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Graphic Confessions of Jewish Women

Before you even see her face, Vanessa Davis’ naked breast makes an appearance in the first panel of “Spaniel Rage,” her acclaimed book of diaristic comics. She’s vomiting into a garbage can on page two. By the third page, she’s servicing two clowns in an X-rated thought bubble.

To Be, or Not To Be: Melissa wonders how to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Rude? Shocking? Indecent? Try “charming, funny, and honest.” That’s how “Ghost World” auteur Daniel Clowes, the closest thing to an indie laureate, described Davis’ work. And a growing number of fans are embracing the kind of raw, revealing autobiographical comics produced by a new generation of young, female, Jewish graphic novelists, such as herself.

While women have been writing frank confessional cartoons since the early 1970s, the context has changed. Brutal sexism defined underground comics back then, with females mostly depicted as fawning objects for a largely male readership. Blunt confessional comics were a throat-grab from women who dared male readers to confront real, unvarnished female characters.

Today’s autobiographical comics come as less of a cultural jolt. For one thing, women have become a formidable presence in comics. Personal problems have also supplanted gender politics as a dominant theme. But these young artists are just as ruthlessly honest, presenting their bodies as nakedly as their emotions. They’re also finding a new crop of audiences, weaned on blogs and tell-all Facebook pages, even hungrier for first-person intimacy.

Even if the content of their work isn’t especially Jewish, it reflects the kind of unfiltered sharing that Jews do especially well. “Jews are more likely to be in therapy,” says Miss Lasko-Gross, whose pungent, thickly atmospheric “Escape from “Special” chronicles the turbulent inner life of hyper-perceptive high-school student Melissa, a thinly veiled stand-in for her creator. “We’re willing to be open about things that aren’t necessarily flattering,” Gross says. “It’s probably the same reason there are a lot of Jewish comedians. We’ve got lots of problems, and we like to talk about them.”

In “A Mess of Everything,” Gross’ long-awaited sequel to “Special,” due out in early 2009, Melissa returns as a high-schooler coping with addiction, anorexia, and teenage malaise. Among its “no-she-didn’t” moments: an epic battle with a recalcitrant, floating turd. “There’s nothing I’m ashamed of,” says Gross, 29, who lives on New York’s Lower East Side.

Exposing oneself through art is “a very Hebe-y thing to do,” agrees Ariel Schrag, whose humane, poignant “Potential” won an Eisner, the comics equivalent of an Oscar. Like its predecessors, “Awkward” and “Definition,” the book was written while Schrag was still in high school; with almost naive openness, all of them pitilessly chronicle her adolescence and coming out. A film version of “Potential” is in development, and “Likewise” — a much-anticipated sequel — will appear in April. In terms of sharing her neuroses, “Woody Allen was a big influence on me. My comics are very Jewish in that sense,” Schrag says.

Jewish identity itself isn’t a dominant theme among these younger female comics artists, instead, it hovers at the margins of books such as “Spaniel Rage” and “Potential.” One exception is Lauren Weinstein, whose hilariously awkward autobiographical strips appear on the teen site Gurl.com and in her “Girl Stories” collection. In the online strip “Chanukah Blues,” a tween girl argues the relative merits of winter religious holidays with a goyish-looking classmate.

Weinstein also contributed “Horse Camp,” about a lone Jewish girl at a Christian sports camp, to the Schrag-edited cartoon compilation “Stuck in the Middle.” “I don’t do a lot of stuff explicitly confronting my Jewishness, but it’s important for me never to shrug it off. I let it enter where it’s appropriate,” Weinstein says.

There is, in fact, a rich history of Jewish artists who lay out their own hang-ups in their work, says Samantha Baskind associate professor of art history at Cleveland State University and co-editor of “The Jewish Graphic Novel.” “But I think what links these younger graphic novelists is their approach as women rather than as Jews. A lot of their material is teenage anxiety.”

Although their trials are more personal than political, today’s young women artists “are definitely following in the footsteps of women in the 1970s underground,” says Trina Robbins, the San Francisco-based writer and “herstorian” who created the first all-women comic, “Girl Fight,” in 1970. Robbins considers Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s infamous 1972 strip “Goldie: A Neurotic Woman” as the birth of female-authored autobiographical comics; it depicted the artist pleasuring herself with vegetables. The tendency toward self-revelation in comics is, Robbins says, “a Jewish cultural thing. We’re not those quiet white Protestants who speak few words and act polite. We’re noisy, we’re always talking, and we’re not embarrassed about it.”

More precisely, says Paul Buhle, author of “Jews and American Comics,” “there’s a Jewish self-identification in these artists’ sense of humor, their unashamed discussion of personal lives, their dealings with angst and unhappiness through a pop-culture art form.” Like Robbins, Buhle connects artists like Davis, Schrag, and Gross to the 1970s underground, “when extremely talented young women did comics about themselves and their lives in ways more frank, shocking, and vulgar than any artist could have been outside of Tijuana bibles.”

A few young Jewish female cartoonists have tackled political situations with the same fierce honesty others bring to personal histories. In “jobnik!,” her delicately drawn account of a tumultuous year-long stint in the Israel Defense Forces, Miriam Libicki’s takes on Israeli society, culture, and men cut as deep as her self-analysis (she tends “to fall in love with anything that moves”). “It was just ripped from a diary. But it was fascinating to people because of Israel and the military setting,” says Vancouver-based Libicki, 27, who’s releasing a complete, self-published “jobnik!” collection this month.

Likewise, Sarah Glidden’s elegant “How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (Part 1)” turns her own misconceptions into a whimsical but cutting memoir of a Birthright Israel trip, replete with sharp-eyed observations about Holy-Land quirks. Glidden’s expanding the series after winning a book deal with Vertigo, the edgy “mature” division of publishing giant DC Comics; a collection’s due late in 2009.

As for Vanessa Davis, the minutiae of daily life will continue providing an endless source of material, no matter how awkward. “My mom asked about the boob, and I told her it was from a movie,” says Davis, 29, currently finishing a “Spaniel Rage” sequel at her Santa Rosa, Calif., home studio. “But I’m doing these stories because they come naturally to me. I find a lot of personal comfort in the notion of recording things. Your memory fades. You lose things. Life is so ephemeral.”

Michael Kaminer has contributed to NewYorkMagazine.com, All You, Portfolio.com, Jewish Living, Direct and PlanetOut. He has been reading comics since he was three.

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