The Quest for Jewish Belief and Identity in the Graphic Novel

The Quest for Jewish Belief and Identity in the Graphic Novel

by Stephen E. Tabachnick

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Overview

Many Jewish artists and writers contributed to the creation of popular comics and graphic novels, and in The Quest for Jewish Belief and Identity in the Graphic Novel, Stephen E. Tabachnick takes readers on an engaging tour of graphic novels that explore themes of Jewish identity and belief.

The creators of Superman (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster), Batman (Bob Kane and Bill Finger), and the Marvel superheroes (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby), were Jewish, as was the founding editor of Mad magazine (Harvey Kurtzman). They often adapted Jewish folktales (like the Golem) or religious stories (such as the origin of Moses) for their comics, depicting characters wrestling with supernatural people and events. Likewise, some of the most significant graphic novels by Jews or about Jewish subject matter deal with questions of religious belief and Jewish identity. Their characters wrestle with belief—or nonbelief—in God, as well as with their own relationship to the Jews, the historical role of the Jewish people, the politics of Israel, and other issues related to Jewish identity.

In The Quest for Jewish Belief and Identity in the Graphic Novel, Stephen E. Tabachnick delves into the vivid kaleidoscope of Jewish beliefs and identities, ranging from Orthodox belief to complete atheism, and a spectrum of feelings about identification with other Jews. He explores graphic novels at the highest echelon of the genre by more than thirty artists and writers, among them Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), Will Eisner (A Contract with God), Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat), Miriam Katin (We Are On Our Own), Art Spiegelman (Maus), J. T. Waldman (Megillat Esther), Aline Kominsky Crumb (Need More Love), James Sturm (The Golem’s Mighty Swing), Leela Corman (Unterzakhn), Ari Folman and David Polonsky (Waltz with Bashir), David Mairowitz and Robert Crumb’s biography of Kafka, and many more. He also examines the work of a select few non-Jewish artists, such as Robert Crumb and Basil Wolverton, both of whom have created graphic adaptations of parts of the Hebrew Bible.

Among the topics he discusses are graphic novel adaptations of the Bible; the Holocaust graphic novel; graphic novels about the Jews in Eastern and Western Europe and Africa, and the American Jewish immigrant experience; graphic novels about the lives of Jewish women; the Israel-centered graphic novel; and the Orthodox graphic novel. The book concludes with an extensive bibliography.

No study of Jewish literature and art today can be complete without a survey of the graphic novel, and scholars, students, and graphic novel fans alike will delight in Tabachnick’s guide to this world of thought, sensibility, and artfulness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817318215
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 06/30/2014
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,199,905
Product dimensions: 9.00(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Stephen E. Tabachnick isa professor of Englishat the University of Memphis. He has taught courses on the graphic novel formore thantwenty years and is editor ofTeaching the Graphic Novel.He hasalso taught at a university in Israel and is the author or editor of severalvolumes on Lawrence of Arabia, among other subjects.

Read an Excerpt

The Quest for Jewish Belief and Identity in the Graphic Novel


By Stephen E. Tabachnick

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8744-0



CHAPTER 1

Adaptations of the Bible


Several graphic novels have recently appeared as adaptations of one of the earliest Jewish literary works, and certainly one of the most influential: the Hebrew Bible. Since the Bible has become a universal work, I have included non-Jewish as well as Jewish adaptors in this chapter because they present new and very worthwhile ideas about the themes of belief and identity in Jewish or Jewish-related works.

J. T. Waldman's Megillat Esther will be compared to two other versions of the Esther story: one by Yehudi Mercado and another by a Christian husband and wife team, Shirley and Ernest Graham. Robert Crumb, who is not Jewish but who is married to the Jewish graphic novelist Aline Kominsky Crumb (whose work is discussed in another chapter in this book), has rendered the book of Genesis. And Basil Wolverton, who not only has no particular Jewish connections but was a member of a Christian fundamentalist group, has depicted many scenes from the Hebrew Bible in graphic novel form. Each of their renditions offers a different attitude toward belief. In contrast to these adaptations, Douglas Rushkoff—who is the author of Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism, among other purely textual works—uses the biblical stories to create modern-day parallels in which science itself seems to be a god. All of these creators demonstrate some of the many possible applications of the graphic novel and some of its particular strengths and weaknesses.

The Hebrew Bible is a unique and uniquely powerful document. It inspires belief because its stories are so unusual that it is difficult to imagine their being invented; because at the same time that its stories are unusual, its account of human emotions is so accurate; and because it gives details, including personal and place names, for many people and events mentioned in it. In Genesis, for example, the stories about Abraham, Lot, Israel, and Joseph as well as Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah revolve around discussions with God, brothers who want to kill one another, a man who is sold into exile by his brothers but who harbors no resentment, and the customs of the ancient Hebrews and Egyptians. It becomes clear that the Egyptians did not regard shepherds very highly and that they refused to eat with Hebrews. Yet while some of the strangeness of these stories has to do with the now-extinct customs of cultures in the ancient world, most of them are strange because they recount very unusual circumstances—Jacob being obliged to work fourteen years to receive Rachel in marriage and then being tricked into marrying Leah first because she was the oldest sister, for instance. The question becomes: if a writer could simply invent these circumstances, why he would do so? The uniqueness of the biblical stories also differs greatly from, say, Greek mythology, where many gods walk the earth and often act very much like men. In the Hebrew Bible there is one God, who sometimes walks the earth, as in the Garden of Eden, and who sometimes reasons with men, as with Lot, but who is clearly a superior force and who does not act just as a human being would.

While the biblical stories themselves are strange and unique, the human emotions displayed in them are completely true to reality. Potiphar's wife's desire to have Joseph sleep with her and her reaction when he refuses to do so seem completely convincing, as do Joseph's emotions when he sees his brothers after many years despite their ill treatment of him. Sarah allowing Abraham to sleep with his concubine and then regretting that and casting Hagar out also seems entirely persuasive. So the emotional element, too, enhances the believability of the biblical narrative and reinforces our belief in these stories, however strange they may appear.

Finally, the Hebrew Bible backs up its assertions with facts—the names of the descendants of the patriarchs, for instance, in long lists; and the occasional statement that a certain event happened in a given place, which is why it was given its name—for instance, Beersheva, the "well of the oath" because of Abraham's oath taken there. The fact that these places, such as Beersheva, exist even today, often still bear these names, and have sometimes been excavated by archaeologists who have occasionally found relevant artifacts, gives further support to the apparent truthfulness of the biblical narratives.

Rendering these various stories in graphic novel form brings another level of persuasiveness to the biblical texts—readers can see these things happening, and to some degree seeing is believing, depending upon the realism of the rendering. Waldman, Crumb, and Wolverton, whose adaptations receive the most attention in this chapter, have chosen to portray these events in basically realistic modes suitable to the text, albeit in their own unique personal styles. Crumb, for instance, states in his introduction that "Every other comic book version of the Bible that I've seen contains passages of completely made-up narrative and dialogue, in an attempt to streamline and 'modernize' the old scriptures, and still, these various comic book Bibles all claim to adhere to the belief that the Bible is 'the word of God,' or 'inspired by God,' whereas I, ironically, do not believe that the Bible is 'the word of God.' I believe it is the words of men." Yet Crumb hewed closely to the spirit of the source material. The same may be said for Wolverton and Waldman, whatever their personal beliefs. They have stuck closely to the original text, which in Waldman's case is rendered in Hebrew as well as in English translation. Insofar as faithfulness to an original text distinguishes an adaptation and separates a legitimate adaptation from what can be termed a "retelling," these three works are both valuable and convincing, each in its own way.

The Scroll of Esther (Megillat Esther in Hebrew; also known as the book of Esther) is unique in the Hebrew Bible because God is not mentioned in it, not even once. However, God seems to be behind the events that transpire in the book and responsible for the Jews' escape from destruction. In fact, this story of fourth-century BCE Persia is something like the Holocaust in reverse—with the difference that the Jews kill the anti-Semites not because of racial or religious motives, but because the anti-Semites threaten the Jews and want to steal their possessions. While slaughter is not a positive phenomenon whenever it occurs and many Jewish readers of the Scroll of Esther wince at the ending detailing the massacres of the anti-Semites, justice is done (however bloodily) and God's order is upheld, so God is at least indirectly in the book. In a devoutly religious reading of the story, God wills King Achashverosh to choose Esther to be his queen so that she will be positioned to help avoid the calamity that Haman has planned for the Jews, and, indeed, Mordechai suggests as much (Waldman, 81).

Waldman's treatment of the story, which took him seven years from inception to completion, is unique in many ways, even in this age of the flowering of the graphic novel. In an interview with the Jewish Week, Waldman said, "I'm a comic-book geek. My entire world view is defined by them." While he grew up in a Reform synagogue, went to Hebrew school, and had a Bar Mitzvah, Waldman was essentially a lapsed Jew by the age of fourteen. His was the normal stuff of childhood: comic books, video games, and Froot Loops. But when he was in college, studying in Spain, his Jewish identity became more apparent: "I was really called upon to represent my people, and I had no idea what that meant." He began to immerse himself in Jewish history, liturgy, and literature, if not quite becoming Orthodox. But he never outgrew his passion for comic books and found a striking parallel between that art form and classic Hebrew literature. There was something Talmudic about the comic book, he said, with its central image only making sense in tandem with the explanatory text surrounding it. In 1998, he began a project that has since become well known: according to the interviewer Eric Herschthal, Megillat Esther is "an illustrated version of the book about Purim. Those illustrations have been the subject of a traveling exhibit, which is currently on view at the Yeshiva University Museum." Waldman is also the collaborator, with one of his comics idols Harvey Pekar, on a book about Israel, which is analyzed in a chapter of this book about the Israeli-centered graphic novel.

His Megillat Esther is innovative and stands out from other graphic novels. First, it is a dual language work, in which Hebrew and English are both on practically every page. The Hebrew is the dominant lettering, bold and large, and the English, lighter and smaller, is clearly the translation. This gives the book the feel of a prayer book. Second, the use of panels, large and small, is varied. Each page brings surprises. For instance, a full-page spread (8) contrasts with tiny, hieroglyphic-like panels (9). Very slanted panels reveal Haman's anger (61, 62). Third, Waldman uses innovative techniques, including visual/verbal puns, throughout. Haman's heart is shown on his chest (96) when the Hebrew text speaks of what he felt in his heart (fig. 1.1). Interjected commentary, such as the episode in which Elijah speaks (149), is lighter in print and in outline form. The faces of the main actors are very detailed (as in a close-up of Esther [51]), but on other pages the faces are blank because they symbolize everyman (100, 133). In another example, which occurs about midway through the book, just when the good guys begin to prevail, the book has to be turned over and read from right to left, as a Hebrew Bible or prayer book is read. Fourth, the characters look Middle Eastern rather than Western. Their faces have exaggerated characteristics, in keeping with comics, but they are realistically portrayed rather than Hollywoodish. Achashverosh is fat and Vashti and Esther are not particularly beautiful. Fifth, Waldman makes no attempt to hide or disguise unpleasant events, such as the hanging of Haman's ten sons or the massacre of seventy-five thousand of their enemies by the Jews, although he has a commentator say "Heavy hands make strong deterrents" (138) in at least partial expiation of the latter action. Moreover, he portrays Esther with a sword in her hand (147). He does, however, have an interlude at the end in which Ezekiel points to "the end of all rivalries," which could mean that between Jews and non-Jews (149, 151, 164). Sixth, at one point Waldman introduces a modern master of ceremonies with a microphone who presides over a television-like contest to interpret prophecies (30–35).

As often happens in graphic novel adaptations, however faithful to the original, the pictures impose an interpretation on the text. Waldman presents the story from his point of view, making the viewer see it that way too. In his presentation, Achashverosh is a vain, obese, and foolish king who is not, however, devoid of some good instincts. He enjoys partying and would not mind showing off his wife, Vashti, to the assembled crowd—but she will have none of it. In a drunken rage, he divorces her when she will not appear naked before the crowd. One of his ministers, Memuchan, urges the divorce because, he says, her example will be bad for all wives in the kingdom, who will think they can disobey their husbands at will. There is also the fact that Vashti discouraged Memuchan's attentions and slapped him with a slipper, which has fed his animus against her (19). Waldman's interpretation of this event appears when Memuchan's calculating face is contrasted with the king's less intelligent look (22).

Yet there are humorous moments, which Waldman creates, too. When the king has all of the maidens from his many provinces assembled to compete to marry him, he has one of his chief eunuchs, Hegai, the keeper of women, powder them (40). Waldman shows the king sneezing when the dust gets in his nose, to the laughter of the assembled girls. He also calls for a hanky.

When he sees Esther, he becomes very serious, saying, "You are the one I've been waiting for" (42). The preparations of the maidens are shown in detail: frequent immersion in jars of myrrh over the course of six months and frequent perfuming during the same period. After the king sleeps with the maidens, they go off to the house of the concubines. When Esther's turn comes, the king prefers her to all other women and makes her the queen. Waldman gives her a full-page close-up as befits her status (51). She becomes a conduit by which Mordechai can inform the king that two men wish to do him harm. But her personality is unknown at this point.

That comes out in due course when Haman presents a danger. The king raises Haman up and Haman is obviously very pleased with his position, as the smile on his face shows (12). But when Mordechai refuses to bow to him, his face gets very ugly and the panels become skewed (13). He very skillfully presents to Achashverosh the case for destroying not only Mordechai but all of the Jews and attains his purpose in that the king promulgates an edict about it.

When Mordechai hears this new law, his face becomes distorted, and he then shrinks to a very small size as he covers himself with sackcloth and ashes (75). But later in the book, he is back up to his usual stature (146), and even looks a bit like a medieval knight. Esther too looks like a heroine on the facing page. Waldman has demoted Haman and promoted both Mordechai and Esther. His story sticks in one's mind primarily because the faces of the characters do.

Esther emerges as a heroine in the course of the work, as in the original. But Waldman details her development as a character. She is shown angrily telling the king about Haman's wickedness (110), and her finger pointing at him almost stands off the page because it is so large. She comforts the king (116) and her face becomes pretty; she is thoughtful because she is trying to figure out what to do about the king's law regarding the Jews because it cannot be revoked (112); and ultimately she is shown in a heroic light, holding a sword in one hand and a rose in the other (147), with Mordechai also shown heroically on the facing page. The Hebrew lettering swirling around each page gives the whole work a feeling of authenticity.

Waldman's rendering upholds the basic sense of the Scroll of Esther—Esther has saved the Jews, Mordechai is righteous, and Haman is evil. The king is in the middle with the action swirling around and influencing him rather than with him in control of it all. All characters are rendered—correctly—as ancient Persians, with a different standard of beauty than Western standards. But Esther develops in the course of the narrative, just like a character in a novel, except that her development can be seen on her face. Dramatic events, such as the hanging of Haman's sons, which takes up an entire twopage spread (136–37), are powerfully portrayed, as seen in the struggling expressions on each of the hanged men's faces. While remaining faithful to the text, including the prominent use of Hebrew, Waldman allows the story to be seen with new eyes.

There are two other versions of the Scroll of Esther that deserve comment. Yehudi Mercado's Throne of Secrets, of which only volume 1 has appeared to date, adds details to the story yet makes it believable; and the husband and wife team of the Grahams, in their The Unlikely Chosen, follows the text faithfully. Neither of these other versions includes Waldman's use of Hebrew or his other unique techniques, so they are useful largely as more conventional adaptations.

Mercado's style uses color, conventional if varied panel sizes, and strong, expressive faces with large eyes—almost caricatures. Esther is pretty, with large, slanted eyes, a gently curved nose, and a small mouth. She seems soft and gentle as well as intelligent. The king has a sharp nose, small eyes, a mouth with teeth that always show, and a pointed beard and crown. He seems aggressive and decisive rather than obese and soft, as in Waldman's adaptation. Mordechai has a prominent nose, small but expressive eyes, and a strong beard. His hair is close-cropped and even has some white in it. He is very muscular and acts accordingly. Haman has a pointed nose and calculating eyes. All of the characters are rendered in color, with tan Middle Eastern skin, striking clothes, and black hair and beards. The style of drawing is on the whole rounded and open, and each panel has color contrasts in it.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Quest for Jewish Belief and Identity in the Graphic Novel by Stephen E. Tabachnick. Copyright © 2014 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations / Acknowledgments / Introduction / 1. Adaptations of the Bible / 2. Religion and Identity in Art Spiegelman's Maus / 3. The Holocaust Graphic Novel / 4. The Jewish Experience in Europe and Beyond / 5. The American Immigrant Experience /6. Some Female American Jewish Creators / 7. Identity and Belief in the Israel-Centered Graphic Novel / 8. The Orthodox Graphic Novel / Notes / Works Cited / Index

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