Staff Picks of the Month

| February 2, 2018


Staff Picks January/February 2018

Survivors, Settlers and Assimilators: Transforming Jewish Identities

mausGraphic novels and comics have for many decades been genres where Jewish citizens of many countries have explored complicated personal, ethnic, and religious histories, with accompanying conflicting identities. MAUS (1986) by Art Spiegelman was one of the first graphic novels to address the complexities of the Jewish-American diasporic identity, along with intergenerational misattunement and trauma. Many graphic novels have since been published that address related topics, including religion, race and racism within the Jewish community, the Holocaust, and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Why have graphic novels become an important genre for parsing out questions of identity in the midst of complicated histories? Edward Said, a Palestinian-American postcolonial intellectual wrote in “Homage to Joe Sacco,” the forward to Sacco’s Palestine (2001), that comics “freed me to think and imagine and see differently” in part because of their “relentless foregrounding” (Said, pg. ii). And perhaps this is why nuance and complexity works so well with this genre: graphic novels are comfortingly literal in one way, requiring no imagination or contextualization because of the images, and they are also deeply subjective, generally told from one person’s point of view, and taking you not into not only the experiences of your narrator, but also into his or her perceptions, thoughts, feelings, memories, and dreams. (And by the way, Sacco’s not Jewish, but I consider Palestine to be part of the Jewish graphic novel canon).

The contemporary artist and writer Eli Valley, who recently released Diaspora Boy (2017), has another idea of whystandwithus comic art and questions around Jewish identities work so well together. Citing a poster put out in 2013 by the Israeli advocacy organization StandWithUs, which showed concentration camp inmates on one side in black and white, and Israeli soldiers in color on their other side in color, Valley suggests that all of Jewish history and contemporary life came to be viewed through this lens: as either a mass graveyard or a triumphant revolt. He writes that this melodramatic view is “indistinguishable from pulp, the foundation stone of comic art, and it’s one reason I feel comics, especially the lurid sort, are a perfect match to the mental mayhem” (Valley, pg. 8).

Eli Valley (2017).

Eli Valley (2017)

Of course, within this mental mayham, all Jews contain multitudes, and among those multitudes live Israel Men, Wonder Women, and Diaspora boys and girls. But how do we get to an integrated state? Again, I refer back to Valley, who said in an interview with The Comics Journal (2010), “I’d argue that my comics reflect Jewish confidence, not ghetto-like fear. A ghetto mentality is afraid of open discussion of communal problems, because that might lead to a pogrom. We have the power of superheroes but we perceive ourselves as shlemiels.”

To make meaning in a chaotic present, with a past that might feel filled to the brim with loss if we let it, us Jews need the freedom within our community to communicate and explore our monstrousness, our heroics, all of it: our ambivalence. Graphic novels are a genre in which we can do just that.

Works Cited

Sacco, J. & Said, E. W. (2001). Palestine. Seattle: Fantagraphic Books.

Spiegelman, Art. (1986). Maus: a survivor’s tale. New York: Pantheon Books.

Valley, E. (2017). Diaspora boy: comics on Crisis in America and Israel. New York: Or Books.

Worcester, K. (2010, September 1). The Eli Valley Interview. The Comics Journal. Retrieved October 14, 2017, from

Materials on Display

The Jewish graphic novel: critical approaches edited by Samantha Baskind and Ranen Omer-Sherman

The Quest for Jewish Belief and Identity in the Graphic Novel by Stephen E. Tabachnick

Visualizing Jewish narrative: Jewish comics and graphic novels by Derek Parker Royal

Diaspora Boy by Eli Valley

MAUS volumes 1: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman

MAUS volume 2: And here my troubles began by Art Spiegelman

Toward a Hot Jew by Miriam Libicki

A Contract with God by Will Eisner

Will Eisner: Conversations edited by Thomas M. Inge

Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me by Harvey Pekar

The Property by Rutu Modan

Palestine by Joe Sacco

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden

We are on Our Own by Miriam Katin

Letting It Go by Miriam Katin

Flying Couch by Amy Kurzweil

Unterzakhn by Leela Corman

Yossel by Joe Kubert

Auschwitz by Pascal Croci

Mendel’s Daughter: A Memoir by Martin Lemelman

A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York by Liana Finck

Megillat Esther by JT Waldman

Jerusalem: A Family Portrait by Boaz Yakin

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle

The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar

Klezmer by Joann Sfar

A People’s History of American Empire: a graphic adaptation by Howard Zinn