Excerpt from The Bleeding Tree, by Shane Kirshenblatt. Copyright 2014 Alternate History Comics Inc.
I last visited the subject of Jewish graphic novels in 2009. Well, guess what? They went and wrote more. Also, I found even more that I somehow missed the first time (in my defense, there are a lot…).
Someone also went and made a real study of the Jewish graphic novel and started anthologizing it. And they did an exemplary job. The Jewish Comix Anthology is not just a labor of love, but of lust. The colors are rich and vibrant, the paper is thick and glossy, and the book as a whole is weighty and substantive. I don’t usually gush, but then I don’t usually see anything this gush-worthy.
The theme of Volume 1 is “myth,” so its stories are collected from 40 years of graphic-novelizing on Jewish folklore, fairytales, legends, and midrash. The work of giants of the genre such as Art Spiegelman, Will Eisner, and Harvey Pekar are included; even a Torah tale by friend-of-the-Jews Robert Crumb is among the 40 artists collected herein. Readers will find several takes on the Golem saga, Chasidic and Chelm tales – stories from the Levant to the Lower East Side. The care lavished on it shows in the curation of its content, too. The Jewish Comix Anthology is takeh a mechaya.
Steven M. Bergson, its editor, ran a chapter of the Association of Jewish Libraries, and has a master’s in library and information science. He clearly knows and loves graphic novels, and wanted to make something you’d want in your library. The Jewish Comix Anthology succeeds in giving graphic novels the kavod, the gravitas, they have earned.
Other recent contributions to the Jewish graphic novel bookshelf deal with, naturally, the Holocaust. Reinhard Kleist’s The Boxer, as its subtitle explains, is “The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft.” It is the tale of a scrappy kid who learns both the ropes of survival in Hitler’s Europe and the ropes of the boxing ring. The book concludes with capsule stories of other Jews forced to fight each other in the death camps by bored, sadistic Nazis.
We Won’t See Auschwitz is a post-Holocaust story about two French-Jewish brothers – one, the author, Jérémie Dres. Rather than see where their ancestors died, they decide to see how they lived. The brothers visit Poland, but instead of Auschwitz, they see their grandfather’s native village of Zelechow, their grandmother’s hometown of Warsaw, and a major Jewish festival in Krakow.
Berlin, however, is a pre-Holocaust trilogy, told as the sun sets on the Weimar Republic. In the first volume, City of Stone, Jason Lutes introduces us to the journalist and artist whose stories we follow. The second volume, City of Smoke, details tensions brought by the May Day demonstration of 1929 and the relief proffered by American jazz. Book Three is not out yet.
Another graphic novel is set even earlier, at the turn of the twentieth century. Leela Corman’s Unterzakhn, Yiddish for “underthings,” is about twin girls in the Lower East Side, circa 1910. They learn about the options that exist for women of their time, most of which are not that attractive. We follow them up to adulthood, when they discover the consequences of their earlier choices, often made in the name of self-preservation. The drawing style is reminiscent of Persepolis.
Jewish history is a rich trove of material for Jewish graphic novelists. Still, let’s hope some turn their attention to the events of today… or even try to imagine Jewish life in the future.
I erroneously stated in my earlier piece that Jews and the Graphic Novel by David Gantz was the earliest long-form analysis of this genre. An astute reader corrected me; The Jewish Graphic Novel: Critical Approaches, edited by Samantha Baskind and Ranen Omer-Sherman, was published first.
However, I can reasonably assert that the most recent, as of this writing, is The Quest for Jewish Belief and Identity in the Graphic Novel, which came out in June.
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