May 23, 2019

Where Are the Great Jewish Graphic Novels?

“Four decades after Art Spiegelman began publishing a comic-strip serial about the Holocaust, later released in book form as Maus, the exploration of serious subjects by means of cartoon panels and word balloons no longer has the capacity to surprise. Still, a 350-page graphic novel dealing with Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), the foundational figure of modern political Zionism, is hardly an everyday sight. And yet there it is, not only in its original French—Herzl: une histoire européenne—but now also in a Hebrew edition.

The book is the creation of Camille de Toledo, a French writer claiming paternal descent from Spanish Jews, and the Russian-born illustrator Alexander Pavlenko. Hardly the first comic-book meditation on Jewish history and identity, it joins the work of the French illustrator Joann Sfar and occupies a place on a growing shelf of first-person American Jewish chronicles of unhappy childhoods, first trips to Israel, and the like. But it is the first extended treatment in this form of a major Jewish historical figure, or of the nature of the Zionist project. The pity is that—for reasons worth exploring—it is an egregiously poor one.

De Toledo and Pavlenko recount much of the basic biography of their subject while inventing or imagining a few details, including a visit to a brothel by Herzl in the company of his fellow Viennese Jewish playwright Arthur Schnitzler. Strangely, though, the biography is mostly confined to the last third of the book, in which both Herzl and Zionism are seen through the eyes of a meek Jewish photographer named Ilia Brodsky—an obvious stand-in for de Toledo—whose own story forms the book’s narrative framework.”

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