September 19, 2019

From Batman to Moses: Gorfinkel Discusses His Graphic Novel Haggadah

Photo by Lisa Klink

Jordan B. Gorfinkel is a Jewish cartoonist with an impressive resume. He worked as a DC Comics editor for several years, contributing to “Batman” and creating “Birds of Prey,” which will soon be a major motion picture starring Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Now, just in time for Passover, Gorfinkel has released the “Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel,” a captivating retelling of the classic Passover story with illustrations by Israeli artist Erez Zadok, and published by Koren Publishers.

Gorfinkel talked with the Journal about his latest project. 

Jewish Journal: Why did you decide to write the haggadah? 

Jordan B. Gorfinkel: Everybody asks for a lightning strike moment. It was not so much prophesy as it was the logical culmination of my career to date — doing mainstream comics, being the editor of “Batman” and doing Jewish cartooning. 

If you’re going to choose a subject for a book, it’s just so logical to do the haggadah. Jews celebrate Passover more than any other holiday. The haggadah is not a chronology. It’s kind of a Wikipedia page or SparkNotes or greatest hits of Jewish history and philosophy. It goes between different time periods constantly. By adapting a brand new translation into the sequential storytelling medium of graphic novels, we are bringing the haggadah to life in a way it’s never been done before. We’re making it exciting. We don’t want the fifth question to be, “When do we eat?” We want it to be, “Can I have more time to enjoy the seder?”

JJ: How long did it take to write the haggadah?

JBG: We have been working on it for three years. It’s a nonprofit project. I alternated between raising funds and writing and producing the book with a wonderful team of people. It takes a shtetl. Koren is the gold standard of Jewish religious books, and they were the icing on the cake … or the frosting on the sponge cake … or the chocolate chip in the macaroon.

JJ: How did you find Erez Zadok?

JBG: I wanted an Israeli illustrator. They have Jewish history in their blood, in their kishkas. They go outside, turn to the left and they can touch the ancient stones of Bnei Brak and the brand new buildings of Bnei Brak. They can bring history and authoritativeness like no other artist. [Zadok] was a top graduate of Bezalel Academy of Arts in Jerusalem. It was clear the second I saw his samples that he was the guy. 

JJ: Is Passover your favorite holiday?

JBG: I have to admit that before I began this I really did not have a true appreciation of the amazing brilliance and depth of the haggadah and the power of the holiday itself. There is this great thing about graphic novels, because they operate on two levels. You can enjoy them for the excitement, action and adventure, and you can revisit them over and over again. You can constantly uncover new Easter eggs, or as I like to call them, roasted eggs.

JJ: Do you still do any work for DC?

JBG: I’m now the owner-operator of Avalanche Comics Entertainment. I do visual storytelling for corporations, nonprofits and entertainment companies. My most recent project was for Paramount on the “Bumblebee” movie. I have a warm association with DC Comics because my work continues to be adapted into TV and movies. You can see my work on “Gotham” on Fox and “Arrow” on CW. The other thing I do in L.A. is music. I direct Kol Zimra, which is the only professional a cappella group with singers local to L.A. We perform at simchas.

JJ: What did you learn from DC about how to tell a story? 

JBG: The haggadah is not a chronological book. People always presume it’s “The Prince of Egypt” or “The Ten Commandments.” It’s the story of our exodus from slavery in Egypt to redemption and nationhood. What I learned from DC Comics and working on over 2,000 stories on “Batman” is how to enforce a three-act structure narrative on an otherwise abbreviated and terse summary of Judaism that has no structure. It shifts time periods and points of view and subjects and themes, from page to page and paragraph to paragraph.

JJ: Is it because different people wrote it? 

JBG: It was written by a consistent group of rabbis but they were rabbis from the oral law tradition. They were the rabbis of the Mishnah. They were writing in the style of the Talmud, which is to have a couple of words or phrases stand in for the presumed scholarship of the Jewish people. We don’t have that kind of scholarship, not at least without doing a Google search anymore. When we try to understand the haggadah we struggle. Now, we’re combining the narrative structure of the modern entertainment world to this ancient, abbreviated oral law book to bring out its inherent excitement and meaning. 

When people learn about this project, what they say is, “Oh, my grandkids are going to love this.” I say, “Yes, they will, but graphic novels are not a childish medium.” It is a sublimely sophisticated medium of communication for storytelling. People ask if it’s appropriate to turn our sacred texts into a comic book, to which I bring up ancient Egypt and hieroglyphics. There is a storytelling tradition we are commanded to pass on. It makes sense [to do a graphic novel]. It comes full circle. The creators of graphic novels were Jewish, so we are bringing it back to where it all began. What’s a more appropriate holiday to do it for than the storytelling holiday of Passover? 

JJ: Do you have any other projects coming up?

JBG: We are looking forward to going onto phase two, which is a line of Jewish graphic novels. We are seeking out likeminded people who see the value in what we are doing. We want to do biblical texts, books of philosophy, Zionism and Jewish humor, like a collection of my Jewish cartoons.