New show explores Confessional Comics by Jewish Women

  • by Kevin Mark Kline, Director of Promotions
  • Friday October 1, 2010
Share this Post:
"Toys in Babeland" (2005) by Vanessa Davis. Photo: Courtesy Cartoon Art Museum
"Toys in Babeland" (2005) by Vanessa Davis. Photo: Courtesy Cartoon Art Museum

"Catholics may confess through a screen in a box, but Jews do it in public - preferably with an audience," write Sarah Lightman and Michael Kaminer, curators of Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women, a new exhibition opening this Friday at the Cartoon Art Museum. Eighteen female artists expose the inner workings of their hearts and minds in a show that highlights women's contribution to the history of autobiographical comics, with an eye toward what's notably female and Jewish in their oeuvres. Think of the twitchy, witty neurosis of Woody Allen, or the acid, barbed intelligence of Lenny Bruce, but with XX chromosomes. Want to know what women want and, even more crucially, what they don't? Check it out.

In contrast to male comics artists of the 1970s and 80s, who were partial to hyper-sexualized scenarios, exaggerated female anatomy and the exploits of superheroes, the women here train their acerbic pens on internal psychology, relationship travails, romantic yearning and the perils of sexual desire. "In the 1970s, when women fought to get their viewpoints across in a brutal, male-dominated comics landscape, their stories fused the personal and political for fearlessly feminist and radically realistic stories," observe Lightman and Kaminer in their introduction to the exhibition catalogue. Later, though, the narratives would shift to frank, brutally honest stories of childhood, adolescent trauma, love, sexual triumphs and catastrophes.

Topping the list of early warriors and a participant in the current exhibition is Trina Robbins, a San Francisco writer, cartoon artist and "herstorian." She was a "founding mother" of "Wimmen's Comix," a groundbreaking collective and publisher of anthologies established in 1972 as a response to the boys' club mentality and violent sexism of the male Underground Comix artists of the 1960s, whose counterculture hero was R. Crumb. The latter'ssignificant other, Aline Kominsky-Crumb (Twisted Sisters), a self-expressive pioneer in her own right and a woman well-acquainted with Jewish angst, is also represented. Metro Newspapers critic Richard von Busack has called Kominsky-Crumb's autobiographical strips "as wicked as anything in Philip Roth's work."

"The mecca for the underground was San Francisco, but the guys wouldn't let us in," recalled Robbins when she spoke to me several years ago. "Men are much more into violence and drawing tough guys fighting. The majority of women now drawing comics do personal stories. They tend not to draw overly muscled men with thick necks and tiny heads, beating each other to a pulp in outer space."

Thanks in part to Robbins and others who paved the way, personal problems and the absurdity of everyday existence have replaced gender politics as front-burner issues. Berkeley native Ariel Schrag, who was inspired as a tender adolescent by Ariel Bordeaux's Deep Girl, a series featuring an insecure outsider striving mightily to be cool with only intermittent success, wrote, self-published and distributed graphic novels chronicling her years at Berkeley High School and her coming out as a lesbian.

"Lesbian identity was a big part of the high school series," said Schrag, speaking by phone from her home in LA. "When I started, I was 15 and straight-identified, and didn't think that the books were going to be about being gay, but I ended up coming out and dating girls for the first time. Around 16, I started making out with girls and I said, 'OK, now I am gay,' and it became a big theme," though not necessarily a central one in her work today. At age 31, Schrag's career is in ascendance; she was a writer on Seasons 3 & 4 of the hit Showtime series The L Word, and is now a dedicated scribe on HBO's How to Make it in America, while continuing to create her comics. Excerpts from The Chosen, which Schrag says shows her attempting "to be more Jewish than I am" for the benefit of her Hassidic landlord; Dyke March; and Shit, a story focused on middle-school friendships and a boat toilet, will be on view.

"I got into comics under tragic circumstances," explained Israeli cartoonist/columnist Ilana Zeffren, who took up the trade when her first girlfriend abandoned her for a male psychologist. "After I stopped sobbing, I realized this might be sad, but also ridiculously funny and absurd; so I turned it into comics, and it got published." This coup was followed by a lesbian strip that ran in a gay magazine, and the publication of Pink Story, a graphic novel focusing both on the story of the gay and lesbian community in Israel since the beginning of the state, when it was illegal to be gay - there are now laws forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation - and Zeffren's childhood.

"I present lesbian relations as a normative thing," she said in a recent e-mail. "I think it makes it easier for people to accept it, although I'm not sure if it would work the same if we were gay men." For the exhibition, she selected three of her weekly illustrated columns and an excerpt from Pink Story, which recounts her entry into high school, a period when she became increasingly aware she was different. "I drew all the gays and lesbians with horns," she added. "That was my way of showing we were marked as different by society. But the horns are cute and pink, and I hope by the end of the book at least some of the readers [will] wish they had a pair."

Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women, Oct. 1-Jan. 30, 2011, at the Cartoon Art Museum. For more info: (415) CAR-TOON or