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Review of Graphic Details

By Stephen Tabachnick

Graphic Details: Jewish Women’s Confessional Comics in Essays and Interviews. Ed. Sarah Lightman. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014.

Edited by Sarah Lightman, the co-founder and co-director of the UK-based comics forum Laydeez do Comics, Graphic Details: Jewish Women’s Confessional Comics in Essays and Interviews showcases and builds on the exhibition of Jewish women’s comics that she curated and which has been shown at many museums, art galleries, and universities. Lightman reveals the originality, variety, and verve that such comics—or graphic novels, depending on the nomenclature that one prefers—exhibit. In her introduction to the book, she gives the history of the neglect of women’s comics and points out that Charlotte Salomon in 1941-43—long before the 1970s, when the graphic novel as we know it today is commonly thought to have originated—created perhaps the first graphic novel employing both pictures and words. She shows that women were always active in comics but were ignored by the wider world. Her exhibition, and now this book, has greatly helped make women creators more visible. In this book and her exhibition, Lightman focuses on confessional comics which, while not an exclusively female sub-genre of the graphic novel, may be the favored and even dominant form of women’s comics and, therefore, a good organizing principle for any exhibition devoted to women’s work in this field. In this book, Lightman has done an exceptional job of pointing out the very impressive talents of eighteen women comics creators, some of whom have already had a significant influence on the development of comics, and some of whom will definitely have such influence in the future.

The book is organized in four parts—Part I: “Introductions”; Part II: “Essays,” which is broken into three smaller sections; Part III: “Interviews”; and Part IV: “Graphic Details,” which includes samples of the artists’ works. Since seeing is believing, this last section comes as a treat not only for its artistic quality, but because it enables the reader to appreciate the excellent essay and interview material much better than would be possible without it. Michael Kaminer had an important role in the genesis of the “Graphic Details” exhibition, having written about confessional Jewish women’s comics in an article for the Jewish Daily Forward. His article constitutes the first introductory essay of four in Part I. Kaminer argues that the younger graphic novelists in this collection focus more on being women—including their personal hang-ups and their sexuality—than on being Jewish, but that their Jewish identities are always present, as it is for almost all Jews because of their unique position in the world, as well as the long tradition of anti-Semitism.

In the second essay in Part I, Dan Friedman claims that the women in this exhibition/book are sticking out their tongues at the world by presenting themselves—and their societies—honestly and openly. Zachary Paul Levine, the curator of the “Graphic Details” exhibit at Yeshiva University in 2012, points to the long tradition of Jewish memoirs stretching from Moses through 17th century Rabbi Leon Modena and Glückel of Hamlin and on to the present in the third essay of Part I. He comments that the autobiographical material in the exhibition spoke directly to visitors’ own experience as Jews and their appreciation of the meaning of Judaism. In the last essay in this introductory section of the book, Sarah Jaffe points out that each of these women’s stories is personal and individual, rather than a generalization about all women, and that the stories stand out precisely because of that. Taken together, these essays provide an excellent introduction to the contents of the book, which very adeptly analyze the connections between Judaism and womanhood, including the positive and sometimes negative aspects of those connections.

Part II of the book, “Essays,” begins with Corinne Pearlman’s two-page comic “Symposium,” which shows Pearlman’s conflicted feelings at a comics conference where she discusses her own work, perhaps indicating the complexity of the views in the essays that follow. She reveals the difficulty of speaking about her own work and the difficulty of analyzing the works of the other women creators represented at the conference. As is the case with graphic novels in general, the visual aspect makes the essay a quick read and draws the reader in by means of facial expressions in particular. Pearlman’s visual essay is followed by the rest of Part II, comprising three sections, beginning with “Herstory.” Ariela Freedman’s piece on Charlotte Salomon begins the “Herstory” section and describes a previously little-known but pioneering graphic novelist who, while running from the Nazis and hiding in the south of France, created 769 sequential paintings including words, collectively entitled Leben? oder Theater? (Life? Or Theater?), which together constitute her autobiography. Salomon died in a concentration camp, but her work lives on because of its status as perhaps the first graphic novel using both words and pictures in contrast to the earlier wordless woodcut works by Frans Masereel and others, and because of its influence on other Jewish women artists such as Vanessa Davis and Sarah Lightman.

In the second essay in the “Herstory” section, Pnina Rosenberg’s analysis of Sarah Lightman’s autobiography, The Book of Sarah. Life? or Theatre? stresses Lightman’s use of a comics-diary format influenced by Salomon, and the form of the scroll, which recalls the biblical scrolls used in Jewish services and which suits her recounting of the Garden of Eden of her childhood. Rosenberg shows how Lightman’s style, which employs “fragmented, minute pencil drawings,” forces the reader to work hard to reconstruct her life story and therefore differs from Salomon’s use of “expressive, almost true to life images” (53). In the third essay in “Herstory,” Evelyn Tauben examines the work of three artists: Miriam Libicki, who in jobnik! tells the story of her service in the Israeli army; Sarah Glidden, who finds her negative political opinions about Israel becoming more positive after a trip there; and Miriam Katin, who details her and her mother’s difficulties surviving the Holocaust in Hungary. Tauben analyzes what these and other graphic novelists say about their interactions, often rebellious or questioning, with Jewish cultural institutions, including Israel and the synagogue. Each of these essays greatly illuminates the work of the writers whom the essayists discuss and calls attention to writers such as Charlotte Salomon who are essential to an understanding of the graphic novel.

In the second section of this Part, “Our Drawn Bodies, Our Drawn Selves,” Joanna Leonard compares her own Journal of a Miscarriage and Diane Noomin’s Baby Talk in the course of a discussion about miscarriages and how they are portrayed. She points to Noomin’s way of drawing emptiness and invokes Charlotte Salomon’s work to help describe Noomin’s mixture of art and music. Most of all, Leonard calls attention to neglected areas of women’s self-expression, such as works about miscarriages and abortions. In the second essay in the “Our Drawn Bodies” section, Heike Bauer considers the work of the Israeli lesbian graphic novelist Ilana Zeffren as a way of opening up this sexual subject with the particular power that graphics bring. By looking at some of the colors in the comics, Bauer reveals the ways in which the political and the personal intersect in Zeffren’s work. She points out that lesbianism offers a new perspective on many different life issues and not only on sexuality. In the third and final essay in this section, “Traces of Subjectivity,” Natalie Pendergast examines the work of another lesbian graphic novelist, Ariel Schrag. Pendergast finds that Schrag’s comics read like a meandering diary, which, owing to their special graphic characteristics and Schrag’s open emphasis on the connection between art and masturbation, makes Schrag appear more genuine than many other autobiographers, an especially admirable trait in that literary genre. These essays describing women’s health and sexual issues fit together very well, as do the essays in each section of this book.

In “Comic Comedy,” the third section of Part II, David Brauner takes up the issue of Jewish self-hatred in the work of Ariel Schrag, Corinne Pearlman, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and Miss Lasko-Gross, including Schrag’s and Lasko-Gross’s portrayals of their going to the toilet in the stories “Shit” and “The Turd,” respectively. Brauner goes on to discuss instances of self-hatred in Pearlman’s and Kominsky-Crumb’s work (including Kominsky-Crumb’s calling herself a “Jewish brat girl”), while arguing that these instances are satirical and comic. Brauner’s essay is followed, appropriately, by “The Comedy of Confession” by Judy Batalion. Batalion shows how these graphic novelists, including those discussed in Brauner’s essay, apply some favored types of Jewish humor to make fun of themselves and their societies as a form of “social catharsis.” In all three sections of Part II, the essayists focus on details of the artwork of these graphic novels and show how the combination of picture and text helps illuminate their subjects in a way impossible with text-only literature. All of the essayists provide valuable insights into a group of very talented comics creators. The grouping of the essays into three sections is a good idea because each section captures the essential character of some of the major works of the writers discussed.

In Part III, “Interviews,” the reader learns much about the seven comics creators interviewed, including the depth of their self-awareness as artists and people. In the first interview, Michael Kaminer speaks with Bernice Eisenstein, the author of I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, who comments on the way “openness” enables her to draw until she feels that she has encapsulated an entire person, including that subject’s personality. She finds that drawing adds a dimension to her portraiture that words alone cannot match. Eisenstein also notes the ways in which her autobiographical drawings allow her to evoke her parents’ as well as her own past. This is followed by Kaminer’s interview with Sarah Glidden, author of How to Understand Israel in Sixty Days or Less, who admits that, given the nature of autobiography and memory, her story about her trip to Israel is not completely “true” no matter how much she tried to make it so, and that the comics text was a testimony to how she felt at various times during her trip rather than a journalistic report. Glidden’s remarks are admirably honest and point to the fact that few autobiographies, whether in prose or graphic novel format, can be relied upon to be completely accurate no matter how much the autobiographer tries to make it so. In another interview, Kaminer discusses Sarah Lazarovic’s particular brand of humor, whose goal according to Lazarovic is to poke fun at contemporary issues in the news and in life while providing “thoughtful commentary” as well.

Following Kaminer, Tahneer Oksman interviews Miss Lasko-Gross, the creator of the semi-autobiographical Escape from Special (2006) and A Mess of Everything (2009). Lasko-Gross says that her books are partially an attack on religious fundamentalism and are also about how identity is formed as a composite of what “everyone else calls you” whether or not their opinions about you really fit who you are. She also explains her creation process of her then work-in-progress, Henni (published in 2015), which is about a young girl’s oppression at the hands of intolerant religious men. In another interview, Oksman speaks to Lauren Weinstein, the New Jersey-based creator of Girl Stories (2006) and The Goddess of War (2008), who talks, among other things, about being Jewish by birth even if she is now secular and an atheist, and about the effect that all this has had on her comics. Weinstein and Oksman also discuss the effect of pregnancy on Weinstein and how her work about pregnancy is rare because, perhaps surprisingly, there are not many comics that focus on that particular subject.

In their interview with Corinne Pearlman, Paul Gravett and Sarah Lightman discuss Pearlman’s belief that graphic novels such as Spiegelman’s Maus and Darryl Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tales can be useful social and political tools. Pearlman’s work as an author as well as editor and co-owner of Comic Company has included the publication of educational comics for young people, which cover the topics of menstrual periods, relationships, contraception, pregnancy, and abortion. This interview illuminates the value of comics not merely as entertainment, but as an important tool of enlightenment. Gravett and Lightman also cover Pearlman’s assimilatory attitude toward Judaism and how it appears in her comics, such as her “Assimilated Jew’s Guide to the Jewish Calendar.” Throughout the interview, Pearlman comments on her method as an artist and the influences on her work. In the final interview in this section, Noa Lea Cohn speaks with Racheli Rottner, a leading Israeli graphic novelist, and the creator of On the Other Side of the World (2008). Rottner discusses the influence of pioneering Israeli graphic novelists on her work, beginning with a collective in which she—a young, Orthodox girl—was completely accepted by older and secular creators. She notes that she is now a member of Armadillo, a group of young Orthodox Israeli artists. All of the interviews in this section underline the intellects and talents of the interviewees and how much thought and skill goes into the creation of their work. The interviews are particularly valuable to Lightman’s overall project because each one reveals what the interviewee considers the most important aspect of her work, and Lightman’s collection seeks to convey (and succeeds in conveying) the essence of each creator’s motivation and artistic style. Because of the value of these interviews, it is a pity that only seven of the eighteen writers included in this book were interviewed.

In Part IV, “Graphic Details: Artists, Artworks, Confessions,” the final section of the book, each critic focuses on a single graphic novelist’s work and accompanies his or her brief comments with a relatively long sample of that creator’s work. The eighteen graphic novelists covered here are the same as those who appear throughout the book: Vanessa Davis, Bernice Eisenstein, Sarah Glidden, Miriam Katin, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Miss Lasko-Gross, Sarah Lazarovic, Miriam Libicki, Sarah Lightman, Dianne Noomin, Corinne Pearlman, Trina Robbins, Racheli Rottman, Sharon Rudahl, Laurie Sandell, Ariel Schrag, Lauren Weinstein, and Ilana Zeffren. This section demonstrates in a very concrete and visual way that this is quite an impressive group. Seeing the work of each creator enables the reader/viewer to appreciate that work in a way that essays and interviews alone could not accomplish, and the reader’s admiration of these creators grows substantially as a result. With respect to the brief commentaries on the works of the artists, Lightman writes that “Since the work in the show is personal and intimate, I wanted the artists themselves to invite commentary from chosen peers” (9).

As is apparent from the depth and breadth of the collection, Lightman has assembled an important and exciting exhibition and now book, which offers new perspectives on extremely talented and well-known comics creators and an introduction to the work of lesser-known artists whose art will undoubtedly be more circulated in the future given the quality of their work. Each essay, interview, commentary, and sample from their work brings out the fact that all of these graphic novelists offer, often in quirky and humorous ways, not only unique perspectives on their womanhood and on being Jewish, but also on what they have in common with the rest of humanity. In this way, this is truly a collection for everyone and for all times and seasons.

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