Ukraine, 1876: In the shtetl of Lubavitch, a scribe named Sammy Harkham procrastinates at his job inking mezuzas, bickers with his wife and tries to avoid his disapproving rabbi.
Los Angeles, 2006: The tribulations of Ukrainian Sammy Harkham are the subject of a serial comic strip called “Lubavitch,” created by a punk-rock-loving 26-year-old also named Sammy Harkham.
Indeed, there are two Sammy Harkhams — the scruffy champion of a cutting-edge comics scene, and the dedicated Lubavitch Hasid who imagines himself living in another century. Both are present in the cartoonist’s work, a coexistence that goes a long way toward explaining its appeal to such high-profile fans as Art Spiegelman, éminence grise of independent comics.
Harkham’s father is from Baghdad, his mother from a small town in New Zealand. They met in Australia, moved to Los Angeles, where Sammy was born, then returned to Australia when he was a teenager. It was there that the 17-year-old Sammy made his first comics ’zine on a color photocopier, naming it “Kramers Ergot” after his friend David Kramer and after a song by the noise-rock band Big Black. The print run was 10 copies.
Around the same time, Harkham’s interest in Judaism began to deepen. While “Kramers Ergot” was growing more daring and influential with each new issue, Harkham was growing increasingly devoted to religious study. He eventually came to identify himself as ba’al teshuvah, a Jew of secular background who decides to undertake full observance of the Torah. At the age of 21, he enrolled in yeshiva. In the summer of 2005, he started work on what would become “Lubavitch.” So how is the work of Harkham-the-artist perceived in the world of Harkham-the-observant-Jew?
“When I tell people at shul that I’m a cartoonist, they assume it’s for children, that I make educational Jewish stories,” Harkham said. “But they don’t really need it anyway. Truly religious people get their kicks from Torah and community, not art.”
These days, Spiegelman is calling “Kramers Ergot” “the first really new paradigm for an avant-garde comix anthology since ‘RAW,’” his own ground-breaking journal, in which the Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust tale “Maus” was originally serialized. The comparison may stir expectations that “Lubavitch,” which appears in the newly released sixth edition of “Kramers Ergot,” will grow into a landmark of Jewish culture on a par with Spiegelman’s epic. Harkham, however, seems indifferent to the prospect.
“For the most part I’m not interested in Jewish culture,” he wrote in an e-mail. “My interest is in the religion. I see no point whatsoever in magazines like Heeb and such, where the only link between all involved is that they all happen to come from the same ethnic background but are culturally no different than any other group of young trendies. To me, the religion is the core and the culture is the garments around it.”
Vanessa Davis, whose diary comic, “Spaniel Rage,” is excerpted in the new “Kramers Ergot,” sees aesthetic considerations as the main connection among the anthology’s contributors. “I have a fine arts background, and I think my comics show that influence,” she said. But Davis, a Reform Jew, also believes there is a subtle reflection of Jewish values in the ’zine’s far-ranging and experimental content.
“One thing that I think I’ve learned from Judaism, art and comics is a certain open-mindedness,” she said. “Judaism encourages learning, interpreting, digesting. You see or read something, and you decipher what it means. It’s so personal, so individual. And comics taught me the same thing. There are many ways to look at things, and there’s room for all of those ways.”
Harkham, for his part, takes a less liberal view:
“[Isaac Bashevis] Singer questions what defines a Jewish writer, someone who happens to be Jewish? Singer argues that he would have to be well versed in Torah, Talmud, Hasidus, Hebrew and Yiddish to be a Jewish writer. I agree with that. That type of Jewish writer is, I guess, nonexistent now. I would say that modern Jewish writers write no differently than any other minority writers. Just the details are different.”
Daniel Browne has written for The Believer, Mojo and Before the Mortgage. He lives in Brooklyn.