The ProsenPeople

Interview: Miriam Libicki

Thursday, May 11, 2017 | Permalink

with Michelle Zaurov

Jewish Book Council had the pleasure of featuring Miriam Libicki as part of Ink Bleeds History: Reclaiming and Redrawing the Jewish Image, a panel of graphic stories on the representation of Jews in comics and graphic novels. We followed up with Miriam to discuss her collection of drawn essays, Toward a Hot Jew.

Michelle Zaurov: I notice you talk a lot about graphic artists who are Jewish. Do you feel like being Jewish has had any influence on your relationship with comics or being a comic artist?

Miriam Libicki: We read Marvel comics when I was young, but I think it was Peter David who put a lot of Jewish content in in his ‘80s comics and I was aware pretty early on that comics were a Jewish medium. I grew up Modern Orthodox, so it wasn’t super strict, but I felt like in my schooling and community there was a sense that visual art wasn’t really a thing that Jews do. The notion was that it’s nice for kids to have coloring books, but art is not a serious or intellectual pursuit. I was into fine arts and history of Western art, and that didn’t feel very Jewish to me, whereas comic art managed to feel Jewish somehow and have some Jewish sensibility to it.

MZ: These essays seem to be on disparate topics: you have one about art and another about Jewish identity. Did you mean for them to all go into a cohesive graphic novel?

ML: Well, I did them all separately. It was 10 years’ worth of essays, so I did them all as self-published zines. I was doing comics and going to comic cons, I had an ongoing series, jobnik!, which is about my time in the Israeli army, that morphed into a graphic novel. Whenever I had some rant or thought that I wanted to put in comic form, I would put out one of these drawn essays and sell it at a convention. Once I had two or three of them, I decided that once I had enough of these graphic essays, I would submit the full collection to publishers.

MZ: Why did you decide on these subjects?

ML: It just seems to be what I care about. I didn’t really intend to focus on Jewish subjects, and I think it was a reaction to leaving Israel and coming to Vancouver. I felt that Vancouver was not really a Jewish place after being in Israel, and I was afraid of becoming just another white person. People wouldn’t even perceive me as Jewish, and somehow that bothered me. So, my art at that time started becoming more Jewish. I found myself making excuses to have Jewish themes in my art as a way of asserting my identity that felt comfortable to me. This seemed like an authentic way to express and explore my Judaism on my own, when I didn’t have my community or my whole country reinforcing it.

MZ: How did you feel when you returned to Israel and interviewed actual Israeli citizens after being away?

ML: It was very different. I was grappling with my identity because I had made aliyah, served in the Israeli army, and the idea was to become a real Israeli and not an American tourist, and somehow earn my place in Israeli society. But I moved to Canada right after the army. So, I undermined that whole project and I felt very ambivalent about it for a long time. I still wondered how I could be a part of the Israeli conversation, and that is what the early essays were about: if I can understand the Israeli mindset, then maybe I am still partially Israeli. But, each time I go back, I get more rooted in Canada. I got married, had Canadian kids, and now when I travel with my family to Israel, I won’t even speak Hebrew most of the time. I really feel like a tourist with pretty good Hebrew. And I guess that’s ok. Now I am more interested in defining my Judaism as a Diaspora sort of Judaism rather than an Israeli one. I stopped struggling with it; I don’t feel the need to prove myself as an Israeli anymore.

MZ: On a more general note, what was the most difficult part of the artistic process with this novel?

ML: The part that takes longest is always the art. In order for me to do the art, I need something to keep me going, like a strong story that can sustain all these hours working on art. It’s difficult in the beginning to figure out what I’m writing and why I am writing it. Once I get over that, the rest comes pretty quickly, but the art is still long because I don’t draw or paint fast.

MZ: I noticed that some of your essays lack in color while others are colorful, is there a tactful reason for that?

ML: It was more practical. “Towards a Hot Jew” was meant to be a drawn essay, and it was a breakthrough in what I wanted to do in comics. It’s in black-and-white because I didn’t want to make it more complicated, and it was more about the writing and the ideas rather than the art. I felt like if I added color, I would have worried about the realism of the art. The other ones atr in watercolor because I wanted to teach myself watercolor, and the “Jewish Memoir” was commissioned for an academic anthology publication, and I couldn’t put that in color for cost reasons. The final essay is in a limited orange palette, and that was kind of for the same reason. When I was still two-thirds of the way through the art, I didn’t have a publisher for it, but the idea was that I wanted to get it published in an academic context, like a journal or an anthology. I also knew that this was the essay that would put me over the top for the essay collection in terms of page count.

MZ: In the book, you say that “comic style editorializes human appearance” and “fictionalizes it in order to bring certain aspects of humanity to light.” How have you done that with some of the characters you drew up in this book, and what aspects of humanity did you hope to bring to light?

ML: My avatar in the essays is based on the character that I drew for jobnik!. I kept drawing that character until one felt right to me. Her looks did undergo a transformation over the course of the first few issues and stories I wrote about my army experience. I gave her bigger eyes than mine, but she certainly isn’t glamorous. She’s shorter than me, which is kind of how I feel. Sometimes I feel more slight and observant, and not physically dominating. The eyes are emphasized but the rest of the face is fleshy as well because in my late teens and early twenties I didn’t like my appearance very much. It’s not that she’s hideous; the point that she’s just not glamorous and put together, and her body is sort of lumpy. After that, I didn’t pay attention to how much she looked like me. When I did the essay “Jewish Memoir Goes Pow! Zap! Oy!,” it was the first time I had that character addressing the reader and expressing thoughts on literary criticism. I picked the appearance of what I was redrawing at the time of the jobnik! stories, which was the Miriam character with the short bob cut and casually half out of the army uniform. That suited the tone I was going for with writing the essay about memoirs—it was in the authority of lecturing but in the form of someone human and vulnerable. She not only has a body, but a flawed body, and even when I’m talking about the history of race relations it’s still coming from a human.

MZ: In the “Towards a Hot Jew” essay, you touch upon the sexual stereotypes of Jewish men and women. Do you feel like Jewish stereotypes, specifically of young Israeli soldiers, differ from those of the average young Jew?

ML: Definitely! I feel like there’s a whole thing about soldiers who were the guards in the Ben Yehuda Pedestrian Mall in Jerusalem: those are the soldiers who would get all the action. Now, for the past 15 years, it’s been the armed escort on a Birthright tour. Everyone wants to have their “sex with an Israeli soldier” experience. Among Israelis, soldiers aren’t necessarily seen as sexy, but they know that they’re perceived as such in the rest of the world. I feel like Israelis have caught on that their sex appeal is one of their selling traits, and there’s definitely more of an internal fetish as well. Which is a little bit disturbing because it’s one thing when outsiders think Israelis are sexy and it’s quite another when official branches of the Israeli government are putting up sexy soldier pictures.

MZ: You also talk about how there’s an imperfection that goes with Jewish culture. Do you feel like that plays a role in the sexuality of Jews?

ML: I think so. I feel like sexuality influenced by Christian doctrine, you get the Madonna-whore complex: either the woman is ideal or totally dirty. I would hope that in Judaism, especially since we don’t have a Madonna, that we would have less of that, that someone could be human and still be desirable. Maybe we can avoid putting each other on pedestals; maybe we can acknowledge that we are all not perfect and that we all have big noses and are sexy anyways.

MZ: In one of your essays, you say that “psychoanalysis is a quintessential Jewish pursuit.” What do you mean by that?

ML: A lot of people have made the point that Freud’s middle-class Jewish upbringing was why he had his specific thoughts on familial relationships, that if it weren’t for the very specific German-Jewish family structure Freud grew up with, he wouldn’t have had all those theories about what parents and children relationships are. I definitely feel like psychoanalysis caught on among Jewish people earlier than it did with the mainstream, who were initially largely anti-psychoanalysis or found it disgusting that people went to talk to psychoanalysts about their private life—which is reminiscent of the way they found Jews to be dirty and disgusting. It’s a Jewish thing to believe that you should talk about yourself and acknowledge your flaws, and that talking or complaining about a subject endlessly is a method of taking action to solve problems.

MZ: Do you feel like these Jewish stereotypes were fading when you moved to Canada?

ML: I think people on the West Coast and in Canada had less of these stereotypes than what you might find on the East Coast and the United States. A lot of people aren’t familiar with the Jewish stereotypes out here, let alone Jews. In “Towards a Hot Jew,” I talked about the concept of the Jewish American Princess (“JAP”) being shallow and materialistic. I was doing that project in Canada that asked non-Jewish Canadians if they had a version of the JAP, like a Jewish Canadian Princess, and they uniformly claimed that there isn’t. So I would say there’s a little bit less awareness.

MZ: In the later essays, you were pointing out the downfalls of the Israeli government, like how they have alienated Ethiopian Jews and the Sudanese throughout history. As an Israeli citizen, do you feel a personal guilt on behalf of the government? Or do you feel like you removed yourself from that because you moved away?

ML: I have that guilt, but it’s not huge. Even if I tried to make things different I can’t have that much of an effect: there is no absentee voting in Israel, so I can’t vote unless I made a date to be in Israel on Election Day. I could have more of an influence, but I feel like I can’t be that much of an activist outside of Israel. I do tweet and say “Shame on Netanyahu!” but I feel like there is a real sense in Israel that the rest of the world can’t judge them. The American Jewish community does have a place in talking about Israeli policies, but insofar as to actually effect what happens inside Israel, I’m not sure I can have that much effect as an American/Canadian.

MZ: Why did you decide to end the book on the quote “How can we deliver a message about our humanity from behind the bars of quotation marks?” What does this mean?

ML: That is a quote from the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. He was a World War II refugee who survived a prisoner of war camp, and a philosopher before and after the war. His core idea is empathy, and he was one of the people to really try to define it. He was also an Orthodox Jew and talks about it in spiritual terms, like the image of God. He talks about the need to look beyond categories—when he thinks about categories he thinks of the Germans walking outside of his camp who presumed they were a different kind of humanity than he was. If you have those categories then there’s no way you’ll be able to communicate, and everything you say will just become a symbol of how that person has already defined you. In the essay I was grappling with the ideas of identity politics, that you need to have identity politics because otherwise you have identities and categories and hierarchies that are left unspoken. It’s better to have them spoken, but it’s also important not to retreat so far into them that the only thing you can express is the identity you have been sorted into. It’s important to examine structures and hierarchies but it’s also important to take those and put them in their place and try to see the infinite in all of us, as well.

MZ: Identity and categories and how they shouldn’t be at the forefront of society seems to be a huge emphasis in your essays. Were you raised with this notion?

ML: I think so. My parents were Orthodox, however neither of them grew up Orthodox. My mother was a convert and my dad was more Conservative-Reform. Their attitudes towards Orthodoxy was more about how they chose to live their life and acknowledging that everyone has their own paths in life. They gave me spirituality and tradition but their moral sense was much more universal. I feel like I have the ideas of universal morality and empathy. We all believe there are many paths to the truth and ways to be a good person.

MZ: What are you working on now?

ML: I’m working on a bunch of projects right now. I just worked with the original underground comic artist and comic feminist historian, Trina Robbins. She is putting out a collection of fiction by her father that was published originally in Yiddish, which she found, translated, and adapted as a comic script, which she gave it to different artists to draw. I’m also working on another short piece about graphic -novel responses to the Holocaust. It is closer to fiction than non-fiction, so it’s more of a narrative than an essay. I’m also doing my Masters right now and working on my thesis, which is also a graphic novel.

Michelle Zaurov is a student at Binghamton University in New York, where she studies English and literature. She has worked as a journalist writing for the Home Reporter, a local Brooklyn publication. She enjoys reading realistic fiction and fantasy novels, especially with a strong female lead.

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The Pitch Process

Friday, October 21, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Miriam Libicki wrote about the artistic process and progression in her most recent collection of graphic essays, Toward a Hot Jew, which will be featured in Jewish Book Council’s upcoming event, Ink Bleeds History: Reclaiming and Redrawing the Jewish Image in Comics. Miriam is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

The two questions most dreaded by people who finish their first book are probably, “So what’s it about, in one sentence?” and “Who is the audience for this?”

Because of the long path of Toward a Hot Jew to publication, I’m actually pretty comfortable with the first question. This book is comprised of seven “drawn essays,” which is my term for creative nonfiction that combines words and pictures, but not always in the same way that comics do. I’m not anti-comics, though: I grew my pitches by selling these essays individually at comic-cons for the past ten years. At a con, I have to pitch each essay zine dozens of times a day at passersby, over the course of two to five days. I‘d print up a new pamphlet right before con, then test my pitch, changing words, adding or subtracting, until I got a sentence or two that made people stop and at least flip through the pages. By the end of con, I’d have my pitch.

My first drawn essay was Towards a Hot Jew, the (almost) title essay of this volume. I was back from four years living in Israel, working through some leftover romanticization of the country and fascinated by the hidden meanings in the way the IDF was reported on in North America. It’s deliberately provocative, but in the end, questioning and ambiguous. “This piece, I call it a drawn essay,” I say to the older couple in matching Batman shirts. “It’s about like the image of Israeli soldiers—” here I fan through the pages to show that although the subtitle includes “fetish object,” the book isn’t porn—“and what that image means to different people, and how it’s used.”

Who Wants to Be an Art Star was based on a project I did earlier, in undergrad, which I re-painted. The original assignment had been to “have an art experience” and write about it. My experience was to interview my classmates about theirs, and then draw it as a comic. “This is my least Jewy essay,” I say to the distracted girl with a portfolio, looking for her favourite pro artist. “It’s more about being a painting major, and interviewing other painting majors about their painting major adventures.”

Ceasefire was my first attempt at something like journalism comics. “It’s about the second Lebanon war in 2006,” I tell the dad dressed as Doctor Who holding his two Stone Angel daughters’ hands. “I happened to be visiting family in Israel right at the end, and I was trying to describe the atmosphere there, away from the front lines.”

This one was commissioned for an academic anthology (The Jewish Graphic Novel: Critical Approaches, ed. Samantha Baskind and Ranen Omer-Sherman). They said to me, “We liked Towards a Hot Jew. Can you do another one like that? Maybe about how you started making comics?”

“This one,” I say to two women in such impeccable business attire I can’t tell if they’re cosplaying or not, “is about the history and aesthetics of the auto-bio comix genre, and the Jewish influences on that.”

This is a sequel to Ceasefire, two years later. “It’s about going back to Israel,” I say to the couple dressed in beachwear. “After I hadn’t lived there for six years, and talking to Israelis about where the country was at, at that time.”

“This one is about the Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel,” I tell the man in the telltale olive un-logo-ed shirt and solid forearms of a soldier on leave, “and how they were first welcomed, but weren’t given visas to work, so they’re like a shadow underclass in Tel Aviv. And in May 2012, the government started inciting against them, and there were riots... I was home in Canada with my newborn baby, and just trying to figure it out from afar.” I’m rambling on and I’m rambling and probably getting too emotional, but he’s still with me.

My last essay is the latest, longest, and definitely the hardest to write and to explain. I spent all my pregnancy with my first child doing research, and didn’t finish the art until my second child was six months old. “It's about the changes in the global ‘meanings’ of Blackness and Jewishness, the historical relationship between African Americans and American Jews, the Ethiopian-Israeli community, and... other stuff.” I wrote to the founder of America’s oldest literary comics publisher. A bit awkward, but this one’s never been seen at a con yet.

As to the second question, who is my audience? Well, the easiest thing is to say “Jews,” but from experience at cons (and for the future of my career), it’s gotta be broader than that. I’m still figuring it out, though. Hopefully it includes you.

Miriam Libicki is a graphic novelist living in Vancouver, Canada. Her 2008 memoir jobnik! has been a required text in over ten university courses, and her short comics have been published by Alternate History Comics, Rutgers University Press, and the Journal of Jewish Identities. Libicki is a recipient of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture International Fellowship and the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Research Grant.

Hear Miriam Libicki speak about her work together with fellow graphic storytellers Eli Valley, Amy Kurzweil, and Rocket Chair Media at Ink Bleeds History: Reclaiming and Redrawing the Jewish Image in Comics Thursday, November 3, 2016 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Register online for free admission!

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Miriam Libicki's Artistic Progression

Thursday, October 20, 2016 | Permalink

Miriam Libicki is a comic book author and artist whose most recent collection of graphic essays, Toward a Hot Jew, will be featured in Jewish Book Council’s upcoming event, Ink Bleeds History: Reclaiming and Redrawing the Jewish Image in Comics. Miriam is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

The biggest transition from being an art student to being an independent artist was what to do about colour. I had been a drawing and painting major. I made oil paintings with layers of colourful glazes, none of them smaller than three feet on a side. Then came graduation, and with it the end of giant, well ventilated and stocked painting studios.

I couldn’t be a painter anymore, if no one was buying my paintings. I could be a cartoonist, though, if enough people shelled out $3.00 for a xeroxed copy of my drawn thoughts. My first comix essay was drawn on watercolour paper, in graphite. It was nice and cheap to print, and the texture of the original paper still gave a nice arty quality. But something was missing.

By the time of my second drawn essay, I was a year out of art school, and missing painting. I decided to try to teach myself watercolours. It was a really steep learning curve. Oils comprise of layers and layers. Oil paint is endlessly correctable. Watercolours are like golf: whoever can get to complete in the fewest strokes wins. Afraid of ruining any good strokes, I pre-mixed colours and left well enough alone as much as possible.

My third essay was commissioned for an academic anthology. For some reason, printing in colour in a university-press book is even more expensive than in a regular book. Pages with colour are called “plates” and they all huddle together at the middle of the book. Anyway, I was back to black-and-white. I used graphite on paper again, but this had to be smoother paper cause the art was going to be shrunk smaller and I had so dang many words.

My second watercolour essay was a sequel, of sorts, to the first. I can see my increasing confidence with layering colours to get more subtle colours. I even drew some low-light environments, the hardest thing (for me) in watercolours. You can layer opposite hues to get rich neutrals like human skin, but too many layers and the results get muddy. I felt that I was achieving naturalism, but at the expense of vibrancy or strong points of focus.

When I came to tackle photo-based watercolours again, I decided to take the theory of complementary colours (blue-orange, red-green, yellow-purple) and just run with it. Instead of mixing colours, I could let them hang out and call attention to themselves. The result was decidedly non-naturalistic, but hopefully it echoed my writing, in using heightened emotion to get at truth.

By the seventh essay, I was thinking I could compile all my work up until then into a book. And a book, of course, would be most attractive in colour. But this essay was one I’d been planning for a long time. It was research and theory heavy, and I really wanted to get it into an academic journal. Which means back to pencils, right? UNLESS!

Could I do monochrome and bright at the same time?? I found an orange lacquer ink that was really fun to play with. It had red tones when it was dark, and yellow tones when it was light, and allowed for a lot of range in between. But scan it in grey, and none of the distinctions were lost.

I like how, in this collection, people who know how to look can see the evolution of my artistic skill over the course of the essay, and how form follows function follows format. (Try saying that five times fast.)

Miriam Libicki is a graphic novelist living in Vancouver, Canada. Her 2008 memoir jobnik! has been a required text in over ten university courses, and her short comics have been published by Alternate History Comics, Rutgers University Press, and the Journal of Jewish Identities. Libicki is a recipient of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture International Fellowship and the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Research Grant.

Hear Miriam Libicki speak about her work together with fellow graphic storytellers Eli Valley, Amy Kurzweil, and Rocket Chair Media at Ink Bleeds History: Reclaiming and Redrawing the Jewish Image in Comics Thursday, November 3, 2016 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Register online for free admission!

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International Read Comics in Public Day

Friday, August 27, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

Tomorrow, August 28th, is International Read Comics in Public Day, and we hope you’re as eager to take to the streets, book in hand, as we are. But what to read? While you can always pull out the old Superman comics, there’s a vast wealth of Jewish graphic novels and comic books out there to choose from. In honor of the upcoming holiday, allow us to recommend a few from our bookshelf to get you started.

Market Day by James Sturm (2010)
[Market Day], on the surface, is about a eastern European Jewish craftsman at the dawn of the industrial revolution, struggling to make ends meet and provide for his family the only way he knows how — weaving hand-crafted artisan rugs. It’s a heartbreaking tale, made even more heartbreaking by its relevance to today’s shrinking markets for craftspeople, artists, illustrators, and of course, cartoonists. — Drawn

The Big Kahn by Neil Kleid and Nicholas Cinqueradi (2009)
Rabbi David Kahn dies as a man who has achieved everything he wanted in his life: he has a happy family, a strong congregation, and the love and respect of his entire community. However, on the day of Rabbi Khan’s funeral, a great secret is revealed: David Kahn was really Donnie Dobbs, a petty criminal and conman who lied his way all the way to the top of his profession. — Comics Bulletin

Waltz with Bashir: A Lebanon War Story by Ari Folman and David Polonsky (2008)
Israeli filmmaker Folman and chief illustrator Polonsky’s graphic novel version of their groundbreaking Golden Globe–winning 2008 animated documentary into a graphic novel. Folman’s story is the account of how he came to grips with the repressed memories of the time he was a soldier in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Megillat Esther by JT Waltman (2005)
Impressive is a vast understatement for J.T. Waldman’s undertaking in Megillat Esther, the Hebrew narrative of Queen Esther in ancient times. While other biblical comics will simply retell the tale through text boxes and panels, Waldman makes readers work extensively through this graphic novel so that by the end, one has witnessed a story and a culture. – Curled Up With A Good Book

The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar (2005)
The preeminent work by one of France’s most celebrated young comic artists, The Rabbi’s Cat tells the wholly unique story of a rabbi, his daughter, and their talking cat — a philosopher brimming with scathing humor and surprising tenderness.

A few other relevant resources:

Happy reading!

Consider Your Audience

Friday, May 28, 2010 | Permalink

In her last posts, Miriam Libicki blogged on taking Egged buses across Israel and on her process of drawing comic books. She has been blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's author blogging series. 

I love exhibiting at comic book conventions. Without a big publisher — and, maybe more importantly, as a memoirist — the best way to introduce readers to my comics is to introduce myself to them, one at a time.

From my first comics, ripped out of my army diaries & turned in as assignments in art school, a year & a half after my discharge, my subject matter was controversial. My very first writing professor was dissatisfied with my examination of the social politics of burning the classified papers of a military infirmary, & implored me to address the politics of Israel’s existence instead. His critique, “It might be worth you considering who you feel is your intended audience — would it be your peers at Emily Carr, a community that is more familiar with the military situation in Israel, or some other group (or combination)?” led to the creation of the Jobnik manifesto.

(detail from the first page of the Jobnik Manifesto. To view the complete comic,go here.)

The manifesto was exactly what I didn’t want to write when I began putting my very personal, very small stories to pictures. I thought I could reveal Israeli life & humanize Israeli soldiers without being the spokeswoman for Israeli policy & the latest news story out of the Middle East. But if I was being forced into that role, I might as well own it. The four-page manifesto is now the flier I give away at cons, and a cornerstone of my booth setup.

This is my booth setup:

I wear my Jewiness & Israelitude not only on my sleeve, but across my chest and on a giant banner behind me. I have definitely become a magnet for everyone’s feelings about Israel & Judaism. Some people have really… interesting feelings. What follows are the parts of my table that get the most comment, & some adventures I’ve had trying to stay on everyone’s good side while being true to myself & not delivering a free two-hour lecture on the state of modern Zionism.

1. “Desire Peace and Chase After It.”

This shirt design is a mashup of my mother’s favourite Psalm (it’s 34:14) with an infamous road sign on I-5 near the Mexico-California border. Many people take the t-shirt as an opportunity to practice their rusty afterschool Hebrew. But even a completely nonspecific message of peace attracts political reaction-mongers.

An earnest young guy, who looked like he might be hiding a velvet kippah under his baseball cap, knew what it meant & the source, but asked, “What does that mean to you? What do you think it means, exactly, to chase peace?”

I was pretty sure he was fishing for my political stance, I imagined so he could classify me as Good for the Jews or Bad for the Jews. “It means — it means it’s not enough to sit around waiting for peace. You have to struggle for it.”

He gave up. I don’t think he ended up buying anything, but I felt I told the truth while avoiding pigeonholes.

“Oh,” said one middle-aged guy after I translated. “I saw it was Hebrew, so I assumed it must be Palestinians running from bombs dropped by my fellow Jews.”

I could not immediately imagine a response. He smiled triumphantly & walked away.

2. Towards a Hot Jew: the Israeli Soldier as Fetish Object

This essay was my senior project in art school. I didn’t originally intend to bind & distribute it as a comic, but it has become, as I say in my convention pitch, “my most popular and most controversial piece.” (I also say, “Makes a great gift for the hot Jew in your life!”)

Some people are horrified at such symbols of violence being sexualized at all (obviously, this is not at superhero-oriented comic cons). Many, many people want to tell me about Israeli soldiers they have lusted after. Most people, before reading it, have no idea if it’s a pro-Israel or anti-Israel screed, but are sure it’s one or the other. (Some people still feel that way after reading it.)

Another yeshivish-looking kid said to me with a big smile, “Thanks, but this book isn’t for me. I’m a Zionist.”

That time, I was quick enough to say, “Me, too.” We actually had a decent talk after that.

When “Hot Jew” was first published digitally, I got called an anti-Semite on the internet for the first time. One patriotic American Jew sent me a scolding email, saying, “I’m 17 years older than you, and I remember the pride Jews felt in the period after the Six Day War,” and that my essay was “parroted from what I imagine is the Northwest lefty-academic milieu that you live among.” That person went silent after I wrote back that I had not only lived in Israel, but served in the IDF.

I have yet to be called a Jew-hater by anyone who has completed IDF service.

Which brings us right up to…

3. jobnik!

So I get it from the right for “Hot Jew,” & I get it from the left for jobnik! I try to hand out my manifesto to anyone who stops long enough to make eye contact. But since they can’t read it all while standing at the table, I have a brief spiel too, about how I was raised in Ohio, came to Israel on a year program, fell in love (with everything and everyone), made aliyah, joined the army, and was totally unprepared for it.

Some people come over very serious at the “joined the army” part. “Were you unprepared for it because of culture shock, or because of the actions of the IDF?” asked a young white guy in Toronto.

I acknowledged that it was really the culture shock; when I thought of bad actions of the IDF, I thought of government policies, & military strategies that were evil or heavy-handed, not the ground troops, I mean, I know there are violent racists among enlisted soldiers, but I didn’t know any, or I don’t think I did…

An olive-skinned college-age girl asked me why I volunteered for army service, at SPX. I explained that service is compulsory for Israelis, so if I was making aliya at age 18, I felt it showed the seriousness of my commitment to join the army like a real Israeli.

“Is joining the army the only way to be Israeli?” she asked.

I admitted that many Israelis do civilian national service, and some get out on health grounds. But it seemed to me that the best way to prove my non-tourist-hood was to enlist.

She was very calm but persistent. It slowly became clear that she was Palestinian-Israeli (or Israeli Arab, or 1948 Palestinian). My innocent youthful crush on Israel was suddenly a big hole I had dug for myself. I didn’t have too much to say after that. I handed her a manifesto and abortively described my other comics.

I felt so bad afterward that I waved her down, an hour later, when she passed back through the aisle. I said I was sorry I didn’t ask her name, or about her own story. As she told me about her peace activist work in D.C., I found myself blurting out all the names & organizations of friends of mine in peace & coexistence groups, until she recognized a name (or pretended to). I felt even more ridiculous. But better a clueless defensive well-meaning colonizer, I guess, than a violent racist.

Miriam Libicki has been writing and drawing the self-published comic book jobnik! since 2003. She has been blogging all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Egged Bus Life

Wednesday, May 26, 2010 | Permalink
In her last post, Miriam Libicki blogged on her process for creating the comic series jobnik. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

People have remarked that there’s a whole lotta bus ridin’ in jobnik. Even in the issue where Miriam is on furlough in the US and Canada, she spends a page riding a bus. Why?

Firstly, there was a whole lot of bus riding in my life at that time. I specifically asked for and got a permanent assignation “far from home,” meaning where you don’t go home every day. I was further from home than most; I lived in Jerusalem and served on a base about 30 minutes from Eilat, the southernmost tip of Israel. Each Sunday and Thursday, I spent 6 hours in transit, not counting local Jerusalem buses.

You may know that a soldier in uniform with proper ID can ride any bus or train for free in Israel. This is true, with the exception of the entire southern triangle of Israel, between Be’er Sheva and Eilat. Apparently, this area is too remote, too sparse, or in the case of Eilat, too touristy for a soldier to have a reason to go there without paying. Soldiers who serve or live in this area need to carry a special “Arava card” to be able to travel free on southern buses (Arava is the desert south of the Negev). This is just to illustrate that my service was bus-filled even by IDF standards.

One challenge of cartooning about my army service is that most of it was really, really boring. Somehow I need to depict tedium without being tedious; hopefully having a bus scene a couple times an issue gives you the feeling that that was indeed how a big chunk of my life was spent.

But Egged buses are also symbolic. To me, buses are a limbo state between identities. You aren’t anybody when you travel alone on a bus. If you’re listening to music and staring out the window, as I prefer, you’re practically disembodied. One of my favorite things to do was to get off at my layover in Be’er Sheva, walk across to the street to the mall, buy a magazine and order a fancy salad at a cafe. I relished that in my uniform, reading a magazine and eating a salad alone, I could be anybody. (Being from a large family, and growing up Orthodox in Columbus, Ohio where there weren’t any kosher restaurants, means I still feel like a woman of mystery when I eat at a restaurant alone.)

jobnik, as a proper bildungsroman, is about identity, trying to find identity, trying on and discarding identities. Israelis join the army at 18 after graduating high school, so almost everyone still lives with their parents whenever they’re not on base or in combat. I think this is an even more extreme condition of toggling between adulthood and childhood than the traditional American one of going away to college (I lived with my sister who was close to me both in age and emotionally, but there was a lot of my army life I kept hidden).

I noticed that not just I, but every soldier I knew, was a different person at home and on base. One of my favorite illustrations of this was when I visited my friend Yossi for Shabbat. He was a flamboyant, in-your-face gay man on base, while at home with his Orthodox Sephardic family, he was a twice as aggressively flamboyant gay man. Then out at gay clubs, he was practically demure. Clearly, the transformations had to take place on the public transportation between these spaces.

When I had that two-week furlough six months into my service, I spent it in Columbus, Toronto and NYC. I planned it that way because I had stuff to do in all three places, and bus-riding was so thoroughly entrenched in my identity, maybe I thought I couldn’t go two weeks without it. The bus rides from Toronto to New York, and then Manhattan to Poughkeepsie, were also significant for me at the time. In the first case, I spent twelve hours on a bus, and then learned when I disembarked that my parents had been frantically phoning and emailing people on both sides, because they had expected me in New York a day earlier. This reinforced my belief that when I was out of sight of people who knew me, I ceased to exist. Which was comforting, given how painful existing often is.

Going to Poughkeepsie in the middle of the night wasn’t an adventure; it was exile from the proper Orthodox world of my sister and her new boyfriend. I thought that after my longest bus trip ever, I would be able to stay still somewhere. But I barely had time to unshoulder my giant backpack before I found out my slutty girl cooties had to sleep several counties away, to preserve tzniut.

That’s the drawback of having a transitional identity, not properly belonging anyplace; sometimes people call you on it, and make you leave.

Then, of course, there’s terrorism. Blown up and upended like a whale skeleton is how most non-Israelis think of Egged Buses, the ones who do think of Egged buses. The second intifada started in jobnik! issue 2, here at jobnik! issue 8, it’s the following March. Suicide bombings haven’t really begun in earnest yet, but they’re coming.

Miriam Libicki has been writing and drawing the self-published comic book, jobnik!, since 2003. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The Evolution of a Page: jobnik! 8, Page 11

Monday, May 24, 2010 | Permalink

Miriam Libicki, an American Jewish girl from a religious home, enlists in the Israeli Army one summer against everyone’s better judgment. Many qualities seem to make her unsuited for IDF life: her Hebrew isn’t great, she is shy and passive, and she has a tendency to fall in love with anything that moves. If that weren’t enough, the Al Aqsa uprising, a.k.a the second Palestinian Intifada, erupts a few weeks after she is stationed as a secretary in a remote Negev base. Will Miriam survive threats of terrorism, the rough IDF culture, and not least, her horrible taste in men?

Miriam has been writing and drawing the self-published comic book, jobnik!, since 2003. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I chose this page more or less because it was the page I was working on when I was offered to blog about my process, so I was able to un-tape it from my drawing board and scan it several times before I finished it. Below, find more detail on my process than anyone could possibly want!

I script a whole issue and break it down into pages before I start drawing, though I will sketch out the amount and configuration of panels as I am scripting. After a few years of writing comics, I have figured out how much text/dialogue I can fit in a panel and how many panels/scenes I can fit on a page (the answer to both is: a lot less than you’d think) without shortchanging the drawings.

Then I will make thumbnail drawings in an 8.5”x5.5” sketchbook. I try to lay out the pages facing each other the way they will be when printed, so that I can design a two-page spread in a harmonious manner if possible.

This page has three scenes on it. I originally had each scene occupying one row of panels (I think in proper comix speak they’re called “tiers”), but when I got to my thumbnails, I thought the second scene wouldn’t be well served by really skinny panels, and the third scene wasn’t important enough to get a whole tier to itself.

So I’ve got the last panel of scene two occupying the same tier as scene three. My solution for visually differentiating the two was to shrink the final panel, and surround it by a lot more white space (“gutter” in proper comix speech). This also serves to reinforce how minor it is as a scene. Also, because Miriam is a limited first-person narrator, the very look of each panel is influenced by her mental state. Here, she feels small. Get it?

This sounds so dumb when I have to explain it. I really love how the comix medium allows one to show instead of tell in a more literal manner than text literature.

Note that some figures in a thumbnail are extremely rudimentary, and some of them are a lot more worked through, as I try to practice the facial expressions I want, as well as tricky poses, like how your hands look when you’re opening a tub of cottage cheese. Also note that I add speech balloons but not text. This is to give me a basic idea of where and how much space I need to give for the text. Since I already have the script, it wouldn’t do me any good to actually write the words in.

Computer layouts is something I only started doing when I started hand-lettering. I don’t have enough of a sense of how to form aesthetically pleasing text-shapes or good enough printing to letter completely freehand, so instead I trace printed text. I print the layouts of the panels along with the text because it saves me some time. If I’m using direct photo reference (*cough* tracing), I’ll also paste it into this document. I format this all in Illustrator, referring to my script and thumbnails. Then I print it out the size of my Bristol boards, and trace it using graphite transfer paper.

As it happens, I felt like I needed more help with Adi M.’s pose in scene two, so I posed in front of my computer’s camera, once for each panel. My characters’ anatomy is, uh, stylized enough that it wouldn’t have done me any good to trace these photos, but having them to look at next to my page was very helpful.

This is my final page, after I had traced the text and layouts and roughed in the figures. I said earlier that my printing isn’t neat enough to letter freehand but you’ll see that’s not exactly true; after I’d traced this page I realized I left out some crucial text, namely, the date and the translation of a Hebrew term I used in panel 1. So I did write these in freehand, using rulers to ensure a minimum of regularity. It turns out, through sheer repetition of my tracing process, I actually have developed some handlettering skills. But I guess I still need my crutch.

I didn’t trace the panel borders straight, because this issue is mostly an extended flashback. Wavy and not-as-thick panel borders is a way I am hoping to make the flashback pages visually distinct from the “present time” pages. I don’t yet know if readers will pick up on this, cause the issue isn’t published yet.

I added a lane behind the formation of soldiers with another division marching through. I did it cause the composition seemed unbalanced, and I like having the reminder that these twelve girls are just one of dozens of divisions going through exactly the same thing at the same time on this base.

I should have probably ruled all of panel 1 out using three-point perspective. But I decided to just eyeball it instead. I think if you have practiced drawing in perspective enough, you can fake it in a pinch, especially since the only thing in this pane is people, who are lumpy and squishy and irregular anyway. At least jobnik people are. I used 1-point perspective in the last panel, because it has more straight lines in it.

These are pretty much the “final pencils,” before I start “inking” with, in my case, softer pencils. If you care, my penciling pencils are 2H and H, and my “inking” pencils go from B (for flashbacky panel borders, and the smallest or most distant objects) to 3B, then I shade in tones with 3Bs-5Bs.

This is where I put in faces, clothes and any other details. At first I thought I could get away without drawing the endless rows of mess hall tables behind the characters, but then my husband pointed out that even though there are previous scenes in the mess hall, people cant be expected to assume that anytime characters are at a long table, they’re in the mess hall. So I got out my rulers and vanishing points and added in the tables and windows.

I didn’t add any people though, mostly out of laziness, but also because one of the biggest things I still struggle with in comix drawing is how much background to put in, so that there is atmosphere and context to a scene without muddying it up and taking focus away from the main action.

This is after the “inks” and tones, scanned in, but before more fixes in Photoshop. I use different softnesses of pencil when I “ink.” The softer the pencil, the darker and usually thicker the line it produces. So like in panels 2-4, the girls’ bodies are drawn with a 3B, while the distant tables are drawn with a B. most of the lettering is done with a 2B, while the emphasized words are done with a 3B.

In Photoshop, I darken up my page more so that the darkest pencil lines are black, and it’s a fuller tonal range for printing. It also wasn’t ‘til I scanned it in that I realized I left out an asterisk in the footnote of panel one, so I was able to fix that with cut’n’pasting (not shown).

Um. Any questions?

Miriam Libicki has been writing and drawing the self-published comic book, jobnik!, since 2003. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.