‘Toward a Hot Jew’ Is No Joe Sacco — And That’s a Good Thing

by Chris Gavaler

9 October 2017

Politics and the personal collide in the convention-challenging and genre-bending graphic narratives of Jewish artist-memoirist Miriam Libicki.
 
cover art

Toward a Hot Jew

Miriam Libicki

(Fantagraphics)
US: Nov 2016

Toward a Hot Jew collects seven of Miriam Libicki’s graphic essays or, as she refers to them in subtitles, “drawn essays”. Though her subjects are overtly political, her shifting styles happily produce little resemblance to the genre-defining comics journalism of Joe Sacco. Libicki instead achieves her own hybrid, non-fiction subgenre, one that interrogates both her stated topics and the comics form in general.

Only two of the essays — analyses of Jewish influences on autobiographical comics and the relationship between Jewish and black identity — resemble traditional comics. Not only does Libicki subdivide their pages into (usually) traditional panel layouts, she renders their images in the simplified and slightly exaggerated style of cartooning, including a speech-balloon-trailing version of herself who address readers through the fourth-wall of the page. Libicki, however, distances herself from her own representation, noting in an arrow-shaped, Magritte-alluding caption box pointed at her cartoon self: “(This is not Miriam Libicki. You are unlikely to recognize Miriam Libicki on the street, with these drawings to go on.)”

Even if she did not literally draw attention to her artifice within the essay, its placement within the collection achieves the same result. In the two essays prior to her cartoon self’s first appearance, Libicki already rendered herself in an impressively naturalistic style. She also appears briefly but in equally vivid detail in two later essays. While I don’t know if I would recognize her on the street based on these images (I suspect I would), the contrast is pronounced.

These self-portraits appear in essays that also avoid the panel layouts of traditional comics. Four of the seven essays instead devote each of its pages to single images, with text variously positioned around it. The title essay consists of pencil portraits of figures floating in context-less, white backgrounds. The photo-based images far exceed the realistic detail of most comics, nonfiction or otherwise. Three other essays retain the one-to-one image-to-page ratio, but expand the visual range with watercolors and colored lettering — a further departure from traditional comics.

Libicki’s essays then champion multiple approaches by avoiding a single, dominant style. They range between nine- and 45-pages, but their effect is also accumulative, one emphasized by the absence of a table of contents. Splash pages mark each essay’s opening, but the divisions are otherwise fluid, promoting continuous reading. The chronological ordering also creates a longer narrative effect with evolving portraits of both Israel and Libicki herself.

The first essay, one of the collection’s shortest, features her in art school in 2003, experimenting with single images broken into panels that both conform to and undermine the comics convention. “Ceasefire” recounts in a diary-like fashion her week-long visit to Israel at the end of the Lebanon war in 2006. She returns two years and 24 pages later in “fierce ease”, reprising her watercolor portraits of interview subjects, mostly friends and relatives, who speak in speech bubbles interspersed with Libicki’s narration overlaid on backgrounds. “Strangers” continues a similar approach, but with a greater emphasis on collaged texts.

Libicki quotes extensively in other essays too, even the two traditionally comics essays, providing one of the collections’ few consistencies. She also often embeds her process into her final products. Midway through “Strangers” she writes in a dated, diary-like entry: “But I’ve been doing all of this research about tensions around Jewishness and Blackness! And Lisa prophesized this four years ago! This has to be what my next drawn essay is about.” And of course it is. “Jewish Memoir Goes POW! ZAP! OY!” even includes a redrawn and resized version of a page from the preceding essay, now to express an autobiographical fact: “I write all about Israel, but they can’t show my drawn essay at the local JCC because ‘my love for Israel is not evident,’ and I’d break the Holocaust-survivors’ hearts.”

While her subject matter is almost always Israeli society, most especially critiquing racist attitudes toward black Jews, Libicki also indirectly portrays the stages of her own evolving self: suburban child, grad student, fiancé, mother, art instructor. But as babies appear on her lap and hip — each rendered in the naturalistic or cartoonish style of that page’s Libicki — the author is always foremost a journalist interrogating Jewish identity. When her content is most didactic, she chooses traditional comics forms, literally lecturing about semiotics and Orientialism, complete with quotations from Edward Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. The title essay is equally argumentative in its analysis of the changing sexual perception of male and female Israeli soldiers, but the effect is lessened by its disembodied text: no cartoon Libicki peers out from the page to lecture in talk balloons.

While Libicki finds cartoons and panel layouts conducive to clear conclusions — she advocates for “radical empathy” and “alter-alterity” in the final essay and argues for the superiority of “hyper-self-consciousness” in “gonzo aesthetics” in the fourth — her one-page watercolors favor a much less didactic approach. Her visits to Israel instead evoke uncertainty: “The only conclusion I have is that no matter how I try to relate to Israel — tourist, former resident, or journalist — I’m mostly an outsider who can’t really understand.” After recounting the endemic mistreatment of Sudanese refugees, she concludes only with questions and self-criticism: “But what can I do? I sign a digital petition, hold my Canadian baby, and read my twitter.”

The undertone of self-doubt, as well as Libicki’s interview method, begins with the opening essay as her fellow students’ attempt to explain “why they wanted to be artists.” The fragments include missed introductions, drunken exhibitions, distracted kissing, impractical visions, illegible instructions — ending with Libicki’s own regrets over unusable interviews and her inability to imitate Sacco. The failure, of course, is paradoxical. Had Libicki succeeded in reducing herself to a knock-off Sacco, Toward a Hot Jew would not exist and comics journalism, as well as comics generally, would be less for it.

Toward a Hot Jew

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