Posts in: EN280

Final Thoughts

Block 5 has reached its conclusion, and I am now deep in the relaxing hours of Block Break. I’ve had several days to reflect on the individual works we studied and the experience of the class as a whole, and I am ready to render my final thoughts on Jewish Comics and Graphic Narrative. The final text we read was Exit Wounds by acclaimed Israeli graphic novelist Rutu Modan. She employs the ligne claire (clear line) style popularized by Belgian cartoonist Hergé in his The Adventures of Tintin. This art style includes more simple and clean characters in the foreground in front of incredibly detailed, realistic backgrounds with almost photographic levels of detail. Modan depicts an Israel worn down by a perpetual state of war and terror in 2002, in which a taxi driver allies with his father’s spurned ex-girlfriend to locate the father after his disappearance following a terror bombing at a bus station. Despite its vivid, colorful artwork, the work presents dark, existential themes and captures the gloomy and anxious state of living in a war zone. As the only Israeli text we studied, I was fascinated by the unique perspective with which Exit Wounds provided me regarding life and conflict in modern Israel.

This course revolutionized the way I view comics as a form of storytelling. I now consider comics to have far more literary merit than I had once imagined, and much more intensely respect the craftsmanship that goes into the minute details of the artwork in every panel. However, I most appreciate how this class taught me about the experience of the Jewish people. As a person of Jewish ancestry who does not practice Judaism nor is very knowledgable about the religion or culture, this class was especially enlightening in that it spurred me to think about my identity. I have always felt somewhat disconnected from Judaism because I am not engaged in any Jewish practices that make me more than a Jew in name only. In studying these texts and learning about and discussing the Jewish experience of the past century, a dormant kinship developed within me that made me feel linked to my ancestors in a more powerful way than I had ever before felt. This is not to say that I have completely changed my views on religion or the way I live, but rather that I have gained new insight into the experiences of the relatives who came before me and how I am a product of the lives they lived. This kind of intellectual stimulation and discovery is why I love studying at Colorado College, and I cannot wait to continue exploring the rest of the fascinating classes that the English department has to offer.

Thank you so much for keeping up with these posts. I hope you enjoyed them and maybe learned a thing or two!

– Ben Rosenberg

The Power of the Graphic Novel

I have enjoyed all of my courses at Colorado College so far, but I have not been as sad to see one come to an end as I am while looking ahead to the last few days of Jewish Comics and Graphic Narrative. This class has reshaped my understanding of comics as a medium of storytelling; I now see graphic novels on par with novels in terms of literary merit and value. I have also been challenged to question the nature of representing both history and fiction through text and images and the extent to which this abstraction of information can successfully transition to the page. I have appreciated the craftsmanship and rich narratives in each of the works we have studied so far.

To begin the week, we finished off the massive novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The second half of the novel sees the two protagonists in crises of identity and purpose, as Joe copes with family tragedy and Sammy struggles with conforming to a society that represses both his art, creativity, and sexual orientation. Michael Chabon’s masterful yarn-weaving explores the darkest depths of the human psyche as Sammy and Joe fight to stay sane in an world in which human atrocities continue to defy belief and reason. The clever conclusion of the novel left me feeling at once satisfied and inspired to analyze in depth the components of the literary mountain I had just summited. I do not speak lightly when I say this is one of the best-written, intellectually-stimulating, and engrossing novels I have ever read.

With our novel done, we returned to the harrowing tale of Vladek Spiegelman in Maus II, the second part of Art Spiegelman’s remarkable account of his interactions with his father as he attempts to put onto paper the horrific experiences his father endured during the Holocaust. Maus II charts Vladek’s time in the Auschwitz concentration camp as he struggles to survive, separated from his wife, Anja, in a living hell during the final year of the Second World War. He survives only by dint of his resourcefulness in performing specialized jobs (teaching a guard English and working as a tinsmith and shoe-repairman), the allies he makes in the concentration camp, and his determination and faith that he will be able to live through this inhumane ordeal. Vladek’s will to survive is inspiring, as is Art’s goal to record his father’s story and cope with his own trauma as a descendant of the Holocaust and child of survivors. The bittersweet ending nearly stirred me to tears; this work is incredibly moving and should not, under any circumstance, be disregarded or demeaned because it is a graphic novel.

Last up is Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds, which promises to be an exciting read. I’ll be back in a few days to give my final thoughts on the course. Thank you for reading!

American Golems

Week Two is now, as they say, in the books (perhaps “in the comics” would be more appropriate here). This week was a bit of a departure from our usual coursework studying graphic novels. After discussing Maus Book I early in the week, we shifted our focus to studying Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Having been so deeply immersed in the hybrid medium of comics, jumping to a thick tome was both refreshing and jarring. Fortunately, Kavalier and Clay is one of the most well-written, entertaining, and thought-provoking texts I have read in a long time, and despite its length, I am enjoying every single page of it.

The story follows two cousins, Josef Kavalier and Sammy Klayman, as they collaborate to create an incredibly successful comic book series in late 1930s New York City. Josef is a Jewish refugee from his native Czechoslovakia, having escaped to America in a wooden box alongside the legendary Golem of Prague to avoid being discovered by the Nazis. Upon arriving in America, Josef moves in with his cousin, who becomes enamored with Joe’s illustrative skills. The two join forces, rebranding themselves as Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, and create the Escapist, a superhero able to escape from any lock, trap, or otherwise-imprisoning situation. Based on Joe’s background in magic, illusions, and legerdemain, and Sam’s reverence of Harry Houdini, their character becomes a huge success within the first year. The remainder of the novel follows the evolution of the cousins’ careers and personal lives as they struggle with the pressures of fame, wealth, and Jewish identity in the era of World War II.

Amidst the cleverly-written superhero backstory chapters and action sequences, both in-comic and out, are critical character studies of flawed people trying to survive in a brutal , strife-ridden landscape. Joe’s incredible talent is only a means through which he can make enough money to rescue his family from Nazi-occupied Europe, and he constantly questions whether or not his efforts are in vain as their safety becomes increasingly compromised. Sam navigates a financial jungle in which he is ripped off at every turn, struggles with being overshadowed by the titanic artistry of his cousin, and grapples with understanding his sexual orientation. As their success grows, so too does the ideological chasm between Sam and Joe. The second half of the novel promises to develop this emerging tension in engaging detail.

After we wrap up Kavalier and Clay, we will return to the graphic novel to round out the course. Some upcoming highlights include Book II of Maus, Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds, and Ben Katchor’s The Jew of New York. Stay tuned for the scoop on these texts! I hope you’re as excited as I am!

A Comprehensive Intro to Comics

The first exciting week of Block 5 has drawn to a close, and I am thrilled to be back on campus for a new semester. Right now I am in EN280, Jewish Comics and Graphic Narrative, taught by Professor Jared Richman. This English department course explores the influence of Jewish artists on the comic industry in America, the history of the Jewish people, and the implications of comics as a medium of storytelling. I have been fascinated by the subject matter so far and am excited to be able to share my experiences!

We began the first day of class by approaching the question: “What is comics?” (Of note here is the plural form of the word “comic” used to refer to the artistic medium, comics). At its core, comics is a combination of pictures and words (images and text), to create a hybrid medium used for storytelling. Comics is often inappropriately characterized as a genre of literature, and we are often reminded in class that it stands as its own art form. This first discussion opened the door to our study of comic theory, for which we read comics artist Scott McCloud’s work, Understanding Comics. As our “textbook” for the course, Understanding Comics has provided a glimpse into the components and concepts that govern the medium. While very theoretical and abstract, this text has made me appreciate sequential art as more than just something fun to read; I’m beginning to understand the specific niches comics can access to reveal literary and human experiences in ways no other medium can.

Throughout the rest of Week One, we read landmark works by Jewish authors that reflect the Jewish experience of the early twentieth century. Will Eisner’s A Contract With God (1978) follows a Hasidic Jewish man who comes to reject his faith after his god betrays him by taking the life of his adopted daughter. James Sturm’s The Golem’s Mighty Swing (2001) explores race relations and religious differences in the interwar period and follows an all-Jewish baseball team, the Stars of David, as they travel across America. Finally, to end the week, we read Book I of Art Spiegelman’s landmark work, Maus, which is at once a biography, memoir, and history of Spiegelman’s family and the experiences of his parents, especially his father, in World War II and the Holocaust. These rich texts promoted extensive class discussions that will continue throughout the rest of the block.

That’s all to report from Week One. I am very excited to continue studying Jewish comics and history in Week Two. Thanks for reading!