Sarah Lightman is one of our leading lights in Jewish-themed comix, both as a scholar and a practitioner. Lightman is a co-founder of the “Laydeez do Comics” international forum for artists and also editor of the groundbreaking volume, Graphic Details: Jewish Women’s Confessional Comics in Essays and Interviews, which grew out of an exhibition that toured North America. This vibrant collection offered readers and educators unprecedented and deeply illuminating glimpses into the art and life of eighteen international Jewish female artists whose work encompasses a range of genres and styles. The Book of Sarah, which might best be described as a graphic autobiography, but is in many ways a subversion of the form, offers richly textured, luminous and often raw and intimate windows into Lightman’s emergence as an artist and sometimes tormented younger self. Throughout this nonlinear narrative, Lightman situates her painstaking journey from the Orthodox upbringing that stifled her autonomy and creativity, to her life as an independent artist amidst portraits of London and New York City, as well as the family members and other individuals intrinsic to that growth.
Lightman reportedly invested decades creating this work and one can sense that the outcome represents a deep catharsis, enabling her to confront deep and hard-gained inner truths. Though there is probably no such thing as a “conventional” graphic narrative, readers anticipating a fully-revealing memoir may find themselves a little more challenged by Lightman’s somewhat more elusive and fragmentary approach to her story, but they will find myriad compensatory rewards. In language ranging from spare and colloquial to lyrical, the artist examines years of pain and insecurity. But what will most enthrall readers is her luminous imagery, beautifully rendering her intimate relation to everyday objects, indelible aspects of family life, religion and culture. Lightman is the kind of generous artist who celebrates her relatedness to others and, subsequently, there are moving homages to the artists, writers and books that inspired her along the way.
Whimsy and pathos often intermingle throughout this bildungsroman, beginning with chapter headings evoking biblical books, such as Genesis which commemorates both family history and her own early sense of selfhood, or Bamidbar (In the Desert), the original Hebrew title of the Book of Numbers, which explores her return to London following a disastrous relationship in New York. Elsewhere, she recounts her halting progress in therapy, the joys and ambivalences of motherhood, and deeply personal revelations about her life as a woman and artist. All of this is accomplished through truly haunting art, much of which takes up entire pages. Reflecting on her art and life, Lightman once observed that, “I haven’t changed the world, or made a lot of money, or held an important position. But I have struggled, and lost, won and survived, and that journey matters.” Anyone who has the pleasure of spending time in the company of her deeply absorbing book will likely agree.