The ProsenPeople

New Reviews May 7, 2018

Monday, May 07, 2018 | Permalink

Tasting My Russian Grandmother's Food in Tangiers

Sunday, May 06, 2018 | Permalink

by Mary Morris

I hardly expected to travel halfway around the world to encounter my grandmother’s ghost, but that is what happened to me a few years ago in Tangiers. Or at least that is how I’ve come to think of that moment. It was, for me, as if she had come back from the dead.

We had been traveling for two days across the ocean to Madrid, by train to Málaga, across the Straits of Gibraltar and now Tangiers. It was late, and we were starving. When had we last eaten? Coffee that morning in Málaga? A cheese sandwich on the ferry? But that was hours ago. Now we were making our way to an old Moroccan restaurant I’d circled in the guidebook.

In the winding alleyways, stores were shuttering their windows. Moroccan women in kaftans, heads covered, scurried along on last minute errands. In a café, men in pink and green djellabas sat, sipping mint tea. Other men, hooded, pushed past us. A donkey cart filled with wood almost pinned us to the wall in the narrow maze of street. I asked a group of boys directions and, laughing, they sent us the wrong way.

Soon we found ourselves hopelessly lost. A shopkeeper who spoke French drew us a map. Half an hour later we were climbing the stone steps that led to our restaurant. But the minute we stepped inside, I was uncertain. It looked like a place for tourists. The waiters wore fezzes and there were four musicians sitting with a tip jar in front of them. The only other people in the restaurant were a large French family who seemed to be celebrating somebody’s birthday.

I was hoping for something funkier, but the place was clean, the people seemed nice, and we were exhausted. When the waiter asked if I’d like a drink, I decided to take a chance. “Do you have any wine?” He shook his head sadly. I’m sure it’s not the first time he’d heard the question.

“We have fresh apricot and pomegranate juice,” he told me. I ordered the pomegranate juice and lamb tagine; Larry ordered chicken couscous. The music was lively and we were enjoying the place. It wasn’t long before our food arrived, and, as the waiter lifted the lid of my tagine, the steaming aromas revived me. I took a bite. The lamb was moist and tender, cooked with prunes. I could smell the cinnamon, the ginger, the turmeric. Slowly the flavor seeped into my mouth. I put my fork down. “Is it all right?” Larry asked, concerned.

Tears came to my eyes.

“What is it?” Larry asked, fearing that something was wrong with the food. How could I explain this to him? I felt as if I was eating in my grandmother’s kitchen. My grandmother died in 1973 and, as far as I knew, her recipes died with her. How was it possible that in a restaurant in North Africa I was tasting a meal that my Russian-born Jewish grandmother made for me in Chicago, when I was a girl?

“My grandmother made this dish,” I said.

“You mean she made something like this?”

I shook my head. “No, this is her recipe.”

This dish of lamb with prunes sent me on an odyssey that led to the writing of my new novel, Gateway to the Moon. Part of my journey had to do with the history of food. What I learned didn’t surprise me, but it was something I had never thought of before. Food can have its own diaspora. Recipes migrate with the people who cook them. I had no idea where to find my ancestors until lamb with prunes showed me the way. It was my first clue and it became an integral part of the story.

Five hundred years ago the Spanish expelled its Muslim and Jewish populations. Not only did they banish the people‐they banished their food. Spices such as cinnamon, ginger and cumin disappeared. In Andalusia they killed the sheep and goats and brought in pigs by the thousands, because they knew that those Jews and Muslims who held onto their rituals in secret would never eat their pork. The Jews who were expelled went in many different directions—some to Portugal, where they would all be forcibly converted. Others found their way to France. Some made it to the Ottoman Empire. And others went to North Africa.

If my family was banished from Spain, it is possible they went to North Africa. From there you can go directly up the Aegean, up the Dardanelles, to the Sea of Marmara and up the Bosphorus to the Black Sea, which is where I know they came from. A village not far from Kiev. By water it is a straight shot.

I’ve always felt at home in the Mediterranean. It is a feeling that’s hard to describe. The water, the air, the way the sun touches my skin. My husband has commented on it over the years. “It’s as if you belong here,” he likes to say. And so now I think about it. Maybe I do.

Mary Morris is the author of numerous works of fiction, including the novels The Jazz Palace, A Mother’s Love, and House Arrest, and of nonfiction, including the travel memoir classic Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone. She is a recipient of the Rome Prize in literature and the 2016 Anisfield-Wolf Award for Fiction. Morris lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Getting to Know Sophie Tucker

Thursday, May 03, 2018 | Permalink

Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I had never heard of Sophie Tucker before 2010. While redesigning a course I teach on American Popular Culture, I stumbled upon a YouTube montage of photos of the flashy, smiling Tucker. In the background played her signature ballad, “Some of These Days.” She made her way into my course as an example of a vaudeville headliner, accompanying Fanny Brice, Eva Tanguay, Al Jolson, and others.

I had just published my first book, Black Culture and The New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era, and was looking for another story to tell about outsiders who achieve power in untraditional ways.

I have always been interested in people who put on disguise and cross boundaries, especially when it comes to racial identity. So, when I discovered that Sophie Tucker began her career in blackface, I was intrigued. Like her contemporaries, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and Fanny Brice—all who used blackface during their careers—Tucker entered the entertainment business as someone other than herself. But was this enough to warrant a full-length biography? I waffled on this predicament while I searched for materials about the performer, finding records and video clips—superficial accounts of Tucker’s entertainment engagements—reaffirming my thoughts that she was perhaps “just a singer.” The study of American culture has never been considered as “serious” as political or social history in the minds of academics, and I certainly didn’t want to further that conception.

Still, I stared at the image on my computer screen of Tucker at her 1953 Golden Jubilee. Dripping in diamonds, her blonde, shiny hair piled on her head, she was celebrating fifty years in show business. Tucker was clearly loved by the public, and I had to know why.

One of the ironies of writing history is that sometimes subjects with the richest records receive the least amount of public attention. Once I committed myself to full-scale detective work, I learned that Tucker had left hundreds of her personal scrapbooks to the New York Public Library and Brandeis University. The sheer volume of them was daunting, and when I asked other scholars who would have been likely Tucker biographers, the consensus was that they were just full of ephemera. (I heard about pages of greeting cards.) Still, I had to see them for myself.

The scrapbooks were unwieldy. They were jam-packed with articles, business cards, playbills, letters, and yes, greeting cards, all which Tucker began to collect when she started her career in 1907. The materials were literally falling into my lap; scattered pieces of articles, 100 years old, revealed their fragility. Just when I felt I had sufficient materials to understand one aspect of Tucker’s life, more carts with more scrapbooks came to greet me, unsettling my confidence. It wasn’t possible to grasp everything.

Almost sixty years of experiences were on these pages. By the time Tucker became a headliner in the 1910s, she was performing twice a day, every day, and she put all reviews, personal interactions, and programs in the scrapbooks. Eventually, she had to hire several people to manage the books, but she was as dedicated to them as she was to her repertoire. For her, the record and legacy of her stardom was as important as anything she was doing in her career. Fortunately for me, it became the basis not only for a biography of Sophie Tucker, but a larger understanding of all the mediums—vaudeville, film, radio, cabarets, Broadway, television—that she inhabited and influenced.

It turns out that she was, above all, a performer—but I was flawed in my initial thinking. She shaped the world around her, and did matter as a “serious” subject. Among her many accomplishments, she was the first female president of the American Federation of Actors, a champion for African Americans in show business, and one of the most influential philanthropists on behalf of Jews. Her acclaim was matched in Britain where she performed for decades, with three command performances for royalty. The scrapbooks not only contained correspondence from fans and show business friends like Irving Berlin and Ed Sullivan, but also from Albert Einstein, Dwight Eisenhower, and Golda Meir. She turned out to be just what I had hoped to find, an outsider—Jewish, overweight, outspoken—who became the ultimate entertainment insider.

Did I get to know the “real” Sophie Tucker? I’m not sure. I know the version she wanted people to see, and I know that the guilt she felt for abandoning her only son influenced many of her decisions. That is why the scrapbooks exist—proof that fame was a justification for living without a family. They are also proof that even though she couldn’t be part of her own family for years, she created alternative kinships—with African Americans, with other assimilated Jews, and with women who cast aside convention. Tucker’s world allowed for her success because she was an unlikely celebrity. Mama to all and mother to none, her story was worth telling.

A leading scholar of American cultural history, Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff is an associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina. She is the author of  Red Hot Mama: The Life of Sophie Tucker and Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era and the recipient of an NEH public scholars fellowship.

Image from Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons 

Excerpt: A Yom Kippur Scene (With Footnotes)

Tuesday, May 01, 2018 | Permalink

Excerpted from  Mourning by Eduardo Halfon, and translated by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn.

detail of Maurycy Gottlieb's painting Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur

The following scene comes from that mysterious and wonderful space that lies somewhere between my memories of childhood and fiction.

I was still hungry, still1 looking up at my grandfather’s false teeth2, when the rabbi at the Plantationsynagogue stopped right in front of me. He was a handsome man, with dark skin and green eyes. He looked like he was boiling in his long white satin robe. He was holding a thin silver rod whose tip was a miniature hand, its index finger extended, pointing.4 My two grandfathers stood.

The rabbi said something to them gravely, his face bathed in sweat. I didn’t know if I should stand as well, so I remained seated, looking up at them, hearing how my grandfathers began whispering names and numbers to the rabbi. One of my grandfathers would say a name and the rabbi would repeat that name and then my grandfather would say a number and the rabbi would repeat that number. And on like that. Names and numbers. One of my grandfathers, then the other. And the rabbi was taking note of it all. Masha5, whispered my Polish grandfather, and then he said a number. Myriam6, whispered my Lebanese grandfather, and then said another number. Shmuel7, whispered my Polish grandfather, and then said another number. Bela8, whispered my Lebanese grandfather, and then said another number. I was a little frightened. I understood nothing. Perhaps because of my grandfathers’ whispering, it all seemed part of a secret or forbidden ceremony. I turned and was about to ask my father what was going on, but he shouted at me with his eyes and so I thought better of it and kept quiet. My grandparents continued standing, continued whispering names and numbers, and more names and numbers, and then, amid all that whispering, I clearly heard my Lebanese grandfather pronounce the name Salomón.9

The prayer finally ended. We all went out into the lobby, where there was a long table with crackers and cookies and orange juice and coffee, to break the fast. The kids, no longer in jackets and ties, were running all over. The adults were hardly speaking. My father told me to eat slowly, to eat very little.10 I had a powdery cookie11 in my hand and was taking small bites when I asked my father in English why my grandfathers had told the rabbi all those names. With some trouble, my father explained to me in Spanish that that was the prayer to honor the memory of the dead. Yizkor, it’s called, he said. And the numbers they were saying? I asked. Tzedakah, he said. Donations, he said. A certain amount of money for the name of each of the dead, he said, and immediately I formed a commercial idea of the entire affair, understood that each name had its price. And how do you know how much each name costs? I asked my father, but he simply made a weary face and took a sip of coffee. I kept nibbling the cookie. Names of dead family members? I asked, and after a silence he said yes, but also dead friends, and dead soldiers, and the dead six million, and that number, for a Jew, even a Jew who’s just a boy, needed no further explanation. Also the name of your brother Salomón, then, the one who drowned in the lake? I knew I was asking an illicit, even dangerous question.12 But I was thirteen now, I was all man now, I fasted now, I was now allowed to ask adults questions. My father observed me for a few seconds and I thought he was about to start crying. I don’t know what you’re talking about, he stammered, and left me alone with my cookie.


Still. This one word is important here. Not just hungry, but still hungry. Not just looking up at my grandfather’s false teeth, but still looking up at my grandfather’s false teeth. In the book, there’s a first part to this scene in the synagogue, before a long ellipsis of eight or ten pages, where the narrator goes on a trip to Germany and Poland. An ellipsis sparked by the sight of the grandfather’s false teeth. The word “still”, then, works as a way back for the reader after that long trip. A re-entry point to the synagogue and the hunger.

2  “It had never occurred to me that on his arrival in Guatemala in 1946, when he was barely twenty-five years old, after the war, after being prisoner in several concentration camps, my Polish grandfather had already lost all of his teeth.” Mourning, p. 89

black and white photo of man riding a bicycle in a suit

“My parents, after selling our house, had left us at my grandparents’ and traveled to the United States to find a new house, to buy furniture, to enroll us in school, to get everything there ready for the move. A temporary move, my parents insisted, just until the whole political situation here improved. What political situation? I didn’t fully understand what they meant by the whole political situation of the country, despite having become used to falling asleep to the sound of bombs and gunfire; and despite the rubble I’d seen with a friend on the land behind my grandparents’ house, rubble that had been the Spanish embassy, my friend explained, after it was burned down with white phosphorus by government forces, killing thirty-seven employees and peasants who were inside; and despite the fighting between the army and some guerillas right in front of my school, in Colonia Vista Hermosa, which kept us students locked in the gym the entire day. Nor did I fully understand how it could be a temporary move if my parents had already sold and emptied our house. It was the summer of ’81. I was about to turn ten years old.” Mourning, p. 73

Called a Yad, or Torah pointer, it ensures that the parchment of the Torah is not touched during the reading. Not required, but considered a hidur mitzvah, an embellishment of the commandment. As a child, I saw that long silver rod almost as a wand, and its wielder as a sorcerer.

My Polish grandfather’s mother. She was part of the last shipment of Jews from the Lodz ghetto. Probably killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

black and white photograph of a woman

6  My Egyptian grandmother’s mother. Although she died in Lima, Peru, she’s buried in Jerusalem, where she was born.

My Polish grandfather’s father, a tailor by trade. He was part of the last shipment of Jews from the Lodz ghetto. Probably killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

black and white photo of a serious-looking man

8 My Lebanese grandfather’s mother. Died suddenly during their exodus from Beirut to France, when my grandfather was a teenager. Buried somewhere in Corsica.

“His name was Salomón. He died when he was five years old, drowned in Lake Amatitlán. That’s what they told me when I was a boy, in Guatemala. That my father’s older brother, my grandparents’ firstborn, who would have been my uncle Salomón, had drowned in Lake Amatitlán in an accident, when he was the same age as me, and that they’d never found his body. We used to spend every weekend at my grandparents’ house on the lakeshore, and I couldn’t look at that water without imagining the lifeless body of Salomón suddenly appearing. I always imagined him pale and naked, and always floating facedown by the old wooden dock. My brother and I had even invented a secret prayer, which we’d whisper on the dock—and which I can still recall—before diving into the lake. As if it were a kind of magic spell. As if to banish the ghost of the boy Salomón, in case the ghost of the boy Salomón was still swimming around. I didn’t know the details of the accident, nor did I dare to ask. No one in the family talked about Salomón. No one even spoke his name.” Mourning, p. 69

10 The idea here is that, after a long fast, it’s better not to eat too much or too quickly in order to give the body time to readjust. We usually had a light snack at the synagogue, and then a heavier meal at home a few hours later.

11 These sweet, powdery Lebanese cookies are called ghraybehs. There was always a jar filled with them in my grandmother’s cupboard. They seem to punctuate and sweeten the moments and memories of my childhood. Almost like sporadic drops of rose water.

12 This is the first memory I have of intentionally wanting to know more about the death of my father’s brother, Salomón, or Solly, as my grandmother called her first-born.

black and white photo of a little boy on a bicycle, sticking his tongue out

Excerpt from Mourning. Copyright © 2018 by Eduardo Halfon, translation copyright © 2018 by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn. Published by Bellevue Literary Press: Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Eduardo Halfon moved from Guatemala to the United States at the age of ten and attended school in South Florida and North Carolina. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Roger Caillois Prize, and José María de Pereda Prize for the Short Novel, he is the author of two previous novels published in English: The Polish Boxer, a New York Times Editors' Choice selection and finalist for the International Latino Book Award, and Monastery, longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award.

Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur (Maurycy Gottlieb) via Wikimedia Commons

New Reviews April 30, 2018

Monday, April 30, 2018 | Permalink

Joe Shuster's Artistic Legacy

Thursday, April 26, 2018 | Permalink

With AJ Frost

Black and white photo of Thomas Campi and cover of the book he illustrated, The Joe Shuster Story

This month marks the eightieth anniversary of Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1. What was meant to be ephemeral and cheap entertainment for a nation starved of dreams soon became one of the greatest popular cultural behemoths in history. But justice and the American way never truly caught up for Superman’s creators, two Jewish boys from Cleveland named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Although the legacy of their creation endures stronger than ever, Jerry and Joe themselves were forced into penury, lawsuits, and near-obscurity.

While the story of Superman is well-known throughout the world, the true story of his creators and their plights hasn’t received as much popular scrutiny. A forthcoming comic focusing on the life and travails of Shuster aims to remedy this imbalance. The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman, written by Julian Voloj (Ghetto Brother) with art by Thomas Campi (Magritte: This Is Not a Biography), is not only an authoritative account of Shuster’s life growing up as a poor kid in Cleveland, but also a riveting play-by-play of the early years of American comic books.

AJ Frost chatted with the author and illustrator before the book’s release. In this installment, illustrator Thomas Campi discusses his early influences, the challenges of working on a book while moving continents (a Superman-ish feat!), and the legacy that Joe Shuster left for artists today.

Click here to read AJ’s interview with author Julian Voloj.

AJ Frost: Thomas, thanks for taking the time to chat. I wanted to start with your background for a moment. Superheroes are such an ingrained part of the American psyche, but they might not translate as well elsewhere. Growing up in Italy, what was your attitude towards superhero comics, or comics in general? What was the cultural attitude towards them?

Thomas Campi: I started reading comics when I was fourteen years old. A friend lent me Dylan Dog, a black-and-white series that came out monthly. Dylan Dog was horror, but it had so many different genres in it as well: philosophy, humor, love—it was just brilliant. I didn't really read superhero comics even though I knew about them; my interest was limited to Dylan Dog at the beginning. My attitude was simply that of a kid being amazed by drawings and words that made my mind dream, and let me live adventures by sitting down in silence in my room or in a park. In Italy at the time—it was the ’90s—like in the US, comics were popular but seen as something childish, not really recognized as a form of art. But even this . . . it was a concept I understood and realized years later.

AJF: When did you first come across Superman and the work of Joe Shuster? Superman is so symbolic of American aspiration that I'm curious as to how he's perceived in a non-American context.

TC: The first memory I have about Superman is from when I was probably five or six. I went to a newsagent with my dad and I wanted him to buy me something (no memory of what). Among all the children’s magazines, there were a few superhero comics. My dad pointed at Superman and said: “That's Superman.” (But you know what he was called when I was a kid in Italy? “Nembo Kid.”) But at the time, I was more into cartoons like Scooby Doo or The Flintstones. It wasn’t until I watched the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeve that I actually got to know and understand Superman. Joe Shuster’s artwork was a late discovery.

AJF: The Italian comic tradition is very different from the American one. Would it be fair to say that the work of Romano Scarpa or Luciano Bottaro, or any of the major Disney artists, is more well-known than, say, the work of anything from the Big 2?

TC: Actually, I wouldn't say that. American comics are popular in Italy as well. We do have our own Big 2: Disney and Sergio Bonelli Editore. When I got into comics—as a reader and a fan—I met a lot of people with different interests: those devoted to Disney, the superhero fans, the manga fans, and so on. With that said, Scarpa, Bottaro, and Giorgio Cavazzano are masters for anyone who understands something about comics.

AJF: As an artist, what was your first sense of Shuster's work? Was there something to it that seemed special, or did it seem more like a relic of an earlier time of illustration?

TC: A little bit of both. I thought it was special because Shuster was just a kid when he did the first drawings. And it was in the ’30s, so I pictured him in those times: the cars, the suits with large pants, suspenders, wooden nib pens, big pieces of paper; it’s all fascinating. He made history. The artwork can seem naïve if seen through the eyes of somebody working digitally or simply used to modern aesthetics. I myself think it’s great if you put it in context. I've studied and reproduced a few of his drawings for the book. The inking, and even the way he simplified anatomy, were pretty impressive for someone of his age who didn't have the amount of comics and references we have nowadays. Personally, I'm a big fan of those old-school styles.

AJF: Let's talk about The Joe Shuster Story for a moment. What was the process of collaborating with Julian like? When I chatted with him, he mentioned that you were moving from China to Australia while working on the book. How much of a challenge was it to keep up with all that at the same time?

TC: It was challenging. When I was approached by our agent about the Joe Shuster story, I was living in Hangzhou, China. But I said yes right away. At the time, I had just received my talent visa and I was about to move to Sydney. Another challenge was that I was still working on Macaroni! for my French publisher. And one more thing—and it's something people don't talk about too much—is that as an illustrator or author, you get paid with advances and then royalties, but the advances aren't enough to pay bills, so I had to squeeze in Magritte: This Is Not A Biography for a few months to cover the expenses. It's the life of a freelancer, and I love it!

I also felt some pressure at the beginning. Working on such a popular story about the two artists who created the first superhero and basically helped the birth of the American comics industry was intimidating. But the more I got to know about Joe and Jerry and their genuine passion for telling stories and for comics, the more I felt close to them and confident (if that’s possible when making comics) in approaching the 160 pages I had to storyboard and draw. Julian’s narration is full of emotion and based on solid research. It’s also written with no specifications of panels and page numbers. He trusted my storytelling skills, which brought an inspiring freedom to my creativity and the approach I took in telling the story.

I began reading and annotating the script during nights and weekends since, at the time I received it, I was still working on another book. I broke down Julian’s script into panels and wrote descriptions of how I imagined each particular scene. Regarding the artwork, I didn’t want to define everything with a line, not even in the first steps of the creation of the page. That’s why, after I sketched the storyboards, I simply painted over them without penciling, trying to give a more painterly feeling to the final page—something that could suggest a particular mood, describe a moment without using too many details that would have filled the page but not added any emotion. Basically, both Julian's and my main concern was the story.

AJF: What was it like recreating Depression-era America from your vantage point as an expat in Australia? That must have been its own unique challenge. Did you do any independent research?

TC: The beauty of comics is that you can do whatever you want by yourself in your studio. You don't need the budget you would for a movie or a big team of people. I've done several books set in France and Belgium while living in China and Australia. I think the most important thing is to be honest and passionate about the story you're telling. In comics, in my opinion, there's no need to represent everything in detail, or to be incredibly realistic in anatomy, perspective, background, or lighting. I think the most important thing is to give an “impression," like Impressionists did in their paintings.

During my life, I’ve watched many old American movies, read American novels and comics. But when you're creating something, you can't just trust that kind of knowledge—it can only be the starting point. I did my own research about Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel, and Depression-era America. I gathered photos of every kind, watched videos from those times, and then I tried to recreate, with my own filter, an impression of that era—which I guess was from a European point of view, even though I'd like to think of it as just a personal, creative one.

AJ F: What do you think the legacy of Shuster is—not just for comics creators or comics readers, but for artists and dreamers? And what did you personally walk away with—emotionally, artistically, or personally—after working on this comic?

TC: What Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel did (in part) is the dream of every artist: creating something that will make you live forever, a legacy. But what actually impressed me was their tenacity, perseverance, and, most of all, their passion. They had fire inside, that fire that makes you sit down in your studio for months—alone in most cases—trying to create something that you can be proud of and that people will enjoy and hopefully remember. I believe that any kind of artist—whether a comic book artist, musician, filmmaker—should have that kind of fire. It’s what makes you an artist, the compulsive need to create. I believe that is Joe Shuster’s legacy.

Telling the Joe Shuster Story

Tuesday, April 24, 2018 | Permalink


This month celebrates the eightieth anniversary of Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1. What was meant to be ephemeral and cheap entertainment for a nation starved of dreams soon became one of the greatest popular cultural behemoths in history. But justice and the American way never truly caught up for Superman’s creators—two Jewish boys from Cleveland named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Although the legacy of their creation endures stronger than ever, Jerry and Joe were forced into penury, lawsuits, and near-obscurity.

While the story of Superman is well-known throughout the world, the true story of his creators and their plights hasn’t received as much popular scrutiny. A forthcoming comic focusing on the life and travails of Shuster aims to remedy this imbalance. The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman, written by Julian Voloj (Ghetto Brother) with art by Thomas Campi (Magritte: This Is Not a Biography), is not only an authoritative account of Shuster’s life growing up as a poor kid in Cleveland, but also a riveting play-by-play of the early years of American comic books.

AJ Frost chatted with the author and illustrator before the book’s release. In this installment, author Julian Voloj shares some thoughts about writing and collaborating on the book with illustrator Thomas Campi.


AJ Frost: Hi, Julian. I’ve been anticipating this book since it was first announced a while ago. Where did the idea to tell the story of Joe Shuster originate?

Julian Voloj: I feel like there are many people who vaguely know about Joe Shuster, but don’t know the whole story. A graphic novel is the perfect medium to tell that story in an entertaining way that can reach a lot of people. I come from a journalistic and academic background. Three years ago, I released Ghetto Brother —my first graphic novel—but before that I had written close to twenty books on academic topics. I knew the comic book history, but I delved into it much more after reading Gerard Jones’s books, like Men of Tomorrow; I really tried to study as much of the story as I could.

I’ve been waiting for someone to do such a book, because it’s a great story. I couldn’t believe that nobody came up with the idea to tell it as a comic book. If you’re a fan of comics, at least in the United States, you probably know the story, but most comic book fans abroad are probably not aware of it. [Ed. note: The book is being released in around ten countries this year.) But, you know, while Americans are aware of the story, they’re not necessarily going to read a 300-page academic book on the subject. A graphic novel makes the story of Shuster so much more accessible.


AJF: What was the research like when you were starting this book? You were always interested in the “real-life” story. Was there ever a point when you thought your book would be more like a fictionalized retelling à la Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay?

JV: It’s not that I’m specifically writing nonfiction graphic novels. My interest is nonfiction stories. I come from an academic background and from journalism…that’s what I’m trained in. I really wanted to tell this story, and I was concerned about really documenting every scene; every scene in the book is based on something that I’ve found, be it in academic books, legal documents, or interviews. Everything is based on something. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s all true, because people have different versions of memories, and this version is written from the perspective—or the imagined perspective—of Joe Shuster. But it was pretty clear that it should be a nonfiction book, which, in theory, has a smaller market, but I think that if it’s well done, readers will appreciate it.

AJF: It was interesting, while reading the book, to see so many prominent figures from comics history featured, including people who are still alive. For example, you feature the legendary comics figure Neil Adams later in the book, as well as the more insider-y Jay Emmett, who passed away a few years ago, unfortunately. What was it like hearing those first-hand stories?

JV: In a way, it was a little too late, because a lot of the key people had already passed, so it was pretty much just reading interviews with them. But also it was perfect timing because, thanks to the internet, there are now so many resources available: interviews, videos, Superman audio, the radio show, and all 17 episodes of the [1941-43 Fleischer Studios Superman] cartoons. So you actually could access a lot of the stuff for free, which was amazing.

One cool thing, for example: Jerry Siegel was invited on a radio show, and you can hear his voice; he had such a squeaky, boyish voice, but he was already successful, and this was at the height of his popularity. I wouldn’t have had access to these amazing resources ten years ago. So even though all of these people passed a long time ago, you actually have a lot of these things you can pull from, which is great.

AJF: What was it about Joe Shuster’s story that really resonated with you? Did your perception of him change while you were researching and writing the book?

JV: In 2013, my wife and I were in Detroit with our two kids and my in-laws offered to babysit while we were there. We decided to go for a weekend getaway from Detroit (without the kids). And we went to Cleveland, because it’s around the corner, and I was interested in the Superman story. I’m also a photographer, so I’ve always been interested in these former Jewish neighborhoods. Glenville, which is where Siegel and Schuster met for the first time, is the same kind of place. The majority of the people there were Jewish, and now it’s predominantly an African-American neighborhood. So one morning, I decided to explore Glenville. I saw some former synagogues, and the place where Siegel’s house still stands, and the place where the Shuster residence once stood. I thought I would be more inspired by it, but it’s just a rundown neighborhood, which is unfortunate, because I think it could be such a tourist attraction. I love neighborhoods like this, and I’m always curious, so I spoke with some locals, who I think were surprised that I was white, but also surprised that I decided to park my car and just walk from the old Shuster residence to the Siegel residence. It’s less than a mile. I just wanted to experience the walk that they took every time they went to see each other. Around the same time, I spoke with my agent about how I really wanted to do a graphic novel on this. Half a year later, Columbia University got a donation of letters written by Joe Shuster. They gave me access to this box of letters even before it was cataloged, which was amazing. It was just sitting there, not even in Columbia’s system yet.

These letters…they were heartbreaking. There was stuff about the time Shuster had medical bills he couldn’t pay, his mom was dying; he even writes about Superman generating $50 million and not getting one cent of it. He writes letters to friends—I think all of them were Jewish—and he writes about when he had money that he was donating to Jewish charities. Really, it was just heartbreaking. And reading it in his voice, too. I mean, you think about how at the same time, people were making millions from Superman even before the movie came out, and meanwhile this guy can’t even pay his medical bills. And so, for me, it was clear that I wanted to write from his perspective, because in the duo of Siegel and Shuster, Siegel was definitely the spokesperson. He was the one negotiating the deals, he was the one going on talk shows, he was the one pushing for the trials and the legal claims. He was the dominant one in this relationship. I think Joe Shuster was more of a tragic figure. He also has a bit more of the unknown factor. I feel like often with illustrators, especially with graphic novels, they’re doing the majority of the work but they’re often in the background. Even for this book, it took me a few years to write the text, but it also took Thomas Campi a few years to illustrate it.

Reading those letters, I felt that there were things people actually got wrong. In one of the boxes of Shuster’s letters, there was a copy of the playbill from the Superman Broadway show [It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman which debuted in 1966], and everybody wrote that he was too poor to go see it in the theater, but I found that he actually was invited to the party and met the actors. And this was at the time when they were trying to come to terms with DC Comics. He even writes that they treated him well, and nobody knew about this because it just came out of this box.

There were just these little things that most of us got wrong because there were no interviews with Joe Shuster—he was more of a shy guy. And so, in a way, I give him a voice with this book. And where it’s possible, I’m using some interviews, and it’s really the way he would speak. In a way, I feel like it’s elevating a marginalized voice who’s not known as much as Jerry Siegel. There are just more interviews with Jerry Siegel. Even when they had interviews together, Jerry was the one talking.

AJF: How was the aesthetic sense of the book informed by your writing, and how much of it was Thomas taking what you wrote and just going with it?

JV: When I was writing it, and pitching it to my editor, he sent me a lot of portfolios. And there were really a whole range of possibilities. Some looked very American, even like a superhero comic, and I felt like I didn’t want it to be like that. My agent met Thomas in China, which is crazy because he’s Italian, and told me he met this guy and thought I’d like what he’s doing. The moment I saw his portfolio I knew he was it. It was this Americana feel to it; it really was a perfect fit. I was joking with Thomas, because we both love the show Mad Men, so we were saying that this is the Mad Men of comics. Some of the aesthetics are really like Mad Men, so I feel like the style perfectly fits.

We did things like Skype, and Dropbox, and we transferred things over the internet. It’s a lot of stuff he got from me to work with online. The funny thing is that while he was working on it, he was moving from China to Australia, so the time difference was a challenge too. If we had done this book ten or fifteen years ago, we probably wouldn’t have found each other. The fact that I can work with an Italian artist in Australia worked perfectly. I think it’s really like a fine art book. It’s definitely strongly his style, but it also fits perfectly with my vision.

AJF: How and why does the sub-genre of biographical comics speak to you as a reader, writer, and academic?

JV: I write frequently for a Swiss Jewish magazine, so I’m interested in Jewish culture stories and Jewish contribution to culture. I find stories that fascinate me, real stories, and tell them in a journalistic form. So the fascination with real life stories and Jewish history definitely was part of it. And I feel like there is a growing demand for it. I feel like telling the real story is my way to honor the pioneers. The first generation of comic book artists are stories of a lot of broken hearts, people who were screwed over by publishers. Telling stories like this is important, to honor those people who can’t tell their stories anymore. Even if it’s just a story about the Superman creators, I put it in the wider context of the comic book industry. That’s why a lot of people are also honored in it, and have guest appearances, and can sort of tell their own stories. It’s history.

AJF: You said it’s Jewish history?

JV: It is. The comic book industry was 90 percent Jewish. And even the trials in the ’50s [The Kefauver committee hearings, which linked comic book reading to juvenile delinquency] had some anti-Semitic undertones. So, yeah, it’s a fascinating piece of Americana, but also of Jewish history.

AJF: Okay, last question: What does the story of Superman and Joe Shuster mean to you as a lover and writer of comics?

JV: Superman is really just a part of American folklore now, and in a way, the Siegel and Shuster story and the bad deal they made is almost like the original sin, in a way, of the comic book industry. So, I think it should be told not to forget where it comes from. Hopefully with my book, the original sin of the comic book industry will be more known, and the creators more appreciated. I feel like it’s something that is contemporary. A lot of people think that the comic book industry is just these two big companies, but of course there are many people who want to do their own thing, and there’s a growing market for independent artists. Hopefully people will appreciate the independent artists and give them a chance when they go to a convention and see things that are not like the characters that you see everywhere, but artists trying to figure out things that are not in the mainstream.

New Reviews April 23, 2018

Monday, April 23, 2018 | Permalink

On First Drafts

Friday, April 20, 2018 | Permalink

Mark Sarvas is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I remember the day I sat down to read back the first draft of my second novel, Memento Park. I was in the lobby of the Jerusalem Crowne Plaza, a guest of the Jerusalem Book Festival, at the end of a four-year long journey to complete a workable first draft. (In contrast, my first novel, from idea to finished version, took three years.) Life had interfered along the way with this book, but more dramatically, I chose to write it without an outline, to allow my instincts to guide me to a story. It had taken much longer, and the process was filled with uncertainty—but the result was a stronger novel, I felt sure of it.

As an instructor of creative writing, one of the most common conversations I have with my students is about first drafts. I see so much hesitation, resistance, and uncertainty when the process should be one of joyful discovery. It’s a common complaint: “I can’t seem to move forward. I can’t really get started. I can’t get any momentum going.” Instead, beginning writers often end up forever revising the first 25 pages. At the risk of generalizing, most commonly, there are one of two things at play: control or vanity (though I suppose the two are related). In the first draft, both of these must go.

Control: Time and again, a student tells me she or he can’t make progress in the draft because they don’t know where it’s going. That’s the time I usually trot out the famous E.L. Doctorow quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” For some writers, sure, an outline can be a useful guide. (I used one for my own first novel, Harry, Revised.) But I increasingly hold with what Bernard Malamud said: “First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about.” The writer who can relinquish control, who doesn’t need to know in advance, will discover all sorts of miraculous things on his or her journey. The novel that doesn’t surprise the writer will not surprise the reader; and how can the writer be surprised if all is sketched out up front? The number one writing fallacy: you have to know what it’s about to begin. Wrong. You have to trust yourself and write.

Vanity: This is even more insidious. It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of the first draft. Hemingway famously said that “The first draft of anything is shit.” No one should see your first drafts, they are your dirty little secret. You will never have the courage to be adventurous and take risks if you’re worrying about who is going to judge it. The first draft is a blueprint, a back-of-the-napkin sketch, something never meant to be shown to anyone. I tell my students to imagine a grand chasm, the kind of thing Indiana Jones might have to get across. The first draft need be no more than a rickety rope bridge, something that just barely spans the gap, often with plenty of treacherous holes along the way. It’s just a down payment on a future, sturdier bridge that will be built up over time, layered through multiple revisions.

Years ago, when I was writing my first novel, a writer friend told me something a writer friend had told him: Write two pages a day. One page isn’t enough to develop a thought, and three can start to feel like a lot. But anyone can do two pages; that’s about the length of Doctorow’s headlights. And in six months (or four years), you can have a first draft. But don’t show a soul; now, the real work begins.

Mark Sarvas is the author of Memento Park: A Novel and Harry, Revised, which was published in more than a dozen countries. His book reviews and criticism have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Threepenny Review, Bookforum, and many others. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, PEN/America, and PEN Center USA, and teaches novel writing at the UCLA Extension Writers Program. A reformed blogger, he lives in Santa Monica, California.

My Special Needs Child, and Our Israel Story

Friday, April 20, 2018 | Permalink

Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

No one could have known it from my confident smile, but I almost turned tail before my plane took off. I was about to embark on a nine-day tour of Israel with people I’d never met. That wasn’t the scary part. The scary part was separating from my four-year-old daughter.

I know lots of moms get nervous before leaving their kids for the first time. But my kid happens to have a condition that prevents her from talking or walking without assistance. And I have a condition that prevents me from acting rationally when I’m more than ten feet away from her. In seriousness, I’d had postpartum anxiety for years, and I’d gotten good at it.

Still, I’d applied for this trip, drawn by a magnetic pull toward Israel that was more powerful than even my most ornate fears. My husband had assured me that everything would be great.

Then I’d envision our daughter in her little walker, stumbling over a crack in the sidewalk, and check my trip cancellation insurance.

Let’s backtrack.

My daughter’s birth had quickly been followed by many types of therapies. Speech therapy, physical therapy, play therapy...and nearly all the therapists had come bearing books. Most of those were the “indestructible by milk teeth” variety, but a certain few were real literature that commanded hundreds of rereadings. Those were the ones, I came to learn, that included three common elements: rhyme, rhythm, and repetition. It also turns out those three are what make language easiest for the brain to process.

Being a writer, I decided to try my hand at books like those, ones that would be accessible to kids like mine. Because my daughter is half-Israeli on my husband’s side (and Jewish on both sides), I found Israel making its way into my stories.

Two years later, I sold my first children’s book, followed by my second, third, fourth and fifth. And then, the clouds parted and I received an invitation to apply for the first-ever PJ Library Author Adventure, a tour of Israel with nineteen other children’s book authors—all of whom turned out to be much more lauded and illustrious than I am. (I was fairly sure I’d been selected by accident.)

The opportunity was at once thrilling and terrifying. I was being catapulted from the very books I’d written for my daughter into a situation that would take me away from her.

Still, Israel called me. Loudly. With deadlines for, say, getting to the gate on time.

Somehow, in the days before the flight, instead of becoming more nervous, I reached a strange state of calm, not unlike in the days before giving birth. Admittedly, it could have been catatonia.

At the airport, I cried a little. But I didn’t use that trip insurance.

And then, I was on the plane with major children’s authors. In a thunderbolt moment, I realized that all those people cared about the same things I did: children, Judaism, and Israel. Almost immediately, they treated me as family. I felt honored, overwhelmed. And never more so than when one renowned author I’d just met crossed the entire airport to tell me she and some others were sitting down to dinner, and would I like to join them?

We arrived in Israel as a group, already bonded. And then another “family member” took me in: Israel, itself. I explored kibbutzes, met major Israeli authors (Meir Shalev! Etgar Keret!), dug in 2,000-year-old soil, and prayed at The Western Wall. I walked a rainwater tunnel under the City of David. I got lost, and found, between the jewelers and juice shops on Shenken Street in Tel Aviv. And, with my tribe of author friends, I breathed in, and out, stories.

I also made many FaceTime calls, during which I was assured that my daughter was very much okay (when I asked her, she blew me kisses and clapped, which is her shorthand for “Yes!”). My husband loved the opportunity to be the parent-in-charge, without my neuroses along for the ride. And somewhere between the Dead Sea and the mountains of Tzfat, I left some of those neuroses behind.

My pulse slowed. My spirit rose.

I returned home with so many stories to tell, I can’t write them fast enough. But one of my most important stories is this one: that, for all my championing of special needs kids, my child is a child first. Her story is that of a strong kid, a happy kid, and a Jewish kid.

It is not the story of a special needs kid who can’t be apart from her mom. It’s that of a child who enjoys her life, and who is becoming more independent every day.

And my story is that of a writer with a great family that supports me, a community of amazing authors, and a huge love of Israel.

I thought I’d gone abroad to gather stories. Instead, it seems I’ve had my own story edited quite neatly. And the new ending is so much happier.

Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh is a writer, editor, and author. Her children's books include Can You Hear a Coo, Coo?, and three upcoming titles from Kar-Ben Publishing: A Hoopoe Says "Oop!", Listen! Israel's All Around, and The Biggest of All.