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Comic book of Esther turns Purim story upside down
March 3rd, 2006
A comic book/graphic novel adaptation of the Bibles book of Esther? Seems like a natural thing to do, given both the nature of that story and how it has inspired artists in many other media.
But the Megillat Esther (Jewish Publication Society, paperback, $18) by JT Waldman, is unlike any comic book/graphic novel anyone has produced before.
In the books some 180 pages, Waldman doesnt just tell the story that inspired the carnival-like Jewish festival of Purim. Through his words and images and even footnotes, he relates the tale to the larger context of biblical and midrashic literature.
He illustrated the story in an artistic style based on ancient Persian art. He mixed the full Hebrew text in with his own translation; and included a prologue and interludes that develop themes latent in the story or recall related stories from the Bible and Midrash.
Moreover, in the middle, Waldman flipped the images, so to peruse the second half, readers will have to turn the book upside down and read it from right to left, as they would if reading it in Hebrew.
Everything in life is turned around in the story of Esther, Waldman told The Chronicle in a telephone interview from Vancouver. That justified his play with the form of the book, he said.
Moreover, I want my book to require an active reader, much as the Bible itself does, he said.
Waldman, 29, said the creative process took him about seven years, of which about six were consumed in learning and research before he set pencil to paper to start drawing the book itself.
In fact, the project encompassed a journey to Judaism as much as the creating of a book.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Waldman said he began reading comics when he was 5 or 6, and started trying to draw them when he was 10. By junior high, his teachers recognized he had artistic talent; and by high school, it got put into my head that [Im] going to be an artist.
Meanwhile, he was nominally affiliated with the Jewish community, growing up in a Reform synagogue and pretty much ending Jewish activity with his bar mitzvah.
But he had also studied Spanish; and when he was a student at the University of Michigan, he decided he wanted to spend his junior year abroad in Spain.
He lived in the old Jewish quarter of Seville, and that plus questions from people who said they had never met a Jewish person before started the process of me trying to fill out my own understanding of Judaism.
After graduation, he did some work-study at the Elat Chayim Jewish renewal retreat center. He took classes and met leaders of the Jewish renewal movement, which opened my eyes and gave me confidence to do things on my own path.
And there he heard a modern Orthodox woman from Canada tell the story of Esther with rabbinical interpretations.
I was floored. It was not the story I remembered or was told, he said. And the first thing that came into my mind was, This would make a great comic book.
He started researching the book, holding a series of odd jobs to support himself. He soon decided he had to learn Hebrew, and he obtained a scholarship to go to Israel and study at a now defunct liberal yeshiva.
That experience made my dream even more real, but also revealed him to be an anomaly that many Israelis couldnt place. I lived on a kibbutz and went to a yeshiva, and I wasnt wearing a kippah. Moreover, I spoke Hebrew with a Spanish accent, which made them think I was from Argentina. I was not the normal American Jew.
Finally in October 2001, he and some friends went to Barcelona, Spain. There, in the Jewish quarter, Waldman went to work on his pencil version of the book, drawing as much as nine hours a day.
The following year, he returned to Philadelphia to ink the book, learn the publishing business and try to find a firm interested in printing his book.
He received many rejections, from Jewish publishers who didnt do comic books and comic book publishers who dont do religion, he said. For a while, it looked like he was going to have to publish the book himself.
But he had received some publicity in The Forward and the Jerusalem Report; and about two weeks before he was scheduled to self-publish, the Jewish Publication Society, which had rejected the project earlier, decided to take it on as the first graphic novel it would publish.
Megillat Esther was first printed last August and made its debut at the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education Conference in Seattle that month.
Waldman is currently attending the Vancouver Film School, studying digital design and animation. I want a wider skill set than just being able to draw, he said.
He also has been studying the history of the U.S. comic book medium and industry; and is fascinated by how much of it has been created by Jews.
He has taught workshops on Judaism, Comics and the Mending of the Golden Calf, pointing out how the prohibition of idolatry channeled past Jewish creative energies into creating texts rather than images.
But because Jewish immigrants to the U.S. werent allowed at first into graphic arts and advertising, some of them flowed into the low brow art form of comic books, which brought text and image back together, he said.