Sure, the Oscars ceremony might feature more Jews than your grandmother’s Passover seder, but despite how it might seem, cinema isn’t the only visual art in which Jews are prominently represented. Featuring the work of eighteen artists, Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women is the first museum exhibit to showcase autobiographical storytelling by Jewish women in this unique sub-genre. The exhibit is now in Toronto, where it will run through April 17. In 2012, the exhibit will make its way to New York’s Yeshiva University Museum and University of Michigan’s School of Art and Design.
Jews have long been forerunners in the medium of graphic art. In the late 1960s, Eli Katz (pseudonym Gil Kane) and Archie Goodwin pioneered an early graphic novel prototype entitled, His Name Is…Savage. Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking Maus won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for its graphic narrative depiction of Nazi Germany.
Women have been writing confessional cartoons since the 1970s, but the context has changed; the then-dominant theme of a stark gender divide has now been superseded by problems with more universal relevance. It wasn’t until journalist Michael Kaminer attended a 2008 Museum of Comic Cartoon Art Expo in New York, that he noticed a curious trend of Jewish women penning autobiographical comics.
“Catholics may confess through a screen in a box, but Jews do it in public—preferably with an audience,” Kaminer commented. By drawing their own screens, boxes, and frames, these women have found innovative ways to convey riotous humor, dramatic confessions, and relatable leitmotifs. After Kaminer wrote an article for The Forward about this unexpected trend, Sarah Lightman, award-winning artist and journalist, proposed turning the idea into an exhibit. The two joined forces to curate an impressive array of originally expressive and transformative work, proving that comics are not just for superheroes and children.
The international collection of artists is richly comprised of visual art veterans, cartoonists, graphic novelists, and comic newbies. While many of these hand-drawn pieces represent Jewish issues, others qualify as Jewish only because their authors identify as such.
In an interview with the Jewish Women’s Archive, artist Miriam Libicki revealed that her motivation to leap into graphic artistry was deeply connected with a need to retain and externalize her sense of Jewish identity. When she moved to the Northwest from Israel, she was surrounded by a group of mostly gentile friends. Ironically, her art started to become full of Jewish references. Libicki said, “Disappearing as a Jew was a horrifying and depressing idea to me, and art, without me realizing it at first, became my way to perform my Judaism, both for myself as a daily practice, and publicly, so that Jewiness was essentially linked to my public identity.” Her graphic novel, jobnik!, which centers around an American girl’s experience in the Israeli army, will be available in December 2011.
Sarah Lightman’s own series, Dumped before Valentine’s, is featured in the exhibit. While at university, she realized that her sister and brother, Esther and Daniel, had their own books in the Bible but she did not. So she began creating “The Book of Sarah,” engaging her connection to Judaism with the visual, not just the textual. It has evolved into an ongoing project full of narrative self-portraits, studies of family photographs and diary drawings. As her Jewish identity was constantly evolving, she was able to find communities of Jewish artists with whom she could share experiences. This was a perfect way to achieve her goal of contributing to Jewish life and history through culture.
Looking forward, we can keep our eyes open for upcoming work from these women as well, most of whom seem to have at least one project on the horizon. Trina Robbins, writer and “herstorian” has been writing comics and books for over thirty years and recently finished scripting a graphic novel for all ages; it tells the true story of Lily Renee Wilheim Phillips, a teenage Jewish girl who escaped the Nazis.
Michael Kaminer hopes that this unique exhibit will help people gain a new perspective on how Jews continue to reinvent comics and shape this sophisticated form of storytelling. As artists, Jews have famously found innovative ways to manifest personal definitions of Jewish identity through artistic expression. While graphic artistry may seem like an underground phenomenon, the creative outlet has proven sufficient for Jewish women who have complex stories to tell and remarkable narratives through which to confess.