Harvey Pekar was an American underground comix legend. A lot of people know him for American Splendor, a series of autobiographical comic books. He was a giant, in his own way. He died in 2010, survived by his wife Joyce Brabner.
JT Waldman is the creator of Megillat Esther, which I reviewed here several years ago. It's my favorite edition of the book of Esther, bar none. It contains -- as the saying goes -- the whole megillah; all of Esther, plus all sorts of commentary interwoven throughout the gorgeous artwork.
When Harvey Pekar died, he and JT Waldman were collaborating on a nonfiction graphic novel -- an illustrated memoir with historical divagations -- called Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me. The book follows the two authors through Cleveland as they discuss Pekar's relationship with Israel, from the Zionism he imbibed in childhood through a process of beginning to question Israel's role in the world.
In Megillat Esther, JT Waldman skillfully braids classical commentary on Esther together with the text of the megillah and with his striking and beautiful visual art. He does something similar here, only in this book he's interweaving the story Harvey tells, the experience of hearing that story from Harvey, and Middle East history.
I wish I could show you page 43: it's a beautiful example of the kind of thing that impresses me so much in this book. (Edited to add: thanks, JT, for sending the page along -- it's enclosed below! but here's the description I initially shared, before the image was embedded here.)
Top panel: a map of the region, with arrows showing the ingathering. "Those who sought refuge in the holy land found more violence as all-out war erupted between the Jews and Arabs living in the former British Mandate of Palestine." The other text box reads, "With the Arab rejection of the 1947 UN Partition Plan that would have created side-by-side Arab and Jewish states, five Arab states launched war on the Jews."
Move down the page: two boxes, each occupying a parallel space, each depicting armed people firing at one another. On one side, it says "Israelis call this the war of indepedence." On the other side, "Palestinians call it Al-Nakba, 'the catastrophe.'" Two truths, two opposing narratives, juxtaposed in black and white.
Bottom of the page: two vertical boxes. On the left, people walking around the edge of a mass grave: "We Jewish kids were always told how virtuous our people were. It wasn't until I was older that I heard of the Deir Yassin massacre, where in 1948 militant Zionists killed 200 or more Arabs in cold blood." On the right, two distinguished-looking men: "American Jews weren't all saints, either. When I was a kid, I had never heard of gangsters like Bugsy Siegel or Meyer Lansky."
One page; five panels; a glimpse of one hell of a complicated story.
Every few pages, I reach one I wish I could frame. Page 51: four panels depicting Harvey Pekar picking a book of the shelves, flipping through, re-shelving it, all the while musing aloud about how once the Jews went into exile the study of mishna and gemara flourished, "religious acumen became the mark of a great man... and because of their knowledge, rabbis became the most honored men in the community."(I'd hang that in my rabbinic office if I could!)
Two pages later (p. 53), a page which contains only Arabic calligraphy and non-representational ornament -- and the explanation that in 610, Muhammad began communicating with the angel Gabriel, which was the beginning of what we now know as Islam. The next image of a person we get -- several pages later, after the book has covered the early history of Islam -- is an image of Harvey again, saying, "It's also important to remember that within the Muslim tradition there is a prohibition against making life-like images, even though the Quran doesn't specifically decree it. At various times, Christians and Jews have felt the same. I dunno. Do you see the image of God in me?"
An avowed atheist, Pekar would probably have rolled his eyes to hear that my answer is yes.
Another page I wish I could show you -- 61 -- a house made up of words of prayer and names of places where Jews lived but not easily or safely. (Edited to add: once again, thank you JT for sending that page along!)
71, conversation amongst bookshelves, featuring the wonderfully acerbic line "Hope, fear, redemption, remembering not to forget...yearning for an impossible future...all the ingredients for a perfect Jewish homeland." The early history of the Jews of Poland, p. 72. The coming of the murderous cossacks, p. 73. There is so much packed into these pages, and each page merits study.
On coming pages there is a history of early Hasidism -- Jacob Frank -- the haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment -- Hebrew's revival as a spoken language. A gorgeous two-page spread (84-85) wherein Harvey and JT, driving across a bridge, talk about what's at the heart of the book. ("I'm just tired of people saying I'm a self-hating Jew because I'm critical of Israel," Pekar's avatar says wearily.) Pekar beginning to question nationalism in the early 1960s. Pekar's attempt to make aliyah, to emigrate to Israel -- and the Israeli consular official's brisk dismissal. The aside where JT tells Harvey what it was like to be living in Israel when Ariel Sharon went up to the Temple Mount. ("You know what the craziest part was? How fast I got used to falling asleep to tank fire outside my window.")
The early 20th century -- pogroms in Europe -- malaria-ridden Jewish settlers in Palestine -- Balfour. (These pages are framed, appropriately enough, in art deco stylings.) Conflicts between Weizmann and Jabotinsky. If you already know these names and these stories, you will be impressed by how thorough this graphic novel history manages to be. If you don't know this stuff yet, you will know it by the time you finish the book -- and it is all valuable context, from the Biblical material on. The 1967 war and its implications. The origins of the settlements, p. 141. The psychedelic swirls of 142-143, in which Pekar wonders, "Does Israel want to rule over a hostile subject people?" and a trio of Hasidim -- singing heads who are also, if you squint, musical notes -- chorus, "Don't worry, God will provide."
"It is a sad state of affairs in the Jewish community," says Pekar on p. 148, "when a rabbi, supposedly a moral leader, vilifies Jews opposed to Israel's commission of atrocities." In the image, he's standing on a page of newsprint, reminiscing about being slammed -- in print -- by one of his own cousins after he published an op-ed critical of Israel. That page may resonate with a lot of readers; I know it resonates with me.
Late in the book, there's a particularly poignant panel where Pekar muses:
What do I know? I make comic books and write about jazz.
I do know the difference between right and wrong, though.
That's one of the last things Harvey says in the book. It ends abruptly -- as his life did. There's an epilogue by his wife Joyce Brabner, which softens the blow somewhat, but the book still manages to end on a suitably off-beat note.
This book doesn't offer answers. But it reminds us what some of the questions are -- and why they are -- and it is honest and brave.This is very much a Jewish book, exploring the Jewish history (or histories, plural) of the land of Israel and of one American Jew's relationship with that place. I hope you will go and read.
Edited to add: For another great review, with different and lovely images, check out Not the Harvey Pekar Graphic Novel You'd Expect.