By J.T. Waldman
Jewish Publication Society of America, 204 pages, $18.
Testament (new Vertigo series)
By Douglas Rushkoff, Art and cover by Liam Sharp
DC Comics. 32 pages, $2.99 each.
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It’s well known that Jews invented the comics. From the glory days of Mad magazine’s Max Gaines; Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; Batman’s co-creator, Bill Finger, and Spider-Man creator Stan Lee, to the latter-day achievements of Art Spigelman’s “Maus” series and Michael Chabon’s “Kavalier and Clay,” what’s now called the “graphic novel” is largely an American Jewish creation.
Until recently, overtly religious graphic novels rarely rose above the level of kitsch. But now, with the long-awaited publication of J.T. Waldman’s magnificent “Megillat Esther” and the start of Douglas Rushkoff’s “Testament” series, graphic novels with Jewish religious themes hold their own among the leaders of the genre.
The Scroll of Esther was arguably Judaism’s first “graphic novel.” Unlike most books of the Bible, the scroll of Esther, which does not contain God’s name, was often illustrated with lavish artwork; the story’s cartoonish characters and its twisting soap-opera plot would not be out of place in a comic book. Waldman’s “Megillat Esther” is a visual masterpiece, combining forms reminiscent of the great Jewish artist Arthur Szyk with contemporary imagery and even motifs from ancient Persian art. The richly detailed pages are dazzling, often bewildering, as disorienting as the alcohol- and violence-soaked Purim story itself. Though the method of storytelling is innovative (perhaps too innovative, as a rather pedantic introduction is needed to inform readers how to turn over the book when the Purim story turns, and read right-to-left after it starts to favor the Jews), the text is both faithful to the original and rife with interpretive innovation. And for once, the characters don’t look like WASPs: Queen Esther has a large “Jewish” nose, and Mordecai looks like the assimilated courtier that he is. Kudos to the Jewish Publication Society for taking a risk on this book and for allowing Waldman’s vision to be expressed so fully. In a time of ever slicker and ever more shallow advertisements for an “exuberant” pseudo-Judaism designed to appeal to focus groups, this is just the sort of independent, intelligent and nonapologetic work that JPS and entities like it should be promoting.
Waldman’s “Megillat Esther” contains every word of the traditional text, and can thus be an excellent component of your Purim celebrations this year. However, it is more than a retelling; the book also contains several “interludes” designed to locate the story within the larger sweep of history. Some of these work better than others; often they seem like unnecessary distractions. Then again, Waldman taught me many traditions about this peculiar text that I’d never encountered before — and I’ve spent many years studying them. And he provides a detailed listing of sources in the back, making the book a valuable resource for educators, parents and study groups alike.
Perhaps most importantly, Waldman’s work is refreshingly independent: openly ambivalent regarding the Purim story’s vengeful ending, filled with visual embellishments that add Waldman’s own interpretations to the story, and not shy about depicting (albeit in PG-13 form) the sensuality of the Purim tale. Some might prefer a sanitized Purim story, one with simpler messages to woo our straying youth back into the fold. But in my experience as an educator and publisher, there’s no substitute for the real thing: someone compelled by the complexities of the Purim story to create an authentic, idiosyncratic masterpiece that holds its own with the best of secular culture.
Waldman’s is not the only Jewish graphic novel debuting this Purim season. Douglas Rushkoff and Liam Sharp’s ambitious new “Testament” series of comics likewise uses a contemporary visual form to transmit and transform Jewish text. And like “Megillat Esther,” it is innovative, intelligent and independently minded.
The first installment, Akedah, analogizes the binding of Isaac to a dystopic future in which young men have “draft tags” surgically implanted in them by the government. More controversial than Waldman, Rushkoff both revisits the biblical story and makes a political argument about civil liberties. Here, too, some may prefer a safer, more mainstream message than Rushkoff’s dark vision. Yet, as brilliantly depicted in Sharp’s images, Akedah is culturally relevant and artistically vital.
Maybe there’s something in the graphic novel genre that encourages this kind of experimentation. More than film, or language-centered literature, it allows artists to depict the world as they see it. We read in the Torah two weeks ago how the children of Israel “saw the voices” at Sinai. Thanks to artists like Waldman, Rushkoff and Sharp, they can be seen anew today.
Jay Michaelson is chief editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture (www.zeek.net).