What began with a 2008 story about autobiographical comics by Jewish women in the Forward has developed into a touring museum exhibit. Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women is the first exhibit to explore what co-curator Michael Kaminer calls a “unique and prolific niche of graphic storytelling” by Jewish women. The exhibit features the work of 18 Jewish women artists, some of which is being seen by the public for the first time.
We at JWA were taken with this project. We spoke with Michael Kaminer, co-curator and author of “Graphic Confessions of Jewish Women,” the Forward article that started it all. This is the first in a series of interviews; we will be posting weekly interviews with the artists and samples of their work.
Leah Berkenwald: How did you first get into comics?
Michael Kaminer: My parents have told me I learned to read by scanning newspaper comic strips and watching “Sesame Street”. At 5 or 6, I started buying every comic book I could get my hands on - Richie Rich, Archie, superhero comics a little later. As an adult, I got into alternative and indie comics, as well as editorial cartoons. And in my 30s, I started collecting. The first original piece I bought was a ten-page sequence by Aline Kominsky-Crumb, who’s represented in the show. Meanwhile, there are still boxes of old comics at my parents’ place because I don’t have the space.
Growing up, did you ever think about the gender of the comic artists you read?
On a conscious level, I don’t think I had any awareness around gender of the artists. I certainly was aware of subtleties in character portrayals – Wonder Woman vs. Batman, or Veronica vs. Reggie. I have a feeling that even back then, my radar was going off about stereotypical or dishonest depictions of women. At that age, I didn’t really have access to the women who were shaking up comics, nor was their material available to a nine-year-old in Montreal. But that’s one reason why it’s such a thrill to work with pioneers like Trina Robbins, Sharon Rudahl or Diane Noomin now.
What interested you about the trend of Jewish women doing autobiographical comics you observed at the 2008 Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art Expo in New York?
The story kind of told itself. I was on the lookout for women artists because that’s a large part of what I collect. Their voices always seem sharper, the powers of observation more refined, and the humor riotous. I probably had my Jewish filter up because I was a contributing editor to a magazine called Jewish Living at the time. And the autobiographical element just emerged as a common thread among the artists I encountered. When Jewish Living tanked, I took the story to the Forward, and the piece — which ran in December 2008 — became “Graphic Details,” the show.
What kinds of reactions did you get when you pitched the Graphic Details exhibit to museums?
Across the board, the response has been enthusiastic. The Cartoon Art Museum people told us that Graphic Details was the first show they’ve presented with an explicitly Jewish theme, so that was exciting. The Koffler’s been amazing and supportive; I was blown away that they got us the Gladstone as a venue. It’s one of the highest-profile galleries in Toronto. And Yeshiva University Museum in New York, where I live, jumped right on board after a curator read about the show in The New York Times.
What can we learn about Judaism, gender and comics from this exhibit?
A few things. First, I hope visitors develop some kind of relationship with the artists in the show. I would love if people would explore the work of the women in Graphic Details. Second, I’d be thrilled if they got curious about other comics by women as a result of seeing this show. There’s just a wealth of material out there, and it feels like we’re in a kind of golden age. Third, I hope people get an appreciation for comics as an art form. It always amazes me that people still dismiss comics as “low” or for kids. It’s an incredibly sophisticated form of storytelling, with levels and layers that are as complex as anything in visual arts. Fourth, I hope people gain a new perspective on how Jews continue to reinvent comics; it’s a medium we’ve helped shape over the years. Finally, I hope visitors get a renewed appreciation of the powerful voices women continue to bring to comics. And, of course, if people get a good laugh or shed a tear over one of the works, I’ll know we did our job.
Graphic Details will finish its run at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco on Sunday, January 30. It will open in Toronto on February 17, presented by The Koffler Centre of the Arts at the Gladstone Hotel galleries on the West Queen West arts strip, and run through April 17, 2011. In January 2012, Graphic Details will open at New York’s prestigious Yeshiva University Museum and University of Michigan’s School of Art & Design will host “Graphic Details” at its renowned Slusser Gallery in fall, 2012.
Michael Kaminer blogs about the exhibit and other interesting comic art news here.