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Introducing a New Graphic Novel: Leela Corman’s ‘Unterzakhn’

Leela Corman, perhaps better than most of us, sees the lines and colors drawn into the buildings and sidewalks of New York. As a belly dancer, visual artist and native New Yorker, she has dedicated much of her professional life to exploring the contours of the city’s neighborhoods through illustration, painting and graphic novels — and in the shimmies, bends and graceful swoops of Middle Eastern dance. “Unterzakhn” — Yiddish for “undergarments” — is her first graphic novel, and in it she engages with the Yiddish soul lying beneath Ludlow Street’s skyrocketing rents. She sat down with the Forward’s Eli Rosenblatt to talk about her new graphic novel, its relationship to a rapidly gentrifying New York and her visual exploration of real people in extraordinary times.

ELI ROSENBLATT: The first thing that begs explanation is how, after working as a trained visual artist for 12 years, you came to work on this project?

LEELA CORMAN: For a very long time, I had an idea that I wanted to do a story about a showgirl in Poland before the war. I could never get that idea off the ground, and I finally figured out that that was because I’m a bit sick of World War II and Poland, especially before the war, because my family came from there, and it was enough already with the war for me. Enough people have done better stories, films and art.

The whole showgirl idea was kicking around in the back of my head, and one night I went to hear [comics artist] Kim Deitch give a lecture at the Y, and the idea for “Unterzakhn” popped into my head, out of nowhere; maybe because the lecture was taking place in a hall where I spent a lot of my childhood. I had this sudden image of Fanya, one of my characters, growing up in a corset shop on the Lower East Side. It’s funny, because no one in my family came through the Lower East Side. The idea came and found me. Time will tell if it’s a good one.

ER: Your work takes place in what appears to be the turn-of-the-century, when the Lower East Side contained more Jews than many cities in Eastern Europe. How does this neighborhood, as fabled and romanticized as it is, inspire you or your art?

LC: As a native New Yorker, it moves me in a lot of ways. I used to find the neighborhood kind of frustrating. I used to make fun of people for living here back in the 1990s because they were paying through the nose for a tenement that had been painted so many times the corners were round.

But by now, I’ve developed an affection for it. I’m interested in any part of New York that’s gone through so many changes, with so many people living there. The imprint of those people is still there, and not just the Jews, but everyone who lived here. There are bits of their architecture, the signage, a few of their businesses. There are some of those people still living here, and not all old people. There are people who grew up here who still live here. They’re under the surface. That’s what’s interesting about a lot of New York: If you scratch the glossy surfaces that have been put on everything over the past 10 years or so, it’s still the city we all know. And the fact that it’s now a vibrant Chinatown says that the immigrant’s life hasn’t changed much. No place stays the same around here.

ER: So is this graphic novel, in part, a scratch below the street’s surface or a story of universal characters that happens to be set in prewar Jewish New York?

LC: Much more the latter! Good way to put it. I’m not thinking of the Lower East Side today, I’m just telling a story that I find compelling. I’m thinking more about the people than the place, though of course I’m very interested in that as well, and it’s fun to draw. I’m interested in people’s lives, the way that place really pushed people into a new way of living, and this is true not only of the Lower East Side but a lot of neighborhoods in American cities — the West End in Boston, for example, which doesn’t exist anymore.

ER: Yiddish phrases appear in “Unterzakhn,” but both English and Yiddish dialogue are relatively sparse. But Jews can talk, right?

LC: Yep, we sure can. But I don’t use a lot of dialogue, because it can sometimes push the pictures out of the way. Pictures are central. I’m a visual artist, not a novelist. The writing is in the art, but the characters speak where they need to, and there are places where the dialogue is a little thicker. You’re only seeing a tiny bit here. You haven’t met Meyer Birnbaum yet, that’s all I’m saying. Still, I’m not writing a lecture here.

ER: Color?

LC: It might have a screen of color. Not full color. I’m not crazy.

ER: I recently read “The Rabbi’s Cat,” by Joann Sfar, a French-Jewish comics artist. It was a book that brought up interesting questions, ones that seemed to openly confront issues of concern to Jews — like colonialism, assimilation and the interplay between politics and religion. Do you see “Unterzakhn” confronting these sorts of issues?

LC: I’m very interested in that part of the world in general, so I found “The Rabbi’s Cat” delightful on a number of levels. I think that if you set out trying to make people confront something, the work will be at very best one-dimensional and probably intolerable. I have an idea, and I get started. But once you put it out on the world, it’s beyond your control. So there are issues that I’m wrestling with, some personal and some not, but it’s not necessary for those to be known. People will see them if they are meant to be seen, and will apply their own issues to it. Most of us are really just telling stories. We leave it to the academics to feel confronted.

ER: I’m trying to understand if “Unterzakhn” is in a sense an act of protest, a work of scholarship or defying categorization. I think in a sense, we are reading contemporary Jewish culture by, well, reading your pictures. In another sense, I think that forces us to look at your work through only the Jewish lens.

LC: It’s not so academic when cartoonists are working. We’re following, to be highfalutin’ about it, a golden thread through the labyrinth that’s been left for us by some mysterious person or force. I did want to talk about the results of women not having the kinds of choices we have now with our reproductive freedoms. The results of not having a choice are gruesome. But that’s not the main story here. As far as it being an act of protest, hmm… my friend Tim Kreider says that most comics are created to make someone sorry. So maybe.

ER: Well, then it seems in your creative process, images of the world surface. If you could say if there is an overarching story you think “Unterzakhn” tells, what is it?

LC: I’d say that I’ve always been fascinated with what’s happening behind the scenes, in seemingly mundane domestic life and in larger matters. I’m very interested in stories that talk about real people living in mythologized situations. Much of the way we ingest history is via official versions of stories — wars, rulers, treaties. But I don’t want to know about the decisions of generals, I want to know about the lives of civilians. That’s where it gets interesting.

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