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Comic Expressions

Reprinted by permission from j. the Jewish news weekly of northern California.

May 9, 2008

The woman on the other end of the phone sounds confident, mature and collected. But eight years ago, when she sat across from an Israeli draft board officer, she was told otherwise.

Reading from a computer screen, he recited the diagnosis that would determine whether she would sit behind a border crossing or a desk. The conclusion: Overly emotional. Socially anxious. Disconnected from reality.

And that's how Miriam Libicki ended up as a jobnik.

The scene with the draft officer is in the prologue to Libicki's autobiographical comic jobnik!, which depicts a few of the 17 months she spent in the Israel Defense Forces, working as a secretary in an infirmary on an army base. (The term "jobnik" roughly translates as "pencil pusher.")

Libicki is one of the up-and-coming Jewish graphic novelists who spoke May 20 at a San Francisco art space as part of the Jewish Community of San Francisco's Serial Boxes series, an exploration of the graphic novel. The panel discussion at Intersection for the Arts also featured Berkeley native Ariel Schrag, author of the acclaimed graphic novel Potential and former writer for The L Word.

For those of you who grew up with copies of The Invincible Iron Man under your pillow, the term "graphic novel" may come off a bit pretentious. And yet, the notion of telling a story via pictures need not involve gamma rays or impossibly slim-waisted women.

One could go as far as calling the graphic novel a Jewish invention. The first tome to earn that lofty title was A Contract with God, a 1978 classic from comics master Will Eisner; the best-known graphic novel is arguably the Holocaust-themed Maus, penned by Art Spiegelman (a previous speaker at a Serial Boxes event).

And yet, perhaps "graphic novelist" isn't the most accurate way to describe Libicki or Shrag. That's because their books aren't novels--they're memoirs.

"My job was almost nothing, really," Libicki, 26, says in an interview from her home in a suburb of Vancouver.

"They didn't need a secretary--I think it just kind of came up on the base, you know, 'we're getting some new girls, they're not trained for anything, they're going to be secretaries in the office.'"

Libicki filed mail, made photocopies, burned secret documents, "but outside of that, there was basically nothing to do … [My boss] would print out this clip art and want me to go to the base's publishing office and get it laminated."

It wasn't exactly what she had signed up for.

A native of Columbus, Ohio, Libicki grew up in a Modern Orthodox home and moved to Israel in the summer of 1998, after finishing high school at Columbus Torah Academy.

She entered Mechina, a program for Israeli teens who have finished high school but want to take a year to do Torah study prior to entering the military. Libicki studied in the mornings and did community service in the evenings.

During that year she decided to make aliyah, and became an Israeli citizen. With all her classmates joining the army the following year, in a burst of patriotism Libicki joined the IDF. She first put on a uniform in August 2000.

A month later, the second intifada began.

After spending 17 months in the army, Libicki was free to go. So she left--the army and Israel.

"It would be nice if I could keep it mysterious and say that there's this big revelation at the end of [jobnik!], but basically it was that I wanted to go to college after the army," Libicki said.

She applied to the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, but didn't get in. She ended up going to Seattle University for a year, and then transferred to the Emily Carr Institute in Vancouver.

Although Libicki had been reading comics since she was a child and drawing for most of her life--a few scenes in jobnik! revolve around her sketches--it wasn't until college that she got serious about putting the two together.

"I started drawing comics when I had a story," Libicki says, and that story was the IDF.

Jobnik! began in an art class about a year after she came back from Israel: with an assignment to create something in Adobe Illustrator, Libicki took a few pages from a journal she'd kept in the army and made a comic out of it.

Putting her experience into comic form, rather than writing a book, seemed like a natural fit.

"I feel like I'm a good enough writer to make up for my flaws in drawing, and vice versa," she says. "It really works for me that things like description, you can just draw it instead, and concentrate on dialogue and keeping things moving."

Today, jobnik! is drawn by hand. Libicki uses soft, dark pencils to draw the scenes and characters, then scans the pages into her computer and lays the text in Illustrator.

Jobnik! is currently made up of six issues of around 24 pages each, including a page of Hebrew glossary words. Libicki is about "a third to halfway through" and intends to end her story in February 2001, although her tour of duty actually ended in May 2002.

In the meantime, she is compiling the current issues of jobnik! into a single volume. She expects the book will hit bookstores and Amazon.com in June.

"A graphic novel is a better way to read my series than as comic books," she says. "I think I'm doing a longer-formed story, and I want people to get a chance to read it in that longer form."

That story, so far, follows Libicki's daily life on the base and the idiosyncrasies she encounters: a soldier who constantly calls her "Rivka," the strict rules about going on leave. The intifada itself is also a major player, with the text of radio announcements and news reports overlaying many of the panels.

The main focus, however, is on Libicki's relationships with three Israeli men--Shachar, Asher and Roi. ("Maybe I shouldn't say if I used real names," she jokes.)

Libicki's characters are drawn with large, soft eyes and curvy, plump limbs. "I would say it's influenced by Terry Moore, maybe a bit by Maurice Sendak--I was always a big fan of him," she says. "It resembles manga [Japanese comics] a little bit in that [the eyes] are twice or three times the size that a person's eyes would really be."

While jobnik! is her major opus, Libicki has done other army-themed illustrative pieces--namely "Towards a Hot Jew," a three-page spread published in New Voices magazine in 2006. Subtitled "The Israeli Soldier as a Fetish Object," the piece looks at why "the Jew in North American consciousness is curiously unsexy," juxtaposed with photorealistic drawings of attractive, gun-wielding Israelis.

The reaction to her comics by former and current soldiers in the Israeli army has been generally positive, Libicki says. Many have seemed appreciative of her mostly upbeat portrayal of the army. And they like that the comic is done in English, which opens up the oft-misunderstood world of the IDF to people outside of Israel.

But that English-speaking audience isn't always ready to hear about it.

"At conventions, sometimes people will confront me," Libicki says.

"I've gotten it from the right and the left--when we're talking about jobnik!, it's usually the leftist people that are horrified that I could be humanizing Israeli soldiers or that I could believe in the state of Israel. But then with [Towards a Hot Jew], it's people on the right … saying that I hate Israel or that I'm an anti-Semite."

For the record, she's neither. And for those accusers, she has one thing to say: "You may want to check out my other comics."

She sees the graphic novel genre as a perfect medium for Jewish stories.

"A theme of Jewish storytelling and, really, Jewish life, is joy in sadness and sadness in joy. That's something that comic books can do a lot--I think the ambivalence of holding two thoughts in your head at once is well suited to a medium where you have pictures and text working together or working in opposition--if you're saying one thing and showing something else."

But being Jewish and selling comics can be a challenging prospect.

Although Libicki has moved away from the Orthodoxy of her youth--"I think I'm more toward Conservative today"--she still keeps kosher and observes Shabbat.

But it's noon on a Friday--and Libicki is about to begin a 12-hour drive to the two-day Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo.

"A lot of the compromises that I've made are to work these comic-cons, because almost all of them include a day on Saturday," she admits.

Her husband isn't Jewish, so the two have worked out a system where she doesn't have to handle money at a Saturday convention--but it's still a tradeoff.

"Technically I can keep the laws, although it's not a very Shabbos activity to be hawking comic books," she says wryly.

While Libicki's army experience still haunts her, the ability to turn even the worst moments--like seeing dozens of air force planes shooting across the sky as the intifada roared to life--into beautifully rendered panels has helped her deal with some of the more painful memories from her time as a jobnik.

"Whenever I think about my army experience, I'm thinking about how to make it into a good story," she says.

"I've found myself feeling nostalgic for the army, but I don't think I'm feeling nostalgic for the real army. I'm feeling nostalgic for what I wrote."

While Libicki has had years to grow nostalgic, Ariel Schrag had mere days.

It was the summer after ninth grade. Schrag was 15 and, like many girls her age, was taking time to reflect on the year that had passed--the parties, the concerts, the boys.

Unlike most 15-year-olds, though, over the next three months she would painstakingly write, draw, ink and photocopy those reflections into a 60-odd-page book entitled Awkward. Then she would hand out copies to her classmates--many of whom had unwittingly played starring roles.

Awkward was Schrag's first graphic novel. Now 28, she is the author of two more (with another on the way), is a former writer for The L Word and the editor of a comic anthology.

In addition to the Serial Boxes panel discussion, she will also teach a graphic novel master class May 19 at Intersection for the Arts, covering topics such as beginning a graphic novel, narrative pacing and comic vocabulary.

Schrag grew up in Berkeley, Calif., and attended Berkeley High School, which is the main setting for Awkward, Definition and Potential, her series of high school comics.

The books are more than just reminiscences on typical high-school angst: Over the course of the four years, Schrag dealt with her parents' separation and divorce, coming out as bisexual and eventually as a lesbian, having her first serious girlfriend and, of course, AP chemistry.

When Awkward was a hit with her classmates, Schrag followed it up with Definition and Potential, which examined 10th and 11th grade, respectively. (A senior-year comic, Likewise, has been in the inking process "for the past decade.")

Although creating a full-length, autobiographical comic at the age of 15 may sound precocious, it wasn't completely new territory for Schrag.

She had been drawing "since forever," she says in an interview from New York, where she's hanging out at the apartment of her friend and fellow cartoonist Gabrielle Bell.

Schrag's earliest foray into something resembling comics came at age 2, when she would draw a picture and then tell her mother what to write as a caption. But in the third grade, after reading Maus,Schrag made her first long-form comic, entitled Life With Lucy Hound. It's a "semi-autobiographical" book about a poor girl who wants a dog, gets one and becomes a millionaire.

Semi-autobiographical?

"It's exploring issues of identity," Schrag says. She was 9 when she wrote the book, and "it's about a 9-year-old girl hanging out with friends and wondering whether she should be cool or not."

Those issues would be explored in much more depth in Awkward and its sequels, which spare no details of Schrag's life while exploring her blossoming identity as a lesbian.

Art-wise, Schrag calls her comics "cartoony"--giant eyes and mouths and exaggerated expressions are her calling card, though she does delve into a more detailed, realistic style in fantasy and dream sequences.

Her early work mostly revolves around her obsessions with actress Juliette Lewis and, inexplicably, high school science classes, but gradually evolves into a deeply introspective look at teenage relationships. Potential, which mainly follows Schrag through her shaky courtship with the enigmatic Sally Jults, is the most candid and graphic, in both artwork (this one isn't for the kids) and emotion.

"As the series progressed, I became more and more obsessed with this concept of truth-telling and getting to the heart of whatever the truth is and who I was, and exposing all of that," Schrag says.

Which means that bathroom trysts with Sally, her parents' acrimonious divorce and Schrag's bizarrely Freudian dreams are all on full display.

"There might be something that was super-embarrassing or shameful, but for those very reasons I had to put them in," Schrag says. "The point of the story was somebody who's trying to figure out exactly who they were, and that means baring everything."

And it's not just herself that Schrag bares--she also reveals intimate details about her friends' lives, although their names have been changed.

"When people hear about it they have a sort of violent reaction--I've had people say, 'how could you say that about other people?'" Schrag says. "But all the characters are written with an amount of love, and the point of the books is never to expose anything about anybody that's their personal business. It's always only because I'm telling a story."

Religion is never mentioned in her comics, but Schrag notes that she was raised Jewish, though she is only Jewish on her father's side--"which I guess makes me not really Jewish," she says.

"But I've always identified as Jewish 'cause I kind of have a big nose--I know that's weird, but it's true!" she adds, laughing.

Turning serious, Schrag notes that her Jewish identity "is definitely entirely cultural--there was never any religious aspect to it. When I have kids I'll want to continue celebrating the holidays and teaching them about Judaism, but in a secular way."

She sees her comics as being Jewish "in the Woody Allen sense--neurotic and self-involved.

"At the same time, I completely did not have worried Jewish parents growing up … I had Berkeley hippie parents, so I can't say that's related, but maybe it's in your blood."

After graduating from Berkeley High, Schrag attended Columbia University in New York. She lived in New York for nine years, then moved to Los Angeles, where she currently lives.

She wrote for the Showtime series The L Word for two seasons, and in 2002, the production company Killer Films approached her about possibly adapting her comics into a film. That led to her writing a screenplay version of Potential.

While Potential is in the casting phase, Schrag is busy working on a TV pilot with a friend, and trying to complete Likewise. "It's finally coming to a close," she says with a sigh.

And when Likewise comes out, it'll surely mean another round of truth-telling from the ever-candid Schrag.

While most of her friends were supportive of the books, not everyone was happy with Schrag's first three comics--including a former classmate (who doesn't appear in the books) who posted a negative review of Potential on a Web site, calling her work disrespectful.

When Likewise comes out, Schrag may get a similar reaction. But this time, she has a ready comeback.

"This friend of mine, who is actually in the books," Schrag says, "she was telling me she wanted to go on and write a response, like, 'Uh, I'm actually in the books, and my vagina is exposed, and I don't care at all!'"

The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Rachel Freedenberg

Rachel Freedenberg is a staff writer for j. weekly.

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