UofL Fall Class Will Examine the Jewish Graphic Novel

This fall, the program for Judaic Studies is very pleased to offer UofL’s first course in Jewish graphic novels and comics, HUM 561-01, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1-2:15 p.m. I’m the instructor, and I am co-editor of The Jewish Graphic Novel: Critical Approaches.

In recent years the graphic novel has received considerable attention as an explosive cultural phenomenon. Today one cannot walk into any independent or chain bookstore without noting the ever-proliferating bookshelf space afforded for the display of graphic novels, as many in the publishing industry have become aware of their artistic and literary, as well as commercial, vitality.

As Hillary Chute asserts, graphic novels embody “an embrace of reproducibility and mass circulation as well as a rigorous, experimental attention to form as a mode of political intervention.”

This course offers students a substantial encounter with the variety of challenges to Jewish identity and selfhood represented in the graphic novel’s enduring fascination with the consequences of the erasure/repression, as well as celebration, of ethnic/racial origins. We will examine how graphic novels (and even the comics genre) can embody a powerful composite text of words and images that produces effects significantly different from more traditional forms of literary narrative.

And this creative power becomes especially striking when placed in the service of racial, religious and ethnic identity exploration, as Amy Benfer observes: “Graphic art is the artistic medium perhaps most suited to chronicling life as it is lived: as a visual record of physical action and change, and an emotional record of people as the sum parts of their speech, interactions and relationships with the outside world.”

This course encompasses the profound influence of the Jewish imagination on the art of visual narrative in the creation of Superman, Will Eisner’s pioneering tenement fables, graphic memoirs about Auschwitz (and even cartoons created in concentration camps), contemporary Israel and beyond.

Students will also have an opportunity to encounter startling examples of modern artists’ engagement with biblical stories. As students will learn, graphic narratives from the United States, Europe and Israel are uniquely suited to the most quintessential narrative themes of the Jewish imagination: mobility, flight, adaptation, transformation, disguise, and metamorphosis.

The literary genre of graphic narrative and the medium of sequential art provided contemporary Jewish writers and artists, like Stan Lee, Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, Joe Kubert and Joann Sfar, among others, with an instrument to portray, literally and figuratively, their boldly challenging concepts of Jewish identity.

The journey of this course will culminate with discussions of Michael Chabon’s vibrant novel about Jewish immigrants, the Holocaust and the early history of comics, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. In Chabon’s masterpiece, he illuminates how in America the Wandering Jew (as comics artist) put on a cape and a mask, defied gravity, and set out to save the world – an act that others did not do for him.

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