Back in 2008, I spent a Sunday at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art's annual expo at the Puck Building in Soho, where hundreds of artists and publishers set up tables. Since I was contributing editor at a now-defunct Jewish magazine, I had my Semitic radar up, but didn't expect much by way of Jewish-themed work. It just didn't seem cool enough for the alt-comix crowd.
I spotted an artist with a Jewish-sounding last name and chatted her up; her work was diaristic and sharp-edged, full of feeling but devoid of ego or self-indulgence. My walk through the expo led me to more of the same: Women cartoonists with Jewish last names whose confessional work was funny, incisive and pitiless -- mostly toward themselves.
While I'd long been a collector of indie work by female cartoonists, I'd never connected dots between Jewish women creators until then. And the more I looked, the more of a rich bloodline there was -- from to the brave artists who smashed through the male-dominated comix underground in the 1970s to gutsy young comics creators fearlessly transforming personal anxieties into moving, hilarious, cringe-inducing art now.
It made me wonder: What drew so many Jewish women to the medium? Why did so many of these artists choose to depict their daily lives in the form of confessional comics? And, in contrast to superheroes or more classic cartoons, what's Jewish about this boundary-breaking, generally impolitic work?
Those questions inspired a story I wrote in the Jewish Daily Forward in 2008. That piece, "Graphic Confessions of Jewish Women," has come to life as a traveling exhibit that opened in New York on Sept. 25. That Jews have had such a tremendous impact on comics has been widely noted. But the spotlight has mostly trained on male-created superheroes. These female anti-heroes, I would argue, are just as brave and deserve equal appraisal as emblematic of a aspect of Jewish experience. My co-curator, Sarah Lightman, has written that the work represents "an inversion of the conventional comics formula -- debunking the male myth that to be powerful, you need to be a superhero," making these cartoons even more subversive.
It's not easy to generalize about the Jewish DNA of this soul-baring, confessional work; the content and tone varies wildly, and many of the artists in question don't even self-identify as Jewish. But there are common threads that arguably constitute their own proud tradition of Jewish art. "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," Paul Buhle, editor of "Jews and American Comics" and a graphic-novel guru, has told me.
First, a brief history: When (Jewish) artist Trina Robbins published the first comic produced entirely by women -- two-thirds of which came from Jewish artists -- the context was pervasive sexism and exclusion in the world of underground comics. Though not a manifesto in the classic sense, 1970's "It Ain't Me Babe" dropped like a bomb into the male-dominated indie comix milieu. Likewise, the long-running '70s Wimmen's Comix anthology series -- a revolution also spearheaded by Robbins -- included Hebraic creators, like Sharon Rudahl, Aline Kominsky, Diane Noomin, Joey Epstein and Caryn Leschen, in disproportionate numbers.
Consciously or not, those women drew on a Jewish tradition of truth-telling, outsider umbrage and Yiddishy bawdiness with cartoons that felt like a slap in the face -- not just to the men who'd objectified them and berated their work, but to smug, sexist counterculture. In their mostly autobiographical structures, they also reflected a decidedly Semitic tendency toward self-reflection and extreme self-revelation. Exposing oneself through art is "a very Hebe-y thing to do," the Eisner Award-winning artist Ariel Schrag has told me. And since we don't use confessional boxes, comics panels make a handy substitute.
Fast-forward 40 years. While the boys'-club mentality persists in comics, women have carved out a powerful presence in the world of graphic storytelling. Though much of the work feels less political, it's no less fearless. And once again, a disproportionate amount of it is coming from Jewish artists like the ones I encountered at the Puck Building. Their bodies still provide a fount of material, though more from the perspective of personal anxiety than political pressure. And a Jewish consciousness pervades the work in other ways. Rather than confront some of the social issues of their progenitors, a few of these younger artists are even grappling with the question itself of what it means to be Jewish, what loyalty to Israel we owe as American Jews, and what about our faith and identity still matters in the 20th century.
Comics, more than any other art form, provide an ideal medium for the whole gamut of subjects these women explore, from the blunt-intrument statements of the 1970s to the more conflicted, inwardly focused narratives women are producing today.
At the same time, the multilayered nature of comics -- drawings, speech, background images, thought bubbles, tiny details -- lends itself beautifully to expressions of ambivalence and ambiguity. For a Jewish artist unsure about whether to support Israel, or not quite comfortable in her identity, what better medium to explore, and air, those conflicts?
I'm hoping that "Graphic Details" draws even more attention and acclaim to a group of Jewish comics pioneers whose indisputable influence in shaping the medium sometimes takes a backseat to male artists and more populist iterations of the genre. I think we could even argue that these Jewish women cartoonists occupy a cultural significance not unlike the place of, say, Philip Roth or the literary Woody Allen in the '60s and '70s. No matter how boundary-free and confession-oriented our culture has become -- people overshare nonstop on Facebook and Twitter -- it still takes guts, skill and talent to mine universal truth from personal experience.
And that's something anyone, Jewish or not, can treasure.