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The Cat's Meow?

January 12, 2006 By:
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Last summer, Hadassah Magazine devoted one of its covers to a story on Jewish graphic novels, and proclaimed, for all the world to see, that an art form had at last "come of age." The work featured on the cover was French artist Joann Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat, which has been published in the United States by Pantheon to some fanfare.

Sfar was not the only graphic novelist discussed in the piece. Josh Neufeld, Peter Kuper, Israeli twins Tomar and Asaf Hanuka, and even Philadelphia native J.T. Waldman were all given some ink by the article's author Leah Finkelshteyn, and due credit was also given to "Jewish" pioneers in the genre, such as Art Spiegelman, Harvey Pekar and Will Eisner.

But it was definitely Sfar who got the largest play in the expansive article. According to Sfar's publisher, he is recognized as "one of the brightest and most talented of the younger generation of French comics artists," and has written or collaborated on "more than 100 books for adults and children." His book-jacket biography states that he's perhaps best known here for his children's book, Little Vampire Goes to School, which made The New York Times bestseller list, and its sequelLittle Vampire Does Kung Fu!, which was nominated for an Eisner Award. He won the Jury Prize at Angouleme for The Rabbi's Cat, and has a Web site: www.pastis.org/Joann.

Sfar's new book is set in Algeria during the 1930s, and deals primarily with Rabbi Abraham Sfar and his daughter Zlabya; most of the story is seen through the eyes of their precocious cat. Here's what Finkelshteyn had to say about the book: It's "drawn with an eye for emotional and background detail and a palette that reflects the mood of the characters and their surroundings: Algeria is an earthy range of browns, reds and yellows; the cat's eyes flash green when he contemplates eating the rabbi's pet parrot - or the stupidity of the humans around him.

"The book is divided into three chapters. In the first, the cat gains the ability to talk; the second features a visit from the legendary Malka of the Lions; and in the third, Zlabya marries a rabbi from Paris. The stories are compressed into an even six panels per page, creating a keyhole view of the rabbi's world. Like the cat, we are outsiders, witnesses to the drama of the family Sfar.

"Threaded throughout are whimsical human tableaux. In one, for example, the rabbi, faced with the cultured, nonreligious Jews of Paris who seem to have a better life than the Jews he knows at home, goes into a restaurant and orders the 'least kosher meal in the universe': 'ham … snails, seafood … oysters … . And a good wine named after a church or a Virgin Mary.'

"Before eating, the rabbi asks God to intercede: 'Tell me you'll be sad if I break the Law.' (In a nearby panel, a strange being with tiny wings and a kippa - whether restaurant decor or supernatural visitation is left to the reader - looks at the rabbi with a smile.)

"It is elements like these - philosophical and existential questions of ecclesiastic power and tradition - that take The Rabbi's Cat beyond charming tales of an African shtetl."

Pales in Comparison

I have quoted Finkelshteyn at length mostly because I have no idea what The Rabbi's Catis about or what it all means; nor do I especially understand anything she's written about it. Can she really believe that such scenes illuminate and explore deep philosophical and existential questions? Forgive me if I differ.

But I clearly am not the target audience for such a work. I've never understood the appeal of so-called graphic novels, which seem to me just extended comic books gussied up by some promotional idea that touts them as "novels." And this includes Spiegelman's Maus books and any of the others created by the so-called pioneers of this genre.

As for the artistry on display in The Rabbi's Cat, I find it mostly uninteresting, even pedestrian. In fact any of the other artists sampled in Finkelshteyn's article - Kuper, Neufeld and especially Asaf Hanuka - seem visually far more compelling than Sfar. Even by the standards of the comic books I devoured as a child, Sfar's work pales.

And that's my point.

I used to be crazy about comic books. But I really can't figure out why anyone would pay good money for such supposed "adult" versions of the stuff I read back then, or why reams of words have been wasted explicating such "books." Every time I open one, I think of the quote from the New Testament: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man I put away childish things." That sentiment may not be very "Jewish," but it hits the nail right on the head when it come to the truly dumbed-down genre known as graphic novels. Perhaps this is all just another facet of the "endless adolescent" syndrome - like wearing baseball caps well beyond the teen years - that we see among so many American males these days.

 

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