Graphic Details: Autobiographical Comics Challenge Traditional Judaism and Redefine Feminine Image
“Normal people don’t care about comic books,” one character tells another in Diane Noomin’s comic. While it’s easy to believe that “normal people” may not look twice at comics, the exhibition Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women proves that “normal people” can and do care about graphic expression. The exhibit makes comics relevant to everyone and emphasizes the importance of comics to the fine art world.
Noomin is one of eighteen female, Jewish artists to be displayed in the exhibition of autobiographical comics that opened at the YU Museum on Sunday, September 25 and is on view through April 15. After debuting at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, the exhibition travelled to the Koffler Centre of the Arts in Toronto. After its stay at the YU Museum, the exhibition will continue on to Portland, Ann Arbor, and Vancouver.
From far away, each comic seems highly detailed and incomprehensible. But up close, each comic is filled with personal detail, personal confession and personal narrative. Similar to the concept of comics themselves, which at first might seem ridiculous to display in a fine arts museum, the exhibit, which at first seems unapproachable, is in fact highly personable and highly interactive.
The exhibition is beautifully displayed. Framed comics line the blue walls, and specific parts of comics are blown up and highlighted above the frames. The viewer can browse a table of published graphic novels and comic collections by the artists. And a computer in the center of the room allows the viewer to select specific comics to be played and narrated by the artists themselves, fitting for an exhibition about autobiography.
There is a bluntness and honesty that comes with autobiographical comics that fine arts can’t provide. A painting can illicit emotion in the viewer, but when words blare across a page, a viewer knows exactly what a character is thinking or screaming. This refreshing honesty is often absent from more nuanced fine art. As one of the artists, Racheli Rottner, explains about writing a graphic novel, “I wasn’t circling the subject anymore—I was telling it.”
These Jewish women unabashedly share their hopes, desires, frustrations, and tribulations. They rant and rage about their sex lives, their interpersonal relationships, their Jewish lives and their political lives. “We’ve got a proud modern tradition of truth-tellers, from Belle Barth to Lenny Bruce to Sandra Bernhard, who take a more in-your-face, confrontational stance for the pleasure of challenging convention,” write curators Sarah Lightman and Michael Kaminer.
By challenging convention, these women wield their pens like swords, erasing stereotypes about women in comics who traditionally flaunt fantastically perfect bodies. It Ain’t Me Babe, published in 1970, was the first comic written and drawn by women to challenge the stereotypical female heroine in comic books. In 1972, Aline Kominsky-Crumb was featured in the first issue of Wimmen’s Comix. Trina Robbins, one of the first producers of It Ain’t Me Babe and of Wimmen’s Comix, writes in an article for The Jewish Daily Forward that “Wimmen’s Comix tackled subjects that the guys wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole: abortion, lesbianism, menstruation, childhood sexual abuse.”
Since then, women have followed Robbins’s lead, expressing their individuality and power through comics. Instead of subjugating to the male hero, these women confront and attempt to overcome real issues. In Miriam Katin’s comic, she must confront a fellow IDF soldier, Obadiah, when he makes the statement, “Well to hell with you. Who needs you? What are you anyhow? A woman. A female. A worthless nothing.”
Yet through their comics, these women prove they are something, as they take their place in society as individuals. “I guess she’s just expressing her individuality,” Lauren Weinstein writes in her comic Last Dance about showing up at her prom in fish net stockings with razor-bladed runs. These women express their individuality as Jews unashamed to portray their bodies or their emotions vividly, honestly and intensely.
“I loved him with intensity. I hated with him intensity. There was no middle ground,” writes Laurie Sandell in her comic strip The Imposter’s Daughter. And in these comics, there is no middle ground. They are filled with intensity and contradiction. The form of comics—text and images in boxes—makes the juxtaposition even harsher—there are no transitions, plot twists are sudden, and people’s lives take turns for better or for worse in the space of a single page.
Not only do their lives change suddenly and untraditionally, but these women’s emotions are far from safe or traditionally Jewish. Rottner compares waiting for Moshiach to waiting for a man to come and deliver her. He never shows up. In the world we live in, where Messianism is hard to picture, and Judaism is often hard to connect to, these woman turn the bible on its heels. One uses the command for men not to wear women’s clothing and juxtaposes it with men dressed in drag. In Davis’s Toys in Babeland, a Hasidic man eavesdrops on two girls purchasing vibrators in a sex shop. Corinne Pearlman’s comic Show and Tell is a small square panel of a girl in tears, crying, “In fact m-my parents are assimilated!”
The exhibit combines both showing and telling. The age-old piece of advice for writers, “show, don’t tell” is ignored, and appropriately so. As Pearlman writes, “the urge for Jewish women to ‘show and tell’ in graphic form is nothing new.” In comics, the graphic side of show meets the verbal side of tell. And these two elements hand in hand create a powerful exhibition that ignores conventions even beyond this piece of advice. Comics present the perfect medium to do so, as Laurie Sandell said, “This form allowed me to tell a sometimes dark story with moments of levity and comic relief.” By juxtaposing radical ideas with humor, text with image, traditional Jewish ideas with radical movements, and by bringing characters from one world into another, the viewer becomes a final character in this tragic comic world.
Graphic Details is on display through April 15, 2012 at the YU Museum. Admission to the YU Museum is free for students of Yeshiva University. An upcoming event, Jewish Women and Comics Symposium on Sunday, February 26, will bring together academics and cartoonists to discuss the art of graphic details and narrative, and the role of women and Jewish storytelling.