No Laughing Matter

“No laughing matter: Princeton conference takes comic art seriously” / New Jersey Jewish News / Michele Alperin / May 5, 2015

In 2007, the cult comics author Harvey Pekar recruited illustrator JT Waldman to illustrate the foreword he was writing for From Krakow to Krypton, a history of the pivotal role Jews have played in the comic book industry. 

Pekar, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, was known in comics circles for his autobiographical American Splendor comic books, which recounted what his 2010 New York Times obituary called “unvarnished stories of a depressed, aggrieved Everyman negotiating daily life in Cleveland.” Because Pekar himself could not draw, he pulled in talented comic-book artists to illustrate his books.

“My job as comic book illustrator was to translate Harvey’s vision,” Waldman said.

Then on Thanksgiving 2008, Pekar told Waldman, “I’ve got an idea for a book that you are uniquely positioned to illustrate.”

Pekar produced a massive manuscript, The Untitled History of the Middle East. Embedded in that script both the editor and Waldman saw the story of how Pekar’s opinions about Israel had changed over his life — starting with his experience at the Israeli consulate in Chicago in the 1960s when he tried to make aliya and was rejected. 

Waldman described the book they finally produced together, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me (Hill and Wang, 2014), as “a visual history of the Jewish people’s relationship to Israel. It is a primer for people who didn’t know where to start when talking about Israel — a historical survey and, on the way, an art history lesson as well.”

Waldman talked about the book and his relationship with Pekar on April 9 at “Frames: Jewish Culture and the Comic Book,” a two-day conference at Princeton University.

The conference included talks by Waldman and Assaf Gamzou, curator of the Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon, as well as a roundtable featuring the artists and writers Miriam Katin, Rutu Modan, Miriam Libicki, and Liana Finck.

The conference coincided with the opening, in the campus’s Aaron Burr Hall, of “Wanderings: Journeys in Israeli Graphic Narratives,” an exhibit curated by Gamzou and Merav Salomon, who heads the Illustration Department at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of the Arts. 

Gamzou, who teaches in the school of education at Tel Aviv University, spoke about the comics scene in Israel. Recent works published there include Michel Kichka’s 2013 memoir Second Generation: Things I Never Told My Father, which — like Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking multi-volume graphic memoir Maus — is a Holocaust memoir. Unlike Maus, however, Second Generation is more concerned with the Holocaust’s impact on the children of survivors.

“The testimony is the testimony of the second-generation son, bringing Maus to its furthest point,” Gamzou said. “Using the same literary, narrative, and graphic devices, the son has appropriated the testimony — “The testimony is no longer yours; I am giving the testimony now.”

In contrast to the memoir genre, The Property, by Rutu Modan, is the entirely fictional story of a young woman and her grandmother who travel to Poland to reclaim property that belonged to the family before World War II. “The mere fact that it is a work of fiction in itself is a subversive act; it doesn’t use any device to prompt authenticity or authority,” Gamzou said.

Gamzou also described Letting It Go, by Miriam Katin, also published in 2013. The story of how a Holocaust survivor deals with her adult son’s decision to move to Berlin. Letting It Go in part inspired the conference. French and Italian graduate student Charlotte Werbe, who organized the conference with Marie Sanquer, a student in the same department, saw a version of the book on a website and was intrigued, 

Werbe grew up in the Swiss-Jewish community, where as a child she was an avid reader of comics. “Comics are taken rather seriously by children and adults in Switzerland and France,” she said. But when she moved to the United States at age eight, she lost interest.

Katin’s book led her to think about how comics might relate to her academic work, which focuses on how memoir interacts with Holocaust discourse since the 1950s in France and the United States. 

Her inquiry eventually led her, with the support of Andre Benhaim, associate professor of French and Italian at Princeton, and David Ball, a visiting professor in the English department, to organize the conference and exhibit.

“Comics as a medium is a curator’s dream and a curator’s nightmare,” said Gamzou. “It is a self-explanatory medium, but you get all the problems: getting out of sequence, out of context, not the way it was meant to be read. Every exhibit is a challenge: What do I give the viewer? How much of it? But it is also a very trusting experience — I trust that the people who visit are intelligent viewers who make connections that I didn’t know they could make.”

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