by Matt Reingold
Steven Bergson’s Jewish Comix Anthology, Volume 1 was published in 2014 by Alternate History Comics and features work by famous writers and illustrators like Trina Robbins, Art Spiegelman, Harvey Pekar, Joe Kubert, Will Eisner, and R. Crumb. It also introduces readers to some lesser-known creators like Yaakov Kirschen, Jenna Brager, Mark Lang, and Liat Shalom. Bergson’s anthology is quite unlike any other Jewish comic work that I have read. To be honest, my first study of the work left me disappointed because the work was so different from what I had previously encountered regarding Jewish graphic texts. Unlike other Jewish graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat, or any of James Sturm’s graphic novels, Bergson’s anthology did not present stories about Jews in the world and the ways in which they navigated their ethnicity and religion. Additionally, the text does not take classical Jewish texts and craft explicitly original commentary on them, like JT Waldman’s Megillat Esther. Instead, the selections included in Bergson’s anthology present fairly literal and straightforward visual representations of classic and canonical Jewish stories and legends that draw on biblical, Talmudic, allegorical, and Hasidic tales.
So my initial reaction to the text was disappointment. However, the more I sat with and thought about the work, I came to realize that my disappointment with the text was not because it was lacking anything. Rather, my own biases and previous expectations affected what I thought the text should be, as opposed to appreciating the work for what it is: a rich anthology of visual interpretations of traditional Jewish texts by an impressive range of artists and illustrators. Once I acknowledged this, I began to appreciate the nuanced presentations of texts that I have learned throughout my entire life.
One of the most interesting elements of Bergson’s anthology is the series of retellings of the origins of the golem, a Jewish mythological creature that defends Jews against their enemy. Traditionally, the golem possesses no independent thought and can at times lose control and cause unwanted damage and destruction. Bergson’s collection contains four different Golem stories. These include Bob Bernstein and Joe Kubert’s “The Golem,” Keren Katz’s “Solomon ibn Gabirol’s Golem,” Mike Friedrich and Tony DeZuniga’s “The Golem,” Joe Infurnari’s “Workin’ Girl Golem,” and David J. Klein’s “Golem.” These selections place the creature in different settings and time periods, and this allows the reader to consider the different ways that illustrators have understood the golem narrative and made use of it in different texts. By removing the golem from one specific time and place, it allows the reader to understand that the legend can be applicable and relevant throughout Jewish history.
My favorite selection included in the collection is “Prince Rooster,” by Art Spiegelman. Originally published in Little Lit by Harper Collins, it tells a story attributed to Hasidic leader Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav about a prince who believes he is a rooster. When all of the king’s wise men fail to cure the prince of his illness, an unknown sage arrives and pretends to be a rooster with the prince. After gaining the prince’s trust, the sage begins to act like a human and explains to the rooster that even though he is acting like a human, he is still a rooster inside. Through this intervention, the prince resumes his royal duties even if he is really a rooster. Like all Chasidic stories, the simple and even juvenile quality conceals a deeper message. Here, Nachman questions superficial exteriors and argues that what is on the outside is not only less important in comparison to what is on the inside, but might in fact be asynchronous with our internal realities. Spiegelman’s artwork captures the playfulness of the story through his curved brushstrokes and palette selection, but like the story, the art encourages a closer reading of the narrative and mirrors the deeper message contained in the text.
Bergson’s anthology is the first of a planned three-volume series. With subsequent volumes, a more detailed introduction would be of tremendous value. Unlike other compilations of graphic novels that might be structured around a single author or a year of publication, all of the texts chosen here were, presumably, chosen for a particular reason. In conversation with Bergson, he explained that the guiding premise of this first volume was to include texts that presented or reworked classic Jewish narratives. However, nothing is written to explain why this is an important enough theme to take up one complete volume or to justify the choices made. Additionally, there are no introductions or contextual information for any of the texts. While Bergson clearly wants to let the selections to speak for themselves, some insight into his decision-making process would help let the reader appreciate the comics even more. A thorough introduction might also have allayed some of the frustration or disappointment I initially felt towards the work given my previous experience with Jewish graphic novels, as I would have known that it is not until the second and third volumes where texts about the Holocaust, Israel, North American Jewry and even biography will be found. In light of the these limitations, this first Jewish Comix Anthology could have been stronger. Yet, even given that, Bergson’s work is an important collection of previously difficult-to-access materials.
Get your copies of the books discussed in this review: