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Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Miriam Libicki

I became Shenandoah‘s first comics editor last fall, and the second issue under new editor Beth Staples just went live. It’s as amazing as her first issue last November, and I’m thrilled and grateful to be a part of it.

The idea that the not-yet-reborn journal might include comics occurred to me a year ago while Leigh Ann Beavers and I were teaching our spring term course Creating Comics. Artist Miriam Libicki visited the art studio and showed us the opening chapters of her current graphic-novel-in-progress. As soon as Beth gave me a thumbs up in August, I asked Miriam if we could feature Glastnost Kids on Shenandoah. I also asked Maggie Shapiro, the person who brought Miriam to campus, to write an introduction. They both said yes.

Meanwhile, Beth added “Comics” to Shenandoah‘s Submittable portal, and submissions started flowing. The stand-out was by far Rainie Oet and Alice Blank’s “Wanting to Erase her Share of the Darkness.” I asked Beth if I could also interview them about their collaborative process, and she gave the thumbs up for that too.

Finally, I’ve also been serving as a fiction reader, and asked Beth if I could solicit one of my favorite authors, Stephen Graham Jones. Another thumbs up. The piece he sent though wasn’t the right fit–but for very complicated reasons. So I asked Beth if I could interview him about that, too. Amazingly, they both said yes.

So here are excerpts of all of the above:

1.

from “Animating Questions: An Introduction to Miriam Libicki’s Glastnost Kids

by Maggie Shapiro Haskett

The experience of having one’s expectations violated can take a lot of directions, but I’ve only ever been delighted when, time and again, Libicki’s work surprises, confuses, and challenges me—while also offering unexpected moments of comfort and self-recognition. Starting in 2014, and just as much now, I am captivated by the parallel challenges she poses to both form and content in her work. Graphic novel as memoir? Sure, but as a format for scholarly interrogations or the presentation of rigorous academic research—that was something new and rare. When I found myself installed in the cozy director’s office at Washington and Lee University Hillel, the campus organization for Jewish Life, I was eager to introduce my students to Libicki’s beautiful boundary-busting work. As fate would have it, Chris Gavaler, W&L English professor and Shenandoah’s soon-to-be comics editor, was preparing to co-teach his Creating Comics course during my first spring in Virginia, and his enthusiasm for Libicki’s work was the final push I needed to bring her to campus.

“So what is a Jew?” Miriam Libicki’s narrator character asks in this excerpt from Glasnost Kids. “What is Jewish community?” I’d argue that those are two of the animating questions of the book as well as two of the questions that provoke and enliven Jewish communities everywhere, and especially on college campuses.

I’d also argue that Libicki’s work is at its most successful and provocative when we readers are forced to ask ourselves, “So what is a comic?” Libicki’s genre-bending work enlivens communities of readers, comics fans, and even scholars. For anyone with more than a glancing familiarity with the world of comics, it is a given that the genre is diverse and expansive. Libicki, though, dwells and works within formal questions that echo the identity questions articulated in Glasnost Kids. Can an academic paper include the use of the first person? What about the author’s personal experiences and connections to the subject? How about visual depictions of the author, cleavage and all? And comics? Can they really be explicitly about contemporary sociological questions? Are they a vehicle for sharing rigorous scholarly research? Given the depth and integrity of Libicki’s research and her mastery of both narrative and graphic, the answer can only be a resounding yes, and thank goodness. We need her stories, but most of all we need her questions and her provocations.

[Read all of Maggie’s Introduction here, and the opening pages of Miriam’s Glastnost Kids here.]

2.

from “Unveiling her Glorious Share: An Interview with Rainie Oet and Alice Blank”

Chris: So you’ve referred to “poems,” “sections,” “narrative,” and “the book.” It’s interesting how those are synonyms and how they’re not. I would probably call “Wanting to Erase Her Share of the Darkness” a poetry comic, a term I find to be a wonderfully and intentionally under-defined category that encompasses a range of image–text sequences, including formally traditional comics with gridded panels and word containers, but that explore untraditional content in untraditional ways. Do you have a preferred category for you work—comic, poetry comic, sequential art, etc.—and to what degree do you consciously engage with traditions and genres as you collaborate?

Rainie: It’s a funny bunch of classifications. Poetry comic and graphic narrative are interchangeable to me for this work because I see the writing as simultaneously poetry and fiction. The book, Glorious Veils of Diane, as a whole, is a novel-in-verse or a book of poems. The in-progress illustrated counterpart is a graphic novel or a graphic poetry book. The way I think of the project as a whole is like my favorite card from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies: “What are the sections sections of? (Imagine a caterpillar moving).” “Wanting to Erase Her Share of the Darkness” is one such section. In both my noncollaborative writing and my collaborative work, I try consciously to disengage traditions and genres. It’s an interesting and tricky thing, the idea of unlearning, of being free from. I think the best way to do this is to become as aware as possible of the traditions and genres that we absorb just by being in the world, and then to try to hold that awareness while writing. When I do that I feel like I’m able to bring new ideas to a project.

Alice: I could definitely see talking about this work as a “poetry” comic, but I traditionally just describe my work as comics. I worry about differentiating distinct kinds of writing as different kinds of comics—there are plenty of abstract narratives that I think would blur the line between poetry and prose (and indeed the poem from which this is derived is an example), and I wonder at the sort of comics that get left behind when labels like “poetry” are added to the name. American comics are still burdened with the image crisis brought on by the Comics Code Authority. Bringing in the poetry label might differentiate this work from a colloquially understood superhero punch-fest, but I want to abstain from adopting terms that suggest my work is in any way separate from or superior to those forbearers. I want to play a part in the ongoing cultural project to elevate “comics” as a label past its Marvel-or-DC connotations, so I try to eschew words that shift my work away from the base term.

[Read the rest of the Interview here, and Rainie and Alice’s “Wanting to Erase her Share of the Darkness” here.]

3.

Gutting the Chicken: A Conversation with Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones submitted “Chicken” to Shenandoah last October after we solicited him. We rejected it—for complicated reasons. Like any horror story should be, it was uncomfortable to read. But did it go too far? Where does fictional uncomfortable become real-world offensive? That dividing line may be hazy, but a literary magazine doesn’t have the luxury of ambiguity: either you publish a story or you don’t. And we decided not to.
Rejections are a necessarily massive, behind-the-scenes part of any magazine, and usually after a nice, thanks-but-no-thanks note to a contributor (an especially difficult proposition after a solicitation), the scene ends. But this time we thought: It’s such a powerful piece, hard to forget. Wouldn’t it be interesting to talk to Stephen about our reasons for saying no to “Chicken” and hear his thoughts about writing it? Though that is pretty much the opposite premise for an author interview, we reached out to Stephen anyway and were delighted when he was game. Afterward we realized for readers to make sense of any of this, they would need to be able to read the story themselves. So we are publishing “Chicken” after all, only now in the context of this broader, why-we-rejected-it-before-we-didn’t conversation.

[Read Stephen’s story and the interview here.]

 

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I’ll be co-teaching “Creating Comics” for the second time this spring term and just put in my book orders–changing literally every single title on the syllabus. Happily, that includes adding comics journalist Miriam Libicki’s Toward a Hot Jew, who will also be visiting my campus this spring, thanks to W&L’s Hillel House.

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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 resemble 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.

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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.)”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 forty-five 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 twenty-four 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, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Cornel West.

 

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 Joe 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.

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[The original version of this and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]

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