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Review of Visualizing Jewish Narrative: Essays on Jewish Comics and Graphic Novels

By Molly J. Scanlon
Parker Royal, Derek, editor. Visualizing Jewish Narrative: Essays on Jewish Comics and Graphic Novels. Purdue University Press, 2016.

Derek Parker Royal’s edited collection Visualizing Jewish Narrative demonstrates that enduring questions can be found at the intersection of Jewish identity and the world of comics—the industry, the cultural phenomenon, and the field of academic inquiry.

Parker Royal articulates the goals of the collection, which 1) “offers a useful introduction to Jewish comics and the criticism surrounding them;” 2) demonstrates “the rich potential of this ever-growing field;” and 3) argues that “the history and the significance of Jewish narrative is more than mere words on a page” (10). The collection’s goals are ambitious, offering a focus that “is broad and inclusive, reflecting the diversity found in the medium” (8)—and, I would argue, the ethnoracial landscape of what it means to be Jewish(-American).

Perspectives on the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Four chapters of the collection broach the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Collectively, these chapters paint a realistically overwhelming picture of the complexities of the conflict, no matter which perspective one may be taking. In a collection titled Visualizing Jewish Narrative, a reader might expect these perspectives to be sympathetic to Israel. Instead, the chapters present a collectively nuanced look at the conflict through works that either take a documentary-style approach or that engage an alternate reality.

Two chapters capture direct journalistic or media-oriented engagement with the conflict. Stephen E. Tabachnik examines Exit Wounds, a work by Israeli comic artist Rutu Modan. The graphic narrative brings “a starling, new, and even encouraging clarity to these horrible events” (231), telling the story of an unusual romance that blossoms between a cabdriver, Koby, and an IDF soldier, Jamalti, who had previously been romantically involved with Koby’s father. Their shared quest to find Koby’s missing absentee father results in a mutual appreciation for one another’s pain, caused by the same man—their exit wounds. In a similar attempt to complicate the politically-dominant discourses of the conflict, Ellen Rosner Feig argues that the graphic novelist is “both a visual and a narrative witness to the moral, political, and historical issues that surround these lands and their citizens” (185). For Feig, three authors/texts successfully illustrate such a witnessing. For example, as a result of the tension between identity and loyalty, Feig sees author Sarah Glidden—in How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less—questioning her Jewish identity because she questions unilateral support of the Israeli state. Feig reads Miriam Libicki’s autobiographical Jobnik and identifies the moment when Miriam “recognizes that violence is part of her life,” and once she has done so, “becomes immune to it, her transformation to true Israeli citizen is complete” (188). Lastly, in reading two of Joe Sacco’s works, Feig writes that the cartoonist “gives voice and visual narrative to a forgotten people,” his physical presence in his comics “always remind[ing readers] who is narrating and suggest[ing] a subjective human being who feels rather than an objective reporter who ignores emotions” (196). It is because of the personal perspective presented by these comics authors that “the reader is left to determine what constitutes truth and what constitutes fiction” (186), a similar dilemma experienced by anyone looking to understand the conflict.

Additional chapters engage with more fantastical reimaginings of the conflict—alternate realities where the conflict is either non-existent or manifested in ways vastly different from today. Ofer Berenstein shares readings of several Israeli comics that offer alternative realities. Despite the artistic freedom to depict otherwise, he finds that both mainstream and counterculture comics works largely reject peace with Palestine and instead reflect existing attitudes towards Israeli nationalism, “an additional impediment to Israeli society’s breaking free from the self-perpetuating cycles of ideological fixation in which it is stuck” (151). Berenstein’s findings underscore the significance of narrative—graphic or otherwise—in reflecting and informing a culture’s values—Jewish or otherwise.

Chantal Catherine Michel echoes this argument, writing about the power of narrative to construct shared identity, which then extends into new generations of Israelis, of Palestinians, and of Westerner sympathizers. She examines the documentary subgenre of comics, cautioning that its affordances—material and rhetorical—make it especially “efficient” for propaganda: “Within these artistic and stylistic liberties that make the language of comics so fascinating lies the power of comics’ images” (Duncan and Smith qtd. Michel 222-3). She concludes that artists of all persuasions—not only those writing about the conflict—should be aware of the awesome rhetorical power of comics, emphasizing that such responsibility is “especially important when the topic is purported to be handled journalistically or through a documentary lens” (229). Indeed, Tabacknik, Feig, Berenstein, and Michel collectively argue that narrative has the incredible ability to create—identity, cultural memory, loyalty, hatred, empathy, and apathy.

U.S. Immigration/Assimilation

Several contributions examine Jewish culture and identity in the United States, focusing particularly on mid-century America after World War II. For many Jewish comedians and humorists, self-parody was a dominant approach that was uniquely Jewish-American. For example, Brannon Costello presents a reading of Howard Chaykin’s Dominic Fortune¸ a character in the “superhero-style” (Fingeroth qtd. Costello 117) who, like many such protagonists, is an alien/immigrant in a strange land. Much of the comic art that fueled the superhero subgenre was generated by working class Jewish writers and artists during pre- and post-war periods. The superhero tropes of costume and alter ego represent closeted ethnoracial identities and anxieties about body image and Jewish masculinity. Costello concludes that largely, the negotiations and tensions that result from constructing a Jewish-American identity were, for many Jews, a source of political debate, social commentary, and even satirical humor—sometimes, with the finger pointed at one’s self. This flavor of self-parody is precisely the kind of humor Daniel M. Bronstein unpacks in his chapter, a democratic “pull-no-punches” satirical approach that made American Jewish comedy “a shotgun marriage of self-examination and broad social criticism” (130). Of particular note were Will Elder (known for his comedic talent and lack of pretense) and Harvey Kurtzman of MAD Magazine, who “taught two, maybe three generations of postwar American kids, mainly boys, what to laugh at” (131).

A truly unique and distinguishing feature of this collection is the inclusion of two comics presented at the end of two major sections: “Picturing Jewish Identity” and “Jewish Comics, The Holocaust, and Trauma.” At the conclusions of “Picturing Jewish Identity” Eli Valley illustrates and pokes fun at the radical reconstruction of Jewish-American identity throughout the twentieth century. “Jews and Superheroes,” a comic by Valley, presents a series of interpretations of Jewish identity, from pickle pushcart worker to civil rights activist, to plays on Jewish masculinity and sexuality, to professions like investment banking, to birthright student, to Jewish Studies chair.

In a more sober approach to historical Jewish immigration to the U.S., Lan Dong and Derek Parker Royal read the work of Will Eisner: Life, in Pictures and Dropsie Avenue respectively. In his study of Eisner, Parker Royal demonstrates, through the ethnoracial tensions on Dropsie Avenue, that America’s melting pot metanarrative is a myth. Parker Royal finds the reality much more fragmented, calling it “resistant to any notions of multicultural nationhood that any ‘category’ representations might initially suggest” (81). Parker Royal points to the cyclical nature of immigration, assimilation, and urbanization captured in Dropsie Avenue, a neighborhood that has seen numerous changes from 1870 to the mid-20th century: Dutch, English, Irish, Italians, Germans, Jews, Hispanics, and Blacks. With windows being the primary frames in the comics, Parker Royal argues that they serve as “a visual discourse on whiteness,” a theme of economic and social divisions from the perspectives of the insider(s) and the outsider(s) (83). Searching beyond Eisner’s content for larger questions of generic diversity, Dong argues that Eisner’s work “challenges the conventional conceptualization of autobiography as well as breaks new ground in creating, reading, and theorizing the graphic novel, thus expanding the ways the reader reads and understands both genres” (26). Dong’s identification of the “graphic novel” as a genre is problematic. A graphic novel (a visual, fictional, narrative) is one medium through which many genres can be enacted. We wouldn’t think to call a printed novel a genre, but with comics, attitudes are slower to shift since the medium presents such unique rhetorical affordances and demands different literacy practices than have been institutionalized culturally. I introduce this disconnect primarily because I don’t want to see this perspective echoed, especially in a progressive collection that attests to the intellectual weight and ever-broadening generic and material forms of comics.

The Holocaust and Postmemory

As a reader might expect, a number of chapters related to the holocaust focus primarily on memory, but these contributions explore incredibly nuanced readings of how nostalgia, witnessing, remembering, and generational divide can affect retellings of the Holocaust through graphic narrative.

Samantha Baskind explores memory through Joe Kubert’s work that serves, collectively, as a vivid recounting of the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust, including those who froze, starved, or were killed in the ghettos, resting at last in gas chambers, mass graves, or the arms of their parents. Kubert’s Yossel is a hypothetical imagining of the story of a child in the Warsaw Ghetto from an author whose Polish family immigrated to the US in 1926. Baskind reminds readers that Kubert is not a survivor, but a second-generation American Jew imbued with postmemory, a phenomenon which “characterizes the experience of those who grew up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by stories of the previous generation shaped by traumatic events that can be neither understood nor recreated” (Hirsch qtd Baskind, 181).

Kubert’s Yossel does not have a happy ending. Yossel is killed, like so many Jewish children. Many retellings of the Holocaust conclude with resolutions in order to satisfy the generic convention of a “happy ending.” Kubert’s narrative disrupts this readerly expectation, reminding us that for most there were no resolutions; the Holocaust killed millions, including children. Focusing on children of those who did survive, Jean-Phillipe Marcoux inquires: “If the narratives of testimony are ungraspable for secondhand witnesses because of a lack of lived experiences and of memorial references, then what is the ontological purpose of retelling the stories?” (199). Through critical readings of several texts, Marcoux is able to point to moments in graphic narratives where children of holocaust survivors must balance their second-generation perspective with their parents’ traumatic witnessing; their intervocality defining the postmemorial retellings. Wendy Stallard Flory examines The Search, a unique teaching text that provides a starting point for those Jews who, like many, are imbibed with the religious duty of sharing stories with future generations—whether or not they experienced such stories firsthand. The Search was written by historians at the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust and then underwent several stages of feedback and piloting with teachers and students from Germany, Poland, and Hungary. Flory posits that the book “is the search of its child readers for knowledge and insights into the overarching historical catastrophe” (158). As many Jewish-American families are now well into their third and fourth generations as Americans, it is especially important that such retellings move beyond the historical and into the kind of affective engagement that may soon be unavailable through survivors themselves.

Survivors, however, can project a nostalgic presentation of life prior to the war. Nicole Wilkes Goldberg and James Goldberg evoke a familiar image of contemporary popular Jewish culture: The Fiddler on the Roof’s “Tradition.” This song, they argue, is an example of the persistence of “romantic images of Jewish unity and simplicity” in pre-war Europe and offers a jumping off point for them to interrogate nostalgia (55). In response, they offer Joann Sfar’s Klezmer, where reflective nostalgia becomes “a counterpart to the prominence of Zionism in discourses of Jewish identity” (59). The authors depict Sfar’s work as a powerful argument that challenges the Israeli state established as a direct result of the Holocaust.

Defining Jewish Identity

Wilkes Goldberg and Goldberg’s chapter was one of the strongest in terms of helping me—a gentile, a non-Jew—to understand the complexities of defining and embodying Jewish identity. According to the authors, “Jewishness disrupts the very categories of identity because it is not national, not genealogical, not religious, but all of these in dialectical tension with one another” (Boyarin and Boyarin qtd. Wilkes Goldberg and Goldberg 60). The chapters that focus specifically on comics and Jewish identity explore a number of contributing factors—including pre- and post-WWII immigration to the Unites States, sexuality of Jewish men and women, and the effects of geographic boundaries/displacement on identity—as tied to community, socioeconomic status, and Jewish culture.

In chapter 2, “’Not a Word for Little Girls!’: Knowledge, Word, and Image in Leela Corman’s Unterzakhn,” Taneer Oksman examines what the comics medium brings to an adaptation of the 1921 novel Unterzakhn. Both texts “openly confront the limited options available to most immigrant women at the time” (30), but Oksman argues that Corman’s multimodal presentation of the story of these two sisters is markedly different in how it is able to portray “the unmentionable, the unofficial,” (32) in that Corman “graphically foregrounds the communal nature of [these women’s experiences in New York City]” (30).

The experiences chronicled in Unterzakhn portray the social constraints placed on women in not only domestic and social spheres, but also as related to sexual maturity and empowerment. Matt Reingold also explores issues of sexuality in the following chapter, “Jewish Sexualities in J.T. Waldman’s Megillat Esther.” Judaism’s resistance to visual representations of God translates to the frequent telling of the “Book/Scroll of Esther,” since God is not mentioned in the text. J.T. Waldman’s interpretation combined the classic text with social commentary on contemporary Jewish sexuality, particularly masculinity and the challenges of a feminist interpretation when the story is set in such an androcentric era of human civilization. Waldman’s comic visualizes the sources used in creating the work, pasting a collage of titles and authors on the ground in one particular scene. As the storyteller, Reingold argues, Waldman is reminding readers that he is self-aware and in no way hiding his subjectivity in his commentary on the ancient text and its continued relevance to a world that is still very much dominated by men.

(Re)Interpreting Holy Texts & Jewish Myth

Readers may initially approach these chapters hesitantly, as I did, unsure that they have the theological foundation to appreciate the arguments. Rest assured: the authors in these chapters do well to provide context not only for the content, but also for the cultural and religious significance of each text. Robert G. Weiner’s chapter, “The Servant: Marvel Comics and the Golem Legend” begins with his retelling of the Golem legend and offering a number of interpretations, including the broad metaphor for storytelling as the legend “[derives from] the mystical ideas about the creative power of speech, of words, and even of particular letters of the Hebrew alphabet” (Levin qtd 113). Culturally, the Golem legend is “one of basic human rights to liberty and justice” (103) and “an allegory for oppression by those who would seek to destroy the culture, livelihood, and political standing of ‘others’” (104). Tof Eklund offers a similar interpretation through contemporary texts, focusing not on the Golem legend, but on “Jewish Giants: Nephilim, Rephaim, and the [Israeli Defense Force].” They argue that these giants are often painted as “morally ambivalent and are associated with war, power, and destruction,” (257) much like the contemporary figure of the Israeli Defense Force soldier. But, Eklund argues for a more “nuanced, human, and ambivalent” (257) view and offers three texts where such an approach has be taken: Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat 2, Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds, and Miriam Libicki’s Jobnik.

Cyril Camus’ chapters is one of the volume’s few essays to challenge the notion of organized religion at all. For Camus, Gaiman’s Jewish identity informs his work; Gaiman loved being an outsider and felt it put him in a “privileged position” (242) to explore the cultural significance of myth and storytelling. For example, Camus points to Gaiman’s Outrageous Tales of the Old Testament that combined the formal properties of Golden Age horror comics with the social commentary and satirical framing of underground comix. Gaiman and the other authors use the comics form, its potential for caricature, and its “hypotextual” richness for an interrogation of religious sociology, namely the idea that there is an “essential link between violence, terror, and religion.” Gaiman’s work suggests that “The Book of Judges” from The Old Testament is “a collection of gruesome horror tales of the kind that Dr. Frederic Wertham would have strongly disapproved of” (243, 246).

Visualizing Jewish Narrative introduces readers to Jewish visual narrative texts and critical lenses through which to approach them. Its contributions will surely present new perspectives, for both experienced readers of comics and of Judaic scholarship. These perspectives can and should be more varied, however. Out of a total of 21 authors, the collection includes contributions from 7 women and 1 non-binary transgender author (xi). The texts examined and read by the contributors include a variety of comics by women, but if we consider only those works included in chapter titles themselves, the primary graphic narratives being studied are predominately written by men. Perhaps this collection, like any other, reflects a landscape—albeit one that is shifting—in which women must continue to argue for their value as talent in writing comics and as critical readers and scholars of comics. It is important that our scholarship and our bibliographies reflect such a value for diversity. On the whole, the collection largely succeeds in, as Parker Royal puts it, sharing with audiences “the complex cultural negotiations that go into illustrating, and sequentializing, Jewishness” (5). Indeed, Illustrations and sequentializations of Jewish identity are best served when they include all of the varied voices that contribute to such complex cultural negotiations.

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