Modern Marvels: Jewish Adventures in the Graphic Novel

June 23rd, 2008 by

This is a free five-part book reading and discussion series. The series explores Jewish literature and culture through scholar-led discussions of contemporary and classic books on the theme of Modern Marvels: Jewish Adventures in the Graphic Novel. Here, five Jewish artists experiment with words and pictures to tell stories of childhood, war, and desire, to conjure up lost worlds, both real and imaginary, and to contemplate history, myth, and the individual psyche.

Program Details

All participants will receive a printed copy of an essay on the Modern Marvels theme written by Jeremy Dauber, Atran Assistant Professor of Yiddish language, literature, and culture at Columbia University.

June 24

Cover art for "A Contract with God" by Will Eisner
Will Eisner
A Contract with God: And Other Tenement Stories

Each week during the 1940s, Will Eisner drew “The Spirit,” a comic about a masked detective that earned him fans around the globe. He revolutionized comics a second time when, in 1978, he reached back to his own beginnings to produce the first “graphic novel”—a book-length form that now includes such classics as Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

Set among 1930s Bronx tenements, these four stories capture the brutal, tender world of working-class Jews. In the title story, Frimme Hersh’s daughter suddenly dies, sorely testing the “contract” this self-made man once entered into with God. In “Cookalein,” Eisner casts a humorous eye on the amorous, social-climbing tendencies of young urbanites spending a summer in the Adirondacks. Wry, honest, and sad, these four stories showcase Eisner’s unique ability to capture character with the quick stroke of his pen.

July 8

Cover art for "The Complete Maus" by Art Spiegelman
Art Spiegelman
The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale

The comic book transfigured, this graphic novel tells the story of Spiegelman’s parents Vladek and Anna, Jews reaching maturity in a Europe on the verge of Nazism, and their terrifying history and eventual survival in the concentration camps. Spiegelman uses the broadest tools of the genre—Jews are drawn as mice, Nazis as cats, Poles as pigs, Frenchmen as frogs, and so on—to make vivid the unimaginable, both to the reader and to himself, appearing as a character in the book listening to his father’s story.

A triumph of storytelling in panels, Maus changed forever the way that readers, critics, and artists themselves thought about the graphic novel. In 1992 the Pulitzer Prize committee recognized the Spiegelman’s groundbreaking achievement by awarding him a special prize for Maus.

July 22

Cover art for "Julius Knipl" by Ben Katchor
Ben Katchor
Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: Stories

Steeped in a melancholy, grey-tinted world of elevated trains, luncheonettes, and gently decaying tenements, Katchor’s perambulating photographer Julius Knipl documents a rapidly vanishing urban netherworld. Peopled by men who map the migration of hairstyles and those who belong to the Amalgamated Panty-Waist Fitters Union, his cityscape is a familiar one, albeit with the touch of a demented fairy tale.

This is a world where films like “The Wild Aspirin” play at the Doloroso and wholesale calendar salesmen “enter a state of self-induced hibernation” by mid-February, their job complete for the year. Brilliantly conveying a deep and abiding affection for lower middle-class city life, Katchor, with his blocky ink drawings and wry Yiddish-flavored text, implores his readers to open their eyes to the beauty of the urban landscape.

August 5

Cover art for "The Quitter" by Harvey Pekar & Dean HaspielHarvey Pekar (Art by Dean Haspiel)
The Quitter

Pekar, the author of the celebrated comic book American Splendor, spent his life quitting before he could fail. Here, he enumerates the ways: an adolescence spent bullying other children in Cleveland, where his immigrant parents owned a small grocery; a lackluster academic career; an unending array of file clerk jobs.

Ostensibly covering Pekar’s early years, this dark graphic novel tackles everything from his brief stint in the Navy to jazz criticism and mid-century race relations. The gritty and atmospheric artwork by American Splendor collaborator Dean Haspiel perfectly captures Pekar’s cantankerous tone. But a surprisingly hopeful message ultimately surfaces. It’s possible to find your way in the world, Pekar suggests, even if it takes a lifetime to do it.

August 19

Cover art for "The Rabbi's Cat" by Joann SfarJoann Sfar
The Rabbi’s Cat

After eating a parrot, an aged Algerian rabbi’s cat develops the ability to speak and quickly declares his desire not only to be Jewish, but to have a bar mitzvah. The rabbi engages his pet in a spiraling debate, touching on topics such as spelling, parental love, and the very nature of Jewish identity.

French graphic novelist Sfar’s delightful, vibrantly illustrated story is set in Algeria and Paris in the 1930s, where the encroaching modern world is rapidly shattering many long-held customs and assumptions. And like his human counterparts, the rabbi’s cat has some tough choices to make: “Should I stay in this house of Jews who are so elegant you’d swear they were French, with the beautiful rugs and the smell of fine cooking, or follow my master in the rain”?

The University of Minnesota Libraries—Twin Cities, in partnership with The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, is one of over 250 libraries nationwide receiving grants to offer the series. Local support is provided by the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Minnesota. Let’s Talk About It: Jewish Literature, a reading and discussion series, has been made possible through a grant from Nextbook and the American Library Association.

2 Responses to “Modern Marvels: Jewish Adventures in the Graphic Novel”

  1. Martin Says:

    The UofMN Libraries site (and this press announcement) doesn’t quite make it clear what the “reading” portion of these events are going to be. I would have assumed these authors would be there, except that Will Eisner died in 2005. Is Art Spiegelman actually going to be there? Does anyone know?

  2. nihiliad Says:

    No, the authors won’t be there.

    The phrase “scholar-led discussions” is the key. In this case, the scholar and facilitator is Judith Katz, so I presume she will be doing the reading. Another clue is that these discussions are going on simultaneously in “250 libraries nationwide”, as indicated on this page by the originating organization, Nextbook: