April 19, 2019

Barmitzvahman — Hero for more than a day

Who is the hero of a bar or bat mitzvah? It’s the 13-year-old, who, after a day of chanting, speaking and being bear-hugged by distant relatives, sees himself or herself imbued with powers of memory, eloquence and forbearance far beyond that of ordinary teenagers. But how do you help yours to hold on to that feeling?

Take photos, certainly. Hire a videographer? Perhaps, if your synagogue allows it.

Because they are heroes, what about putting them in their own comic book? Portraying them as Barmitzvahman or Batmitzvahwoman, outsmarting the forces of nervousness and confusion, and ultimately “KA-POWING” their way through their speech? Using the services of a comic book publisher in Camarillo, that’s what one mother in Texas did.

[Download the Barmitzvahman graphic novel here!]

In 2010, Dallas resident Brenda Burstein was looking for a special way to connect her son Raphe, who was a fan of comic books, to his bar mitzvah day.

“He had always enjoyed comics like ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘Futurama’ and ‘Bone,’ ” she said in a recent interview.

About a year before Raphe’s bar mitzvah, following a family trip to New York City that included the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, a secret plan began to take shape.

After Burstein searched in vain for a publisher, Keith Colvin, the owner of Keith’s Comics, a Dallas comics shop that Burstein’s son frequented, gave her the name of Nat Gertler, a comic book writer, and more importantly, the owner of About Comics, a Southern California publisher that produces custom comic books.

“I contacted Nat and explained what I wanted,” she said.

“We talked about Raphe and what kind of comics he likes. He was so into ‘The Simpsons,’ ” said Gertler, who is also co-author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Creating a Graphic Novel.”

The result is very Simpsons-esque: All the characters have bulbous eyes, orangey complexions and wide, toothy smiles.

“We used the style, not the characters,” Gertler said.

To create the characters, Burstein sent Gertler photos of her family, even the family dog, Bleu. “All of the characters look like family members,” said Burstein, who admits when she first saw the drawing of herself, she asked Gertler if the comic’s illustrator, Jim MacQuarrie, could “shave a little off the belly,” she said.

“ ‘Radioactive Mom’ is me,” said Burstein referring to a chiseled and red-suited mom shown on a parody cover of Marvel Comics’ “Radioactive Man” that appears on the bar mitzvah comic’s inside cover. On a second parody comic cover, Raphe’s younger brother, Zev, is shown chiseling off from the Ten Commandments an 11th, “Honor thy big brother.” A third cover, called “Futurelle,” shows a cartoon version of his sister, Arielle, wearing dark glasses and saying, “Arielle’ll be back,” mimicking Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in the “Terminator” films.

For the bar mitzvah comic, Burstein originally wasn’t looking for “overtly Jewish elements; Nat brought those in,” she said.

© 2010 Nat Gertler, Jim MacQuarrie

“There is a Jewish tradition of playfulness that I thought we would be able to work within,” Gertler said.

The comic’s cover shows Raphe with a tallit flying over his shoulders, and a “bat signal”-style spotlight image of a Torah scroll projected in the sky.

“I didn’t want God’s name to be spelled out,” said Burstein, who is Orthodox.

To meet this requirement, in one caption that contains a Hebrew line from her son’s Torah reading, Gertler had the illustrator use the dog to obscure the name of God.

The comic’s plot, titled, “Keep Out of My Kippot!” turns on how the hero, Raphe, a half hour before boarding the flight for his bar mitzvah, recovers when Bleu leaps off with his “ultra-high-tech yarmulke of Jewish knowledge” that has his bar mitzvah Torah reading stored in it.

According to Gertler, there is even a precedent for bar mitzvah comics.

In 1988, Godfrey Bradman, a wealthy British property tycoon, had a custom Superman comic published by DC Comics for his son Daniel’s bar mitzvah. Titled “This Island Bradman,” the full-color comic features an adventure where the bar mitzvah boy’s family and friends are worked into the story line. A limited number of copies were given out, and a copy of the now-rare comic recently sold on eBay for $800.

As for the day when the printed comic was presented to Raphe?

“I didn’t know about it all,” said the post-bar mitzvah boy, who is now 15.

“When I first saw it, we were in the airport waiting. I was very excited to see that she did this for me. It was very good,” he added.

After the bar mitzvah, which was held at a Chabad in Salt Lake City, copies of the comic book were waiting on tables for family and friends.

“I think the rabbi found it amusing,” Raphe said.

Upon retuning home, “My mom brought them to my school and handed them out. They seemed to enjoy it,” said Raphe, who now attends Yavneh Academy of Dallas.

After school, he sweeps up at Keith’s Comics, the place in the bar mitzvah comic where he goes for help once he loses his yarmulke of Jewish knowledge. To save the day, the resourceful Keith pushes the comic book emergency button and instantly retrieves a stack of Bible comics, all “strictly Old Testament,” of course.

Did the cost create a parental emergency?

The total cost was in “the lower four figures,” Gertler said of the finished comic, which included 11 pages of original full-color illustrations, as well as hundreds of copies of the finished work.

“We didn’t spend $30,000 on a big bar mitzvah bash,” Burstein said.

“This was a labor of love. The finished comic is like a snapshot of our life,” she said.