The Eli Valley Interview

Posted by on September 1st, 2010 at 7:35 AM

Eli Valley is a New York-based cartoonist and writer whose remarkable comic strip, Comics Rescued From a Burning Synagogue in Bialystok and Hidden in a Salt Mine Until After the War, appears each month in the pages of the Jewish Forward. The Forward maintains an archive of his comics, and Valley’s own website can be found here. In an earlier post, The Eli Valley Experience, I pointed out that while he “receives plenty of emails and letters from readers – not all of them complimentary, to be sure,” his provocative work “is not particularly well known among comics fans.”

As far as I am aware, this is by far the longest interview that anyone has conducted with Eli Valley to date. The interview was conducted in person early in the summer, before we both headed to the Middle East, and then via email. Hopefully his comics work will appear in book form sometime in the near future.

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Let’s start with your comic strip, which is called Comics Rescued From a Burning Synagogue in Bialystok and Hidden in a Salt Mine Until After the War. How did you come up with the title?

I’d just as soon leave the comics as they are, without a unifying title, but the Forward prefers titling its columns, so I had to think of something beyond “This Is Satire, Don’t Sue.”  A friend had just returned from a Bar Mitzvah where the rabbi talked about the Torah scroll having been rescued during the Holocaust.  He used the same language — burning synagogue, Bialystok, salt mine.  We thought it would be funny to speak that way about comics — as if the community would revere comics the way it reveres the Torah.  It’s a mix of the sacred and profane that exhilarates me artistically.  Besides, I like to think that one day, probably not in my lifetime, comics will finally achieve Torah-level status.  And when it happens, the Messiah will no longer be necessary.

How long have you been producing comics? How did your connection with the Jewish Forward come about?

I drew political cartoons for my college newspaper, and then I stopped for a long time.  About five years ago, with the hysteria over the Danish cartoons of Mohammed, Iran launched a “Holocaust cartoon contest.”  An artist in Tel Aviv, Amitai Sandy, came up with the ingenious idea of staging a competing contest that would prove that nobody does anti-Semitism better than the Jews.  It was tongue in cheek, and a lot of people didn’t get the joke, but I loved it, and made my first comic in well over a decade – an image of a double-penised “Jew Monster” sodomizing a Christian woman and a Muslim woman simultaneously.  I’d been writing Op-Eds here and there, but that image made me remember how potent comics can be, and I was hooked again.

I started drawing comics for the online magazine Jewcy.  A year later, I did a book review in comic form for the Forward, and then JJ Goldberg, the acting culture editor at the time, asked me to start submitting comics more regularly for them.  The current culture editor, Dan Friedman, worked on Da Ali G Show and has a Ph.D. in Comp Lit, and he encourages my creativity the way only an Ali G Ph.D. can.

Who do you write/draw for?  Who is your ideal audience?  Do you create in order to please your friends or to annoy your enemies?

I draw mostly for myself and my friends, but if I had to identify an ideal reader, it would be someone who’s as passionate about Jewish cultural innovation in the late 19thand early 20th centuries as about the satirical revolutions in the early MAD comics of the 1950s.  That might sound glib, but each of those things bends my brain in new directions.  Maybe they satisfy different parts of the brain, but the brain gets bent.  I like to think other people get off on these things too.  They do in my head.  But in my head, Archie Andrews is arguing with Betty Cooper about the merits of cultural versus political Zionism, and then they have sex.  Again, it’s that mashup of the sacred and profane. I try to fuse the two in my comics, where “sacred” is intractable Jewish argument and “profane” is spaceships, brain transplants and turtles.

I think it’s a wild, combustible match, but I’m sure some of the personalities I’m satirizing consider comics an unworthy medium for debate.  But how can you trust an intellectual who hates comics?  And I think that gives the comics an added tension.  The very idiom of the early MAD comics is anarchy, so a certain kind of sensibility is repelled not just by the medium – what they perceive as the so-called gutter culture of comics – but by the free-wheeling, absurdist, upending content itself, and certainly by the way the comics play with notions of authenticity and power within the Jewish world.

Academia’s in my mind because a few years back, I was all set to enter a doctoral program in early 20th-century Central European Jewish intellectual history.   On a simple level, I can just say it’s more fun to draw comics, but I also feel that through the comics, I’m exploring the same issues I would’ve been studying had I wound up spending my days in libraries and archives.  And I feel like I’m taking part in the debate in the ideal vernacular.

On that note, why comics?  Why not Op-Eds or essays?

I joke, or half-joke, that the early MAD comics were the greatest Jewish achievement since the Talmud.  It’s a half-joke partly because it really goes back even further — the subversion of authority and outrage at corruption goes back to the Prophets.  “Walt Dizzy” had his counterparts in the corrupt leaders of Ancient Israel, and in that respect Kurtzman and Elder were like Jeremiah and Amos.  I know that’s stretching things a million ways, but I do think the impulse was similar.  So there’s the aesthetic.  But despite being an outgrowth of the Jewish immigrant experience, the MAD sensibility hadn’t been directed inward, towards the community itself, at least not since the days of a thriving Yiddish secular press.  And why not?  It’s the perfect medium, the perfect subject, and – in my biased view of course – the perfect fusion of Jewish cultural creativity in form and content, from the narrative absurdity to the visual anarchy.  And you can’t find that in Op-Eds.

And again, there’s a schism between a self-proclaimed “high” culture, whether in academia or a certain self-serious style of journalism, and what these people often perceive as a “common” vernacular, and this includes comics.  Not just in the Jewish world, but everywhere – although I think the self-regard and pomposity among Jewish intellectuals is arguably more extreme, certainly among those American Jewish journalists who consider themselves the arbiters of dialogue on, say, Israel.  I don’t know why this schism should exist though.  I’m not sure it always existed, either – I like to think there was a golden age in which everything was mixed up in a common pool.  If you read history selectively, you can pretend that was the case at various times.  I want my comics to recall that time, even if it’s only imagined – the fusion of the high and the low.

Would you consider creating a cartoon that doesn’t touch on issues related to the Jewish community, or are you committed to using cartooning to comment on Jewish American culture?

I’m fascinated by these issues, and I don’t feel that I’ve exhausted the artistic possibilities just yet.  Back in college, when I was drawing about American politics, I was mostly reacting reflexively to current events.  But with my current work, I feel like I’m tapping into a tradition of debate that goes back centuries.  That’s the way I see it – my tradition is the post-Emancipation history of Jewish discourse.  By taking part in it, I feel like my comics are dialogues with history.  That’s overstating things, I know, so let’s say they’re dialogues with myself, in my head.  But approaching these issues through comics brings it all alive for me.  The debates about Jews and modernity have been a bit tiresome for a while now.  But to hold an absurd mirror to it all – it just opens it all up.  And I know it might seem arcane to some, these inside-baseball Jewish politics, but to me it’s a great cultural stew with so many ingredients: Russian Yiddish theater art, Jewish émigré involvement in film noir, MAD’s narrative subversions, Lenny Bruce getting arrested on stage – to varying degrees, the impetus is Jewish outsider art, whether directed at larger society or at the Jewish experience itself.

I think there’s precedent to it, with a twist.  We’ve had a tradition of Jewish absurdist expression for centuries if not millennia, but I think it became more pronounced with modernity, with the Jew as “outsider” commenting on society from the fringe.  And there were reasons for this – the seismic changes Jews were experiencing in the years following emancipation.  What’s interesting to me is that this streak has generally been directed at mainstream society – the Jew as a minority encountering the larger world.  In my work, it’s turned in on itself, commenting on my own community. I think this reflects an interesting transformation in Jewish history, both in terms of the complete integration of Jews into American culture and the ways in which the values of the community now reflect more conservative trends in American society.  A Jew is no longer a fringe in America, but a Jew can definitely be a fringe in the Jewish community.

Can you elaborate on the transformation more generally?

A friend of mine was talking about the change in Jewish comedy from Lenny Bruce to Seinfeld – Lenny was an outsider attacking society’s injustice, and Seinfeld was essentially complaining about standing in line at restaurants.  That’s a huge transformation in Jewish experience – and in Jewish culture – in just the past couple generations.

But the larger transformations happened after the metaphorical walls of the ghetto came down.  It began a couple hundred years ago, and we take it for granted today – which is why, for the vast majority of Jews, these issues are immaterial.  If integration is complete, then so-called identity politics are obsolete.  But for some, the walls, even if they’re only mental walls, are crucial.  There’s a story that when Prague’s Jewish Quarter was largely razed for gentrification, a few Jews put up new fences because they were afraid of complete integration.  My comics play with this idea of self-erected walls.  But there’s a second, more recent transformation – the post-war Jewish assumption of power, whether politically in America or militarily in Israel.  And that’s something we’re still contending with – or not contending with, as the case may be.  The obligations of power, the responsibilities of power – communal leaders are all but invisible on these issues.  And there’s this tension, because in many ways the community continues to view itself through a lens of powerlessness.  I like to explore this tension – the disconnect between our self-image and reality – in my comics.  And when communal leaders wield power in dubious ways – then I think objecting to it becomes a moral imperative.  I feel like a community in such transition needs satire, it demands it.  Satire breeds sanity.  But it’s also why there’s sometimes some resistance – especially if the community regards itself as powerless.

Do you see yourself as using humor to score political points, or do you simply find politics funny?

It’s mostly self expression.  I find politics maddening actually.  Drawing these comics is my way of creating sense from it all.  That might sound odd, because my comics are absurdist fantasies – but I don’t think they’re as absurd as reality.  And if you put a distorted mirror up to a warped reality, the result can be a clearer image.

But there are challenges.  Sometimes I’m writing or drawing something that I think is crazy – it has an extra twist or kink that reality itself hasn’t broached yet – and before I’ve finished, I’ll check the news and find out it’s been broached – reality has overtaken and outpaced the satire.  It’s always a race in that regard.  Not long ago, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel forced his Turkish counterpart to sit in a lower chair, and then brought in photographers and called out “Take pictures of him in the lower chair!”  How do you satirize such reality?  So in some respects, I’m not a satirist, I’m a stenographer.

But something like Stuart the Jewish Turtle takes it beyond stenography, into the surreal…

But even that character is stenography.  The only thing unique about him is that he’s a caged turtle.  Most of his thoughts are the kinds of thing I’ve heard, just about literally, from reactionary elements in the Jewish community.  And when reactionary elements are the most vocal, or in leadership roles, it merits this kind of response.  It always surprises me when people are outraged by drawings but not by the reality they’re based on.  There’s barely a wisp of outrage, for example, when the community tries to market Israel to young Jews by seeking wisdom from the same Republican consultant who orchestrated the language shift from “global warming” to “climate change.”  Just like there was almost no outrage when a criminal fugitive gave the Jewish community’s preeminent organization fighting anti-Semitic defamation $100,000 after its leader used his clout to get him a Presidential Pardon.  When that happened, it was one of the slow-motion turning points that made me realize the potential of comics as an inverted mirror to reality.  In that case, the man we trusted to fight defamation embodied the most grotesque caricatures perpetrated by anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists.  It seems unfathomable, but he still has his job today – and in many ways, certainly when measured by presence in the media, he’s considered the public conscience of the Jews – even when he’s advocating for loyalty oaths in Israel, or fighting against recognition of the Armenian genocide, or siding with bigots against an Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero.  What does it mean when your conscience is a clown?  More frighteningly, what does it mean when an anti-defamation organization actually creates the groundwork for defamation against Jews?

There’s no real outrage, and that’s why I think cartoons are necessary, and why they can actually comprise the most serious parts of our culture – but unfortunately, the anger is often directed at the satire and not at the subject.

To judge from the online comments, your readership seems split roughly 50-50 vis-à-vis your merits. About half your readers hate you, in other words. As one reader commented, “Dear me this cartoon could be in the Iranian press.” (“The 1-in-5 Majority”) Or as another wrote, “I continue to read Eli’s comic hoping it will eventually get better and not just feed/express contempt within the Jewish community…Eli definitely has artistic talent and a good eye for things that need to be improved in Jewish life, but the love should be expressed along with the criticism.” (“Abe Foxworthy”)

For one thing, I think a satirist who doesn’t inspire strong emotions among at least some of his/her readership is probably not a good satirist.  I also think an insistence on “showing love” fails to appreciate the surface and subtext of satire.  I’m not saying satire needs to be filled with rage, but the most pointed satire will make you laugh while pointing out uncomfortable, sometimes horrific truths.  If love exists, it’s in the subtext: the idealization of a different world, whether an earlier world or an imagined world in which things are more just or equal or at the very least not so corrupt.  The greatest satires are filled with that subtextual love.  If they weren’t, the satirists wouldn’t be compelled to write or draw or perform to begin with.

In the Jewish community, the issue is complicated by anti-Semitism, and by Jews who equate criticism, whether satirical or not, with Jew-hatred.  On the one hand, I understand the sensitivity, because until recently, irrational superstition and hatred of Jews was the norm in larger society, and it still is in parts of the world.  On the other hand, when the sensitivity carries over to today, and is used to dismiss and disqualify dissent in the most secure Jewish community in history, I think it reflects a discomfort with the transformations I mentioned earlier: with Jewish integration into larger society – because the sensitivity reflects a binary, Us vs. Them world view, in which “Them” is still consistently out to get “Us” – and with the more recent assumption of Jewish power.  Again, it’s a continued self-perception of powerlessness – because only if we’re at risk of annihilation can we not afford to look within and criticize ourselves, and besides, we lack the power that would merit such critiques in the first place.

But I don’t believe we’re powerless.  Paradoxically, that might be the chief difference between my critics and me.  A couple times I’ve been accused in the comments of being a “Ghetto Jew,” scurrying around trying to curry favor from “the Gentiles.”  I like this comment because I think it’s a bit of a projection.  I’d argue that my comics reflect Jewish confidence, not ghetto-like fear.  A ghetto mentality is afraid of open discussion of communal problems, because that might lead to a pogrom.  We have the power of superheroes but we perceive ourselves as shlemiels.

This goes back to the question of satire.  You can’t satirize the powerless.  It’s like a rich person mocking a beggar in the street.  It might be humorous to some, but it’s not satire.  And I don’t see my community as beggars.  That’s a good thing, and it’s why I think satire – and a community’s capacity to embrace satire – is actually a sign of communal vitality.

To take the criticisms at face value, though, I feel strongly that if we allow anti-Semites to define the parameters of Jewish critical inquiry, then we’re basically surrendering Jewish civilization to the nutjobs and proclaiming our culture to be dead.  It’s like the relativist defense of Israel – Israel is faultless because unlike Iran, it hasn’t criminalized homosexuality.  Really, is that the standard Herzl dreamt of?  Or to use the example of the comment regarding the Iranian press, should the fact that Iran is governed by Jew-haters mean we should prohibit all self-criticism?  What does that say about our confidence in Jewish sovereignty?  No culture can thrive when it contorts and constrains itself like that.  And honestly, I think some in our community wouldn’t mind if that were to happen – their ideal Jewish world is one in which questions aren’t asked and authority isn’t questioned.

But that’s not a Jewish world that interests me, because it’s basically an Orwellian nightmare.  Call me an idealist, but I hold Judaism up to a higher level than that.  And even from the perspective of Jewish community strength, you won’t sway the mind of a potential anti-Semite by suppressing internal criticism and insisting on a single party line.  If anything, that only adds to anti-Semitic conspiracy and suspicion – not that these considerations play a part in my creative choices.  But it seems to be a lose/lose scenario – you’re paralyzing your culture while paradoxically feeding the fires of anti-Semitism.  So I really believe transparency and internal criticism are the best policies all around.  Besides, anti-Semitism is a mental illness, but I also think that defining oneself based on anti-Semitism is a kind of mental illness as well.  My comics make fun of that mentality, but I hope also, by their very existence, they point to a kind of Jewish life that is vibrant and dynamic and not restricted by fears of what anti-Semites might think.  Because what kind of life can you lead if your identity is demarcated by psychopaths?

Several comments bring up notions of self-hatred, which seems to be a common epithet harking back certainly to the time when Philip Roth started publishing stories.  How do you respond to that charge?

It’s strange – I don’t make any effort to hide my Jewishness, and I’m clearly proud of Jewish history and culture.  It’s why I draw comics.  But the term “self-hatred” revolves around a notion of Jewish authenticity – quite literally, as it claims to be able to see into one’s “self,” or the enduring “self” of the Jews. I think Judaism is too fluid for that, although there’s a long history of people claiming to be the gatekeepers of genuine Judaism and accusing the rest of being “haters.”

I’m especially mystified by online shouts of “self-hatred” when I’m satirizing corruption.  Are the critics saying I have a hidden, corrupt self I should embrace?  Here’s an example: A family of Chabad Hasidim ran a kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa that was found to be complicit in far-reaching animal abuses, safety violations and fraud.  I drew a comic about it.  Does that make me “self-hating”?  If so, what is my true self – an animal abuser?  A corrupt businessman?  I admit I feel shame – but I’m ashamed because I hold Judaism up to a higher standard than this.  That’s not hatred of Judaism, that’s love of Judaism.  The defenders of the slaughterhouse, the tens of thousands of Chabad Hasidim who have dismissed the charges and compared the trial to the Dreyfus Affair – I’d say that they’re the genuine self-haters.  Because how ethical can such a vision of Judaism be?  I’d like to see that meme gather steam.  But I’m not holding my breath.

And what about Israel?  The claim of “self-hatred” seems to come up pretty strongly with your Israel-related comics.  Is it just because Israel inspires strong passions?  Is Israel the line in the sand?

Partly that’s it, but I think it’s more than that.  My comics embody a Diaspora pugilism, and that makes some people cringe – because in the internal Jewish culture war, Zionism was crowned the victor long ago.  Not just Israel, but the entire Zionist narrative of Jewish self-conception.  For a century now we’ve witnessed Zionist pugilism, the idea that Jewish pride and strength – even the strength of ideology and argument – are inextricably linked with the creation and defense of Israel.  One of the tenets of this ideology is that the Diaspora Jewish “self” is by definition weak.  It’s why organized trips to Israel are marketed as building “Jewish pride.”  You can’t be a proud Jew in Cincinnati?  I think that needs to be remembered with my comics: I’m a Diaspora Jew.  And when a Diaspora Jew makes fun of Zionism and Israel, they’re not only questioning a sacred cow, they’re questioning the roles of pride and shame, of heroism and victimhood, that were established in the last century and solidified after the Holocaust and the creation of Israel.  If you don’t buy into that – if you say no, I’m proud right here in the Diaspora, and I think there’s a lot that’s silly about this ideology – then you’re labeled a self-hater.  That’s the paradox: pride equals shame.  It’s illogical, but I think that’s what upsets my critics as much as anything else: My comics are self-hating because they are proud.

It’s like the angry reaction in some parts of the community to the emergence of J Street, the progressive Israel lobby.  J Street hasn’t employed a tiny fraction of the muscle of AIPAC.  But the very fact that J Street is saying “Hey, we’re Diaspora Jews and we disagree with Israel’s policies” – it’s too much for many in the community to handle because it breaks the roles.  I think J Street reflects a growing acceptance of the obligations of power, and a refusal to buy into the whole “powerless” self-image – and that’s a good thing, and a sign of Jewish cultural strength.  I think we’re seeing it more today – Diaspora pugilism from active, affiliated, proud Jews who refuse to be defined and dismissed by party-line blather on Israel.  And that’s what my comics are – proud Diaspora pugilism on the funny pages.

Given the history of anti-Semitic imagery, is it a challenge to engage in Jewish caricature in a way that won’t be summarily dismissed as anti-Semitic?  Are you conscious of these sensitivities when you’re drawing, and do they affect your artistic choices one way or another?

I’m very conscious of it.  It’s a challenge: When people think “Jewish caricature,” they automatically think of Der Sturmer.  So I actually go out of my way to avoid the obvious – inflated noses, lascivious lips or the like.  I will engage in the grotesque, I love grotesquerie, but not stereotypically Jewish exaggerations unless the subject is a walking caricature himself or herself.  Then it’s difficult, and it can lead to philosophical quandaries like the Dershowitz Dilemma or the Foxman Fulcrum: how do you avoid caricaturing a caricature?  With Dershowitz, the only way to embellish on reality is to literally draw him in a straitjacket. But even if I drew a bed of roses, if the comic was criticizing the community, the roses would be called anti-Semitic.

The political cartoonist Doug Marlette wrote about the complaints he received when he drew critical cartoons of Menachem Begin during the first Israel-Lebanon War.  Jewish leaders insisted he was drawing Begin’s nose too big.  They ended up spread out on the floor of the editorial offices, using a ruler to compare and contrast the noses of Jews and non-Jews in his cartoons.  I’ve always been conscious of that story, but I realized there’s no way to draw critical Jewish comics and not have your noses dissected, even if you go out of your way to keep your noses as small as possible.  And rarely is the content addressed; it’s always the size of your noses.

But in some cases, I’m deliberately playing with anti-Semitic imagery.  But I’m doing so to invert it or to explore Jewish self-conception.  That was the case with “Israel Man and Diaspora Boy,” which took Zionist self-imagery and views of Diaspora Jews to an extreme.  “Diaspora Boy” is an obscene anti-Semitic fantasy – but the joke is that he’s a projection of Zionist ideology itself, whose views of Diaspora have sometimes been indiscernible from anti-Jewish caricature.  What’s interesting is that although the comic was well received, I haven’t met a single ardent Zionist – a true ideologue – who gets it.  I guess it shouldn’t be a shock that ideologues can’t handle humor, but I’m always amazed when they say this comic, of all comics, only reveals my own self-hatred.  That’s the very ideology I’m mocking!  I guess it frustrates me because secretly I wanted Zionists to read the comic and say “Wow, we’ve really been dicks all this time, let’s change!”  And that’s maybe the secret goal of any satirist, but it’s a recipe for disappointment.

Did you launch the comic with the intention of stirring up as much dust as possible, or are you surprised by the monthly controversies that your cartoons seem to inspire? Do you think about the strip’s reputation when you work on a new cartoon, as in “maybe I should tone things down this month” or “I should kick things up to eleven”?

I don’t draw comics with the intention of stirring up dust.  Sometimes I’m drawn to live-wire topics, but not because I’m looking for controversy.  I might be interested in why an issue is hot-button, what’s behind the surface hysteria – whether it’s fear or obsession, or if there’s another issue at play.  That interests me.  I’m usually surprised by the extent of the controversies they stir up, but I think the outlandish reader comments are crucial components of the comics.  In some cases, they embody the things I’m satirizing, and it’s why I sometimes allude to them in the comics themselves.  “The 1-In-5 Majority” included a panel with a guy equating the comic to something out of Der Sturmer.  And sure enough, the comments on that one didn’t disappoint, although unfortunately some were removed.  I do think it’s useful to see my comics and the comments below them as inseparably linked.  There’s a harmony there – the comics and comments become a sprawling, commentary-laded page like the Talmud, if the Talmud had been written by paranoid schizophrenics.

In general, though, I try to be as strong as possible without being provocative for its own sake.  With the “Dawn of the Chimpanzees” comic, for instance, I struggled for some time with the proper metaphor. Chimpanzees were problematic because of the obvious associations with racism.  I thought of using horses, like Swift’s Houyhnhnms, but that didn’t fit the analogy because the Houyhnhnms really were on a higher level of nature.  Then I considered aliens or something absurd like cute puppies or unicorns.  But I wanted to satirize the idea of evolution, which is critical to Zionist self-conception and to the way Israel is taught in the Diaspora. And aside from Planet of the Apes references, I wanted to invert Kafka’s “Report to an Academy,” which went the opposite route – his was a metaphor for assimilation, not tribalism – but used the same trope of apes and humans.  So for all those reasons, chimpanzees were the best analogy, and I went with it.  And I’m glad I did.  But the choice of chimps had nothing to do with provocation and everything to do with the idea of evolution.  And that’s the way it is for all my comics: I relish the absurd, but the most important thing is to have it logically coherent and satirically incisive.

Is there an obvious forerunner in Jewish American culture for what you’re doing? Is there another cartoonist as relentlessly focused on specifically Jewish hot-button issues as Eli Valley?

One forerunner is Der Groyser Kundes, a Yiddish satirical weekly that ran in New York in the early twentieth century.  More generally, the rigor of the Yiddish press in New York and Warsaw a century ago is the forerunner.  Despite what we’re told about the fragility of pre-war, pre-Israel Jewish life, in important ways Jews were more comfortably Jewish and creatively vital back then.  For me, the benchmark of “creatively vital” is being able to portray Jewish leaders as oafs and prostitutes.  This happened on a daily basis in the Yiddish press, and nobody blinked an eye or cried “self-hatred.”  I really feel that a culture’s vitality can be measured by how much berth it gives its satirists, but obviously that’s self-serving.

I think in some ways, my comics are kind of like ghosts from that era.  I can’t pretend they embody the general Jewish experience today, since they’re satires of political and communal issues that most Jews are, due to whatever good fortune, impervious to.  My comics are grotesque and insidery, like a colonoscopy.  The issues I’m fascinated with hark back to a time when Jews had a tangible interest in these things – basically, when there was a thriving Jewish secular press, community and culture that defined Jewish life in ways the community can’t even begin to recreate today.  I’m obsessed with that era, but it might be a rarefied interest, because again, the transformation is complete.  The ghetto, metaphorical or not, isn’t going back up.

On the other hand, the birth of a Jewish state has given a lot of these issues enormous consequence, even as they interest smaller percentages of Jews.  No Jew in the pages of Der Groyser Kundes could launch nuclear missiles.  And I don’t mean just the fact of Israel’s existence, or the politics, but the way the idea of Israel has suffused global Jewish communal life and has established norms of what is acceptable and what is not.  In some ways, certainly in areas of cultural expression, this has made the community more constrained, and that makes the role of a satirist sometimes more difficult but also, I think, more necessary.  That tension can paradoxically give way to immediate, relevant, kinetic art, and it’s one reason I get excited about drawing comics.

Where were you born and raised? What did your parents do when you were growing up? What do they think of your comic strip?

I was born in Rhode Island and raised in Upstate New York and then in South Jersey.  My father was a rabbi, my mom a social worker, then a lawyer, then a professor of criminal law and social work.  I think they like my stuff.  When people wonder why I draw comics about Jewish politics, a rabbinical father might have had some influence there.  Actually, my parents got divorced when I was five, and my upbringing was divided between a rabbinical father who lived 100 miles away and a pretty secular and sardonic mother.  So that maybe explains a bit too.

Were cartoons a big part of your childhood? Did you always want to become a cartoonist?

Yes, I did, although I put it aside for some time.  Comics and writing have always been my two passions, with film making a temporary entrance a few years ago.  When I was little, though, I collected comics omnivorously, from the superheroes to Richie Rich.  I knew MAD back then too, through reprints in the magazine’s “Super Specials,” but I only discovered the other EC comics later.  And I drew comics as long as I can remember, including satires and illustrated Bible stories from my time in Jewish day school.

You have an English degree from Cornell, and your comics are stuffed with literary references. Who are some of your favorite authors? Do you think of your comics as text first, picture second – the image as the pretty wrapping to get people to engage with your ideas – or are you interested in comics qua comics?

It’s probably cliché, but I have the usual obsession with Kafka.  I won’t even mention Philip Roth because then I’ll be a caricature myself, right?  So let’s say Francine Prose and Donald Westlake.  I recently discovered Leonard Michaels, and he’s amazing too.

I’m interested in comics in their own right.  My comics are text-heavy, but I hope the imagery is more than just a vehicle to carry the text forward.  The text density is partly a function of the one-page form.  What I like about satirical comics is the narrative flow – the creation of a story embedded in the satire.  In college, I got tired of the single-panel political cartoon format.  It didn’t allow more than an immediate point, but even more than that, it didn’t permit passage through time.  Comics achieve their potential as narratives, not just as a series of isolated images.  That’s why my favorites among my work are stories.  My “Evangelical Zionists” comic has a MAD flavor to it, but because it’s not a story through time, I don’t like it in retrospect as much as something like “Bucky Shvitz: Sociologist for Hire,” which has an internal narrative arc throughout the satire.  But doing an arc on a single page can involve a lot of text, especially if you’re dealing with these kinds of arguments.  As much as my comics are criticized for hyperbole and distortion, I really try to be thorough in the text, with direct quotes and references to pinpoint the object of satire.  That can take up a lot of space.

I take it that you find drawing to be time-consuming. How long does it take you to make a single cartoon? Do you feel as if the effort is self-evidently worth the reward, or do you sometimes despair at how hard it is to create good comics?

I always despair.  In the end it’s worth it for a particular piece, but the process itself can sometimes be exasperating, and I often find it frustrating that my ideas outpace my ability to execute them.

I spend a lot of time writing and rewriting the comics, and then drawing them takes an eternity.  I attribute this partly to my lack of formal art training beyond a few classes.  It affects my art in various ways – through a lack of general training, most obviously, but also the lack of techniques, tools and tricks that would probably speed things up, and the lack of a network of peers I can rely on for professional feedback.  And the lack of training leaves me with a feeling of inadequacy that I try hard to compensate for, which adds to the time it takes.

Also, I use brush and ink, which I love but which presents its own challenges, especially when I make changes – the layers of white and black ink can get pretty thick.  What’s odd is that I can’t seem to create a believable line in anything but a brush.

That being said, there’s this primitive, elemental quality to the brush, and to the tactile process of dipping the brush in the ink and applying ink to the page, that I really love.  I’ve tried brush pens, but nothing compares to the dipping.  It becomes its own ritual, and it turns the whole thing into a spiritual process, if I can say that without sounding messianic.  Actually, that’s how Kafka referred to writing – as a form of prayer.  That’s the way inking is for me.  It’s the closest I come to religious practice, even though no religion includes inking as a ritual (although they should).  And I’m not saying it’s easy – but unless you’re in a cult, prayer isn’t easy, it can be knotted, frustrating and crazy-making.  But in the end, it’s prayer, and that’s the way it feels when I’m painting black lines on white paper.  There’s a primal quality to it that harks back to the history of comics and even further.  You can even say it’s like making a Torah scroll – in Bialystok, in a salt mine – written by hand and imbued with holiness.  But people will say no, the Torah isn’t images of chimpanzees, it’s words alone, written in soft candlelight with violins playing in the background.  So let’s just say I like the brush.

What are your plans for the strip? Have you thought about reusing any of the characters, such as Stuart the Jewish Turtle? Which is your favorite cartoon to date?

I’d like to put out a book, either solely of the satirical comics or a mixture of the comics and photographs and various other ephemera, some kind of cultural history to broaden the comics out.  But I’d be happy with a book of just the comics too.  I need to do a few more before they’re ready to be bound though.

I’d also like to stretch out into stories.  I already have several narrative ideas I just haven’t had the time to draw yet.  Satires are important, but they’re only one part of what comics can do, and in some ways they’re not autonomous because they rely on that which they’re satirizing.  So my next goal is stories that stand on their own.  If only I could draw quickly.

In terms of favorites, I think I’d choose “Bucky Shvitz: Sociologist For Hire,” because it felt like my best balance of art, narrative and satire so far.  As for Stuart, I’ve brought him back recently – he travels to South Africa to stop Richard Goldstone from attending his grandson’s Bar Mitzvah – and I’d like to continue the Stuart series intermittently.  It would be great to end up with dozens of Stuart comics, each culminating in his two-punch ending of a silent simmering Stuart followed by an eruption of “Goddamm antisemites!”  One day in the future, I’d like to fill a space with giant reproductions of them.  It would be the Stuart Synagogue, and people would go in and be inundated with the Stuart comics, and it would be a paranoid hell but also cathartic; the “worshippers” would come out cured of all tendencies towards xenophobia and tribalism.  That’s my secret utopian plan.  It’s true – all cartoonists are covert theologians.


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