great book for inquisitive teens interested in history and social critique.
This one is the most intimate and powerful of the bunch. Farm 54 is composed of three semi-autobiographical vignettes that chart an Israeli girl’s growth as an adolescent to young soldier amid the realities of death and war. The book is written and drawn by a brother and sister creative team from Israel. The illustrations are evocative of print making by using a single color offset. The result is simple and stunning sequences that create a visual language that is unique and almost haunting. =”#1″>A great read for open-minded teenage girls and boys.
By Guy Delisle
This book is great for people who have lived in Israel at one point in their lives. I’m not sure if current residents would look so nostalgically at the quirky way that Jerusalem is depicted in this enthralling travel journal by acclaimed Canadian artist/scribe, Guy Delisle. I found the small observations about playgrounds in East and West Jerusalem and the way Israelis treated North Americans who are not Jewish to be fascinating. The book is beautifully crafted and just won big at Angouleme 2012. It might be too dense for most teens, but great for wandering Jews that love to travel.
By Dorit Maya Gur
Created by an Israeli illustrator to defy clichéd depictions of heroes in Israeli culture, Falafel Man is part action and part political satire. With the ability to shoot sizzling hot falafel at his enemies, this super-hero is reminiscent of The Tick and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The female author attains an impressive level of pubescent crassness usually reserved for thirteen-year old boys. This comic is currently available only in Hebrew. It will be hard to find unless you can get to the great comic book store, Comics and Vegetables in Tel Aviv.
Shirley: A Sex Comedy
By Noa Abarbanel and Amitai Sandy
Part of the Israeli hipster comix collective Dimona, artists Abarbanel and Sandy create a fun and equally bizarre tale that is definitely NSFW and not for kids under 16. However, if you’re the type of parent who is looking for frank and non-exploitive depictions of sexuality and dating dos-and-don’ts, this book is actually quite appropriate. It’s like that TV show Girls, but set in Israel. Versions in English and Hebrew are in print.
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.
“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 60′s, 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.
With Harvey Pekar’s writing, underground comix based on mundane personal realities began to flourish. From travel journals, to anthologies about true porn, the “gonzo literary comic” style of graphic memoirs has become its own cottage industry in publishing.
Here’s a sampling of the wide range of comic book creators who make comic books about their private lives: Allison Bechdel, Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman, Josh Neufeld, Miriam Libicki, Miss Lasko Gross, Marjane Satrapi, Craig Thompson, Brian Fies, David B., Marisa Acocella Marchetto, Seth, Peter Kuper, David Small, and Guy Delisle, to name just a few.
This summer in Toronto, the Third Annual Graphic Medicine Conference will delve into the use of comix in health practices. This year, the highly focused confab will explore depictions of the Outsider or Other in the context of issues such as barriers to healthcare, the stigma of mental illness and disability, and the silent burden of caretaking.
Museums and galleries have also opened their doors to graphic memoirs. Last year, an exhibition entitled “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women” toured the United States.
Graphic memoirs predate blogs, tweets, and Facebook statuses, but the essence and basic components of both media are the same. Today, nearly everyone shares snippets of himself or herself, telling stories to the masses through blurbs and images in sequences. Entire markets are now built around this data.
In the mid-seventies, Harvey Pekar was doing all this before it was ubiquitous and commercialized. He shared his perspective regardless of the number of followers or friends in his circles. Harvey was an archivist and a storyteller at the same time. He was the Paul Revere of graphic memoirs presaging a literary long tail before it was even in sight. He demonstrated that everyone had a voice AND could find an audience. All they had to do was find a pen and start pondering on paper.
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.
Producing this book was a bittersweet project for me. When Harvey passed away two years ago, I went from being a hevruta to chevra kadisha. For the better part of four years I was one of a handful of artists working with Harvey on various projects. However, I suspect that the Judaic focus of our relationship was quite unique. I like to think he didn’t call everyone boychik.
Although Harvey cultivated a curmudgeon character on screen and in print, the man himself was quite kind and surprisingly encouraging. Harvey expressed complete faith in my creative vision and was always telling me to “do my thing.”
I got a kick out of Harvey’s sense of timing. He would call me at the most inopportune moments. First thing Monday morning as I sat down to my desk job. Saturday night while I was at a pub with friends, or my favorite, 8:30 AM on Thanksgiving morning.
Harvey had his own way of doing things. He didn’t use the computer. No email, just phone calls and photocopies of his hand written scripts. Decoding his prose, dividing it into digestible chunks, and offering my spin was part of the fun of working with Harvey. Even now, when I recall all those conversations about Judaism and its people, and talking about baseball, Harvey continues to make me smile.
However, finishing the book without Harvey over the last two years was heavy. I wish I could say it was fun. But I missed my collaborator and friend and I was drawing him everyday, so it was a particularly bizarre process of mourning and creativity. Which I guess is oddly appropriate for a graphic novel about Israel.
My Pekar years were full of crazy amounts of joy and sadness and taught me a lot about the type of person and artist that I am. I was lucky to be in the graces of a comix legend and be given the opportunity to be myself and represent another person through comix. I trust that Harvey would be proud of the way the book turned out.
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.
When I walked down the airplane gangplank for the first time in Ben Gurion airport, I immediately noticed the baggage handlers unloading our plane. I was told they were “gruzinim”, or Georgian Jews. I had thought Israel would be filled with people who looked like my neighbors, my temple congregation, or even me. But they were totally different. I didn’t realize what an amazing variety of Jews and cultures had come from every corner of the world to make up the population of Israel.
I lived in Jerusalem and worked for the Israeli Broadcasting Authority doing illustrating and drawing animation for children’s programming. If I needed models for my work, all I had to do was to step out into the street and walk in any direction.
In the alley in Nachalot, where I lived, in a 17th century Turkish domed apartment, I befriended a Yemenite scribe, Ovadia, who had a tiny one room studio, just off the local well. There he copied the torah on vellum with quill pen and India ink. At times he would be dressed in black pants and white shirt and at other times in a flowing robe and pants. He had different hats, headdresses and turbans that he would change several times a day. It seemed to depend on who was visiting him. He made the best coffee in a small finjan on an electric grill next to his drawing table.
There were others who lived in the neighborhood from Morocco, Bukhara, India, Persia, Turkey and every European country. I’m always trying to fit them into my work. Here is a good example of the Jewish cultural types from my book, The Joyous Haggadah. Ovadia is first on the left.
This is a composite from kibbutz families I’ve known.
The idea for Too Many Latkes! came from one of my fondest childhood memories. My mother was the office manager of our synagogue and in charge of organizing the annual “Latke Fundraiser.” She would always say, “This year we’re going to make a mountain of latkes!” Every year, all the latke cooks would gather at the temple on Hanukkah and fried huge amounts of latkes. They never quite made enough latkes for a mountain but the image stuck in my head.
When I had my own kids and we began a tradition of making elaborate holiday parties with ceremonies, music and song. I looked around for something entertaining that I could do. The first thing that came to mind was that latke mountain. Taking bits and pieces from the many stories I illustrated and animated for children?s programming in Israel and the US, I came up with the outline of Too Many Latkes! At the time I was a storyboard artist for Doug, the animated TV show and daily I would make little Post-It flip books to work out scripted action. It seemed natural to make Latkes into a big newsprint flip book that I could act out in front my guests, the way I would a storyboard pitch.
It became a big hit at Hanukkah and every year inevitably some body would ask when is it going to be a book. By the time I got around to seriously making it into book form, the nature of publishing and even drawing had changed. I no longer worked on paper. My drawings were done with a stylus in programs on computer screen. To keep the feeling of the large original black and white marker drawings on newsprint, I had to reduce, scan, color and touch up the drawings in PhotoShop. A lengthy process but well worth it since, the digital images loose little when published in paper or Ibook form.
Now I can do book readings using a computer slideshow, drawing tablet, speakers, projector and HD screen. However, there are places that are just too intimate for all those gadgets. So from the digital files, I’ve printed out again black and white images and made a new flipbook.
Some things never change.
The memory of my cousin handing me my first copy of MAD Magazine when I was 12 is still fresh in my mind. I can feel my hands tremble as I looked down at the cover painting of Alfred E. Neuman as a scarecrow. My cousin said this magazine was going to change my life and he was right. From that moment on I was hooked. I was a cartoonist. As I turned the pages I knew all I wanted to do was to make drawings that everybody would laugh at, just like that group of talented idiots.
This was also the time when I was obsessed with the Marx Brothers movies. There was no Netflix, Internet, VCRs, or 24/7 TV. There were just three channels on our black and white set and they usually went off the air before midnight. I’d scour the TV listings for weeks looking for one of their films. If one did appear it was usually scheduled beyond my bedtime. That night, when everyone was asleep, I’d sneak downstairs, turn on the TV with the volume just above a whisper and watch, my eyes as big as saucers, the incredible comic anarchy of the Marxes. The next morning, I’d trudge to school where I’d spend the better part of homeroom, Latin, and Geometry classes filling the margins of my notebooks with super heroes, goofy weirdoes and slimy monsters, inspired by my real mentors.
My first brush with notoriety came about from one of those doodles in Hebrew School. Sitting in the back of class, as the teacher pounded away at the blackboard on the pronunciation of Hebrew verbs, I drew a small little sketch of her dancing a hora, naked. Under it, I wrote “Mrs. K…. Blows!” I passed it to the kid next to me. He stifled a delighted guffaw. I thought he would pass it back but instead I saw it make its way around the class with the sound of suppressed giggles. The teacher, sensing something was up, grabbed the offending scrap. She went on a tirade, which consisted of what an offensive drawing it was and wanting to know what she had to “blow” about since she felt she was a very modest person. The poor lady didn’t get it.
My popularity went way up. From being just a face in the crowd, I was established as The Cartoonist for the rest of my school career. However, the teacher got her revenge when years later I lived and worked in Israel and sorely missed not having a better grasp of the pronunciation of those Hebrew verbs.
My obsession with cartoon drawing has enabled me to make a living from illustrations, editorial cartooning, storyboarding for commercials, TV animation and feature films. Now, with the publication of my own books, like Too Many Latkes!, I’ve returned to the seat at the back of the class. I still want to make people laugh when I draw.