Memoirs in Words and Pictures
We Are On Our Own
By Miriam Katin
Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2006, 136 pp., $24.95, hardcover
Escape from “Special”
By Miss Lasko-Gross
Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2006, 176 pp., $16.95,
Jobnik, Issues 1-6
By Miriam Libicki
Vancouver: real gone girl studios, 2003-2007, $3 each Issues 1-5; $3.50 Issue 6.
Bernie! The Wackiest Jewlipino on Earth!
By Cheryl Gladstone
New York: Stinkypoo, 2006
Reviewed by Karen Karin Rosenberg
Not all graphic novels are novels. Some are collections of short stories or memoirs—and I expect we’ll see the full range of genres soon, because there’s a boom in this branch of the book industry. Increasingly, graphic novels are being reviewed in the major media. Many teachers and librarians have made room for them. You no longer need to go to specialty comics shops to find them. Barnes and Noble, which already has a display area for adult graphic novels, is reportedly considering creating another for children. That way, the chain can lure boys away from comic book stores and attract girls who have been shy to enter them. No wonder all the major publishers are said to have a graphic project in the works. They see a golden chance to reach the tweens, the 20-somethings, the not-so-young, and the not-so-literate.
At comic fairs, such as the Art Festival sponsored by the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art each June in lower Manhattan, men still outnumber women not only as consumers but as writers and artists. And that’s true up and down the hierarchy, from Pantheon and other big-time players with a commitment to graphic novels, to smaller houses like Fantagraphics in Seattle and Drawn & Quarterly in Montreal, which specialize in comics and longer graphic forms, to self-publishers. So I appreciate that there is an organization called Friends of Lulu that promotes women in the industry. Some of its members steered me to recent graphic “memoirs”—in many of these books and booklets, names are changed or the term “semi-autobiographical” employed to protect identities.
They are all by emerging artists, but that does not necessarily mean young ones. Although We Are On Our Own is Miriam Katin’s first full-length graphic work, she is an artist in her sixties with a long list of credits in animation and children’s books as well as in comics. Her experience shows. Hers is a tightly constructed tale, which carries the reader from one climax to the next. So as not to spoil the suspense, I won’t give much away, but here’s the beginning: it’s 1944, and the Nazis have occupied Hungary. Esther Levy, like other Jews, is ordered to hand over the family pet. “Jewish dogs,” she laughs with a friend. But the black humor soon ends. When required to leave her apartment taking only a few possessions, she contacts a black marketeer who provides her and her young daughter Lisa with false papers and sends the mother and daughter to his relatives in the countryside. Suddenly, other sides of Esther emerge: smiling brashness with soldiers who flirt with her, trembling acquiescence with a German commandant who wants her as his mistress. What unifies this character—the author’s mother—is her integrity, which she retains no matter what she must do to protect herself and her child.
Lisa, who is Miriam Katin’s earlier self, looks and sounds like a character in a children’s book. Dogs often appear in the frame with her as alter egos, symbols of innocence in an uncertain and often cruel world. When a soldier who was aiming his rifle at Esther shoots a dog instead, Lisa begins to doubt the existence of the god her mother taught her about. The title We Are On Our Own refers not just to the fate of a particular mother and child, but to the insecurity of humanity without a protective deity. Yet in New York in the sixties and seventies, Katin felt pressured to educate her children in Judaism. In one of the color sequences about her time in New York that occasionally interrupt the predominantly black-and-white narrative about Hungary in 1944-1945, Katin’s husband insists on sending their son to learn the Bible and prayers. “All the Jewish kids around here go to Hebrew school,” he tells Lisa, who looks like Esther as a young woman, although with a much more submissive expression and stance.
I appreciate the autobiography by Miss (her first name) Lasko-Gross, because it concerns the stubbornness, indeed the orneriness, it often takes to resist conformity. Melissa, as the author calls her girlhood self, is rejected by her peers and their parents because of her fascination with blood-and-gore stories—something that perhaps they would humor in a young boy? That’s a question Lasko-Gross doesn’t ask, but it’s worth considering. Melissa is transferred from one school to another, but no one except her father seems to understand that a girl who likes horror movies isn’t necessarily bad and violent. In fact, she gets plenty mad if treated as such, and the various scowls and grimaces of the main character are a major charm of the book. Being put in the “special studies” group for slow readers and then singled out because of her high IQ only increase her sense of alienation. This is not one of those comics in which everything turns out well as soon as the heroine discovers her artistic talent. After Melissa’s bunkmates at camp see her caricatures of them, a happy ending is out of the question. Even as a teenager, she finds no “escape from ‘special.’”
Another thing that sets Melissa apart is her rejection of God. On the way home from Jewish school, she tells her mother, “You never made me do any religious stuff before this year. You waited too long. I’m too old and too smart to fall for any of it.” It’s a precocious argument. But I’m troubled by the subtitle of this chapter, “Jew school,” which sounds all too similar to the insult “Jew boy.” It makes me empathize with those characters who are scared away by Melissa’s aggressiveness.
Lasko-Gross is now preparing a second memoir about high school, but I would love see a “prequel” to Escape that explores what in her early life precipitated her intense hostility and violent fantasies. After all, comics are well suited to preverbal memories. I hope this young artist will not be influenced by the fact that many reviewers prefer narratives like Katin’s, with their rising suspense, climaxes small and large, and denouements. Escape from “Special” consists of short episodes, some only a page long, that don’t cohere to form a traditional plot. I enjoy the audience participation that such books invite: you have to search out the connections that tie the segments together. But our educational system has not trained people well in this skill, and our culture values accessibility. All this works to the detriment of experimental art in any medium, and it would be a crying shame if it forces graphic artists and their publishers to become more conventional. Fantagraphics is to be commended for backing Laslo-Gross’s first full-length work, especially since its inclusion of nudity and four-letter words may bar it from the preteen and young adult market in some places.
Self-publishing has long been the realm of the avant-garde, but there are clear disincentives—the lack of status, for starters. Here the world of comics has an advantage. It’s much less snobby than many other branches. Self-produced works are not presumed to be failures or vanity affairs. For graphic artists, they are often the places to try new themes, develop styles, and build reputations. Then there’s money. The chances of making any by self-publishing are slim, but even most graphic artists and writers with book contracts need day jobs. Visibility is hard to achieve, although bloggers will review self-publications that print periodicals often spurn. Distribution? Only a few bookstores carry self-published work, but a comic book convention is a good place to find photocopied brochures, hawked or swapped by their creators. Once you know some names, you can search them out on the Internet. Almost all independents have websites that include sample images and order forms. I’d like to end this survey with two self-published works.
Miriam Libicki’s Jobnik Manifesto—a double-sided page, photocopied in black-and-white—is a kind of road map in pictures and text about her metamorphoses. She started as a suburban Jewish-American, became a volunteer soldier in the Israel Defense Force, and finally settled in Canada. With her back to readers, she says, “You probably don’t believe someone can be zionist & left-wing.” Why the distrust in gesture and word? I believe her and want to see how she got there. Patience is required. The latest installment of Jobnik is not far into the story. But, in the course of six installments, each 15 to 24 pages, I have grown increasingly sympathetic to Miriam, the teenage protagonist, who often wears a blank, sad, or sullen expression as she performs mundane secretarial chores at a base in southern Israel in 2000 and early 2001. The Intifada seems to have made her question the emotional distance that a lot of male soldiers consider appropriate for an Israeli. In Issue 4, when she breaks out of her passivity and confronts the soldier who is two-timing her, her face finally shows some life, even if it is mostly hurt and anger. That’s an accomplishment or, in narrative terms, a climax.
Libicki, who finished art school in Vancouver in 2006, is already a sophisticated illustrator, who can lead the eye around the page. Cheryl Gladstone, the author of Bernie! The Wackiest Jewlipino on Earth!, isn’t in the same league but, then again she doesn’t aspire to be. Her mainly frontal compositions fit her brash humor. Her mother, the title character, is both Filipino and Jewish. She continues the Borscht Belt comedy tradition with a new intonation, though her punchlines are apparently inadvertent. This very short booklet offers no developing plot but a series of one-page scenes, some consisting of only a sentence, in which Bernie produces double binds and denials. Gladstone is good at compression and timing, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the Bernie series. Yet I also feel saddened by the way she sometimes falls back on cheap stereotypes, such as the description of Bernie that starts: “Like a good Jew, she goes to weddings, Bat Mitzvahs, and cosmetic counters and collects as many freebies and giveaways as she can find.” Gladstone is angry that her mother denies her sexual identity—“You’re not lesbian, you’re bisexual!”—and belittles her accomplishments—getting into Stanford rather than Harvard means she’s a failure—but doesn’t offer us ideas of what led to this behavior.
When I began looking for graphic memoirs by women, I didn’t look specifically for works by nontraditional Jews—but I’m not surprised I found them. Comics still enjoy the benefits of their marginal status. They can explore Judaism and atheism, lesbianism and the left, in a dominant culture that is Christian, religious, pro-heterosexual, and more-or-less rightwing. But as graphic novelists enter the mainstream, they may disappoint their niche audiences. These days, major publishers are going for small variations on tried-and-true formulas. In exchange for their large print runs and their ability to publicize and distribute widely, they almost always demand less risk-taking. And the literary agents follow their lead. Small presses and self-publishing remain crucial to artistic innovation in this field, as in so many others.
Karen Karin Rosenberg publishes fiction, short plays and essays in literary magazines and anthologies in the US and Europe. She offers annual courses in creative writing at the Figurentheater-Kolleg in Germany.