Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

How to Understand Israel… in 208 Pages or Less

Friday, March 11th, 2011

Comic artist Sarah Glidden has somewhat divided loyalties when it comes to the topic of Israel. As an American Jew, she is aware of the complicated history of the Holy Land, the Jewish people, and the desire/need for a Jewish state, but as a self-proclaimed progressive she is disgusted by the treatment of the Palestinians. In an effort to justify her opinions and finally put the matter to rest, she decided to take a Birthright trip to Israel, to “discover the truth behind this whole mess once and for all,” chronicling the experience in her graphic memoir, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less.

For those unfamiliar, Birthright Israel is a program where young Jewish adults (ages 18–26) are taken on all-expenses-paid, 10-day tours of Israel. The general purpose of the program is to strengthen Jewish identity and engender positive feelings about Israel, wherein lies the flaw in Sarah’s plan, and perhaps the book. She goes on this trip knowing that they are probably going to put some spin on many of the hot-button political issues, so she treats everything with a dollop of cynicism and waits for those “gotcha” moments where she can be right and they can be wrong. It can come across as irritating, especially when you consider that the trip is a free perk and some of her fellow travelers, like her friend Melissa, are just trying to have a good time. Melissa provides a good counterbalance to Sarah because she was raised in a pretty secular household and this trip represents a chance to reconnect with her Jewish roots.

With Sarah and Melissa as travel companions, the book provides an interesting look at Israel outside the usual tourist hot spots of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Those cities are included on the Birthright trip, but we also visit the Golan Heights, the city of Holon, the Negev desert, several kibbutzim, and the Dead Sea. Each section is accompanied by a map, and of course, the entire book is done in simple (but lovely) pencil drawings with watercolor. Though Glidden’s drawings are not overly realistic, they are detailed and colorful enough to give you a good sense of place and her people have just the right amount of expression to convey feeling.

Yet as a travel memoir the book can be frustrating. As a carefully scripted trip, Sarah can only see and experience so much, and it feels like her Birthright group spends a lot more time in and out of centers and lectures than it does actually exploring the country. Their trip to Jerusalem seemed so brief, as it took them to the Western Wall, Yad Vashem (the Holocaust museum), and a mall. We don’t really get a “feel” for the city until the Birthright trip is over, and Sarah and Melissa take an extra day to explore the city on their own.

The highlight of the trip might be the group’s trip to Masada, where the Birthright participants climb to the top of the plateau and visit the remains of the fortress on top, where they are told a story of the “brave defenders” who held out against a Roman incursion for years, before eventually choosing to take their own lives in defiance. Sarah comes prepared for this, reading the original account in order to pick out the falsehoods in the account that Birthright feeds her. It stands out as one of the few instances where Sarah’s cynicism works to her, and the reader’s, advantage.

As the trip wears on so does it wear down on Sarah, and she begins to doubt herself and her beliefs, realizing that the issues of Israel are more complicated than she probably thought, and that there are no easy or obvious answers. She leaves the country knowing more and less as the same time, feeling confused and perhaps even a little empty. The book ends like the trip does, with notes of doubt and uncertainty, conflicting ideals and an overwhelming sense of “it’s complicated.” It’s a real downer after a book that is at times funny, charming, thought-provoking, and rarely ever boring.

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less
by Sarah Glidden
published by Vertigo (New York, 2010)
ISBN 978-1-4012-2233-8

The War on Christmas is Over, Because Christmas Came Anyway

Saturday, December 25th, 2010

Well, it’s Christmas Day, which means that some people are in church, many businesses are closed, small children are entering states of ecstasy, Jewish people are eating Chinese food, and lonely/bored people end up going online even though it’s Christmas and no one’s posting new content because those people have lives.

You’re welcome.

A Story to Wrap Yourself In

Friday, November 5th, 2010

During my senior year of college at NYU, I took a creative writing class. I had developed an interest in writing fiction at some point during undergrad, and I thought that a class would be a good way to put myself on a writing regimen. My output increased considerably because I had to write something for each class, and I also learned a lot of new things about writing fiction. I also had to write a lot of poetry.

Each student had to turn in two short stories over the semester. We had to bring in a copy for every student to read, and then the entire group would critique the story next class. This was nerve-racking if you were the one presenting a story, but it wasn’t too pleasant for those who had to read it, either. Over time I started to notice something about a lot of the stories submitted. Now, the class was a pretty diverse cross-section of young adults from across the United States; kids from California, Oklahoma, Illinois, Georgia, Texas. And yet, despite these far-flung origins, a good number of the stories seemed to be set in the East Village. Young people living in the East Village. It’s as if these students had decided that nothing worth writing about had happened to them until they came to New York for college.

This is the same general impression I get from a lot of indie, small press, and self-published biographical comics. Too many I look at seem to be slice-of-life stories about young people living in the big city; be that city New York, Chicago, Portland, or wherever. Nothing against people from those cities (who might not have other things to draw on), but a story should only be told if there is a story to tell. A good autobiography should be about telling the world interesting or great things, or at least offering a unique perspective on common experiences. To be worthy of an audience, a work must offer something that other works do not.

And that is precisely what Blankets by Craig Thompson has done for me. It’s the ostensibly the story of Thompson’s first love, but it’s so much more than that—it’s about religion, it’s about childhood, it’s about abuse, it’s about being an outcast, it’s about growing up and deciding what you want to be now that you have the power to decide. And it works, not just because of its immense length—the entire softcover volume clocks in at 592 pages—but because Thompson shies away from nothing in his troubled past. He takes all these experiences from childhood and weaves them into a cohesive narrative that not only leads into his romance with Raina, but that also provides context for everything he does. He feels shame about his feelings for Raina. He feels shame about his drawings. He feels shame about his relationship with his brother. Unlike other works which are too happy to pretend that there was nothing before adulthood, or works which treat childhood as a series of perfect moments, Thompson is honest and brutal, and in doing so he shows us how he became the person he is now.

I read the entire work in a day, which might seem impressive because of its length, but Thompson’s art is smooth and flowing and reads quickly. It also helps that many pages have little dialog, and some pieces of art take up full pages. Blankets rolls around in the luxury of page count it has been given. The book is such a quick read, that the end comes way too soon—and it’s such a sudden, disappointing end. The story just stops. We might get these little glimpses into adult life, but that’s not an ending, it’s an epilogue, and after such an emotional ride, it’s greatly unsatisfying.

Blankets
by Craig Thompson
published by Top Shelf Productions (Marietta, 2003)
ISBN 1-891830-43-0

Dispatches from Tokyo

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Living in a foreign country can be overwhelming, especially if you don’t speak the language. You might miss out on a lot, especially if you’re only there for a short period of time. Which might be why, back in 2006, German artist Dirk Schwieger proposed the following to his readers while living in Tokyo: send him suggestions for places to go, people to meet, or just interesting topics to investigate, and he will go out and do it. No questions asked, and he doesn’t have to like it. Then he chronicled each “assignment” in the form of a webcomic on his blog.

In 2008 these comics were collected into a book, Moresukine: Uploaded Weekly From Tokyo. The name “Moresukine” comes from the Japanese method of pronouncing “Moleskine,” the brand of notebook the original comics were created in, which the printed book sought to emulate in its design. The book is the size and cut of a Moleskine notebook, and if not for the illustration on the blue band wrapped around the cover, it could easily be mistaken for one.

The book consists of a brief introduction and story, followed by the stories of each assignment, from fashion to fugu. He covers topics as diverse as the Studio Ghibli Museum, love hotels, and Japanese slang. Each story is short but sweet; few overstay their welcome, while some, like the entry on religion, might not be long enough. He plays with the passage of time on a few assignments; the rooftop roller coaster entry tells the story of riding the roller coaster while simultaneously recounting the events leading up to that ride. The gender entry is actually a fold-out page; a series of random, yet interconnected thoughts are spread across a sheet two pages wide and two pages tall. It can be confusing, but greatly satisfying once all the pieces fall into place.

As all of the main Moresukine strips have previously appeared on the web, Schwieger attempts to sweeten the pot by offering bonus material in the published book.  The last section consists of a series of strips created by other artists, chronicling their responses to a challenge issued by Schweiger: talk to a Japanese person and write a strip about it. The selection of artists is mostly European, with a few from Canada and the United States. Some of the choices are rather… interesting, including Steve Havelka of Pokey the Penguin! and Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics. These two are not what you think of when you talk about “artistic” or “worldly” comics, but they produce interesting and entertaining results nonetheless. My favorite was the story by Monsieur le Chien, who took the time out to draw a strip chronicling not only his search for and encounter with a Japanese person, but also his previous thoughts on the Japanese (and also stereotypes of Frenchmen driving through the countryside in a Citroen Chevaux 2).

Moresukine is a quick read that can be confusing at times, but it provides an interesting and non-judgmental look at the culture of Japan through the eyes of a foreigner, all while not being afraid to experiment with the layout of a traditional comic.

Moresukine: Uploaded Weekly From Tokyo
written and illustrated by Dirk Schwieger
published by NBM Publishing (New York, 2008)
ISBN 978-1-56163-537-5

A Kaleidoscope of Images in My Mind

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

Generally anyone who reads comics has probably come across a Chick tract at least once in their life. Heck, even people who don’t read comics might across one, as they’re distributed in churches, Christian bookstores, and evangelical folding tables set out in public places (like the one in the Times Square subway station, in the 7 train passageway leading to the Port Authority). They’re ubiquitous and controversial (especially if you’re Catholic). For that reason, Chick tracts are some of the most parodied publications on the Internet, especially the Dark Dungeons installment, in which we find out that Dungeons & Dragons is a gateway to occult worship.

A panel from Dark Dungeons, and the corresponding parody from Darque Dungeon, in which role-playing is a gateway to the goth scene.

Less of a parody and maybe somewhat of a homage is Chemical Salvation?, which uses the Chick tract format to tell the story of Lysergic acid diethylamide—popularly known as LSD.

The comic is fairly straightforward, outlining the origins of LSD in a lab, the early research, and the initial positive reaction to the compound—including the more religious applications of LSD usage. However, the comic is somewhat biased, as it briefly skims over the “casualties” of psychedelics and pretty much condemns the anti-drug movement without the same careful deconstruction that it gave to the drug’s positive effects.

However, that makes it even more of a spot-on parody, all the down to the final page, where it proudly displays the logo of “Trick Publications.”

A Surprising Find Indeed

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

Have you ever been absolutely shocked that one of your favorite authors had a work you never expected him to have? I mean sure, everybody has to start somewhere, but you have your expectations, and every now and then something is found that rips them all apart, or creates even better ones in their place. I was not expecting this to happen with Gene Yang, author of one of my favorite graphic novels to date, American Born Chinese.

See, American Born Chinese is a book that tells three stories: one is a take on the traditional Monkey King tale (which Dragonball is based upon as well), the second is about a Chinese boy trying to fit in, while the final tells a story of an annoying cousin come to visit. All are told magnificently and leave you with a smile on your face afterwards. I had not seen any other works by Yang on the shelf, so I figured he had either told the story he had to tell, or he had works that were nice and independent and alluding my grasp. About a month ago, I went on Amazon and found three other comics done by Yang, all before he put out ABC. Two of them, Gordon Yamamoto And The King Of The Geeks and Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order, appear to be more along the lines of what I already expected from the author in question. The other they had listed, through me entirely for a loop, and puts the point as to why I am including this here at Nonfiction.

Enter The Rosary Comic Book. A small, simple comic book detailing in full the Catholic Rosary prayer. Gene even presents instructions on how to perform the prayer, whether it be using an actual rosary, or using the comic itself. He informs people to use a rectangular panel of the comic as an Our Father, a square panel as a Hail Mary, and every panel that has a rose next to it will be time to pray the Glory. I am sure that this book was intended to be used for Catholics either in church or at home, but it was eyeopening for me, a Jew. I knew very little about Catholic customs up until now. All I knew were the snippets I had learned from friends over the years. Now, with this comic, I understand their traditions a bit more. Another item to note about The Rosary Comic Book is that the people are not drawn as white, which makes sense. Each person has a tan to their skin, which would come with being in a desert region, wouldn’t it? On his website, Gene explains why he wrote and drew the comic book in nice, simple terms:

I’ve always struggled with how to incorporate my faith into my comics in an authentic way. One Lent, I decided to do a comic adaptation of the Rosary Prayer, rather than giving up chocolate or soda. The Rosary Comic Book is the result.

Makes sense to me. For anyone looking to learn a bit more about Catholic tradition, or if you are simply in the mood for a nice, well drawn and thought out comic book, I highly recommend tracking down a copy of The Rosary Comic Book. My expectations, they have changed.