Life & Culture

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's the real-life superheroine

Forget Superman and co - the autobiographical comics created by Jewish women tell moving everyday stories


'I feel I have done a public service in portraying my horror of the Jewish burial grounds that ring the M25," says artist Corinne Pearlman. She is talking about of her comic, Losing the Plot, which, over two delicately drawn pages, highlights the jarring proximity of several Jewish cemeteries to one of Europe's busiest motorways. "Now, who in their right minds would want to choose a plot here, with the roar of HGVs as the eternal accompaniment in their last resting-place?" she asks.

Pearlman, the creative director of Myriad Publications, is behind a series of comics about British-Jewish life, called Playing The Jewish Card. Readers will find themselves squirming with embarrassed recognition at many of it stories. "I wouldn't claim to be insightful," says the artist, "but it does please me when what I've drawn resonates with others."

Jewish women have always been at the forefront of autobiographical comics, using their own experiences to create the superheroines of everyday life who battle against- and overcome - unhappy childhoods, illness and divorce. Many of these artworks challenge the silence and shame that accompanies traumatic events. In 1993 American artist Diane Noomin created the groundbreaking Baby Talk: A Tale of 4 Miscarriages. With a title font made of nappy pins and blood, this is a funny and poignant comic on a topic that is tragically common but frequently undiscussed.

"Baby Talk was extremely personal and very true," says Noomin. "I made a timeline of my miscarriages over the year and used it as a springboard for the narrative - there were times when I had tears streaming down my face while drawing or writing the story."

Noomin and Pearlman's work both feature in "Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women", an international touring show of 18 comic artists that recently opened at Yeshiva University Museum, New York. The exhibition charts the female creators of autobiographical comics, from the pioneers of the 1970s such as Sharon Rudahl and Aline Kominsky Crumb, the self-proclaimed "grandmother of whiny tell-all comics".

It pleases me when what I've drawn resonates with others

Rudahl's four-page comic, The Star Sapphire, was created in 1974 and charts a personal odyssey through an unsuccessful first marriage, and disapproving parents, to the point where she achieves the independence to fulfil her artistic ambitions. Rudahl says she was attracted to comics because: "I had faced so much more sexism in art school and in my home community, and in looking for employment and housing, that the world of comics seemed comparatively open."

"Jewish women have had a tremendous influence in the world of comics," argues Tahneer Oksman, a researcher on Jewish women and comics and the co-ordinator of a symposium on the subject to be held at the Yeshiva University Museum in February. "There have been many critical and popular books recently published about Jews and the history of comics, but women are almost completely absent from those histories."

Dr Heike Bauer, senior lecturer in English and gender studies at London's Birkbeck College, believes that it is hardly surprising that women artists are at the forefront of this work. "The scrutiny of the self and the search for new modes of expression has always been a central concern in women's literary and cultural production," she says.

Bauer is researching the work of Israeli comic artist Ilana Zeffren, also featured in "Graphic Details", whose comics explore life in Israel, sexuality and politics. "Zeffren's appeal is enhanced by the fact that her comics are very funny," Bauer notes.

Zeffren's weekly column in the magazine, Achbar Hair, has been running for over five years, and features her two cats. "They are responsible for the humour and are a way of expressing controversial opinions without getting anybody too angry," says Zeffren, "I'd be lost without them."

Loss is a topic Sarah Leavitt knows well. Leavitt wrote Tangles about her mother being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and dying seven years ago at the age of 60. She says: "I think the book has allowed me to keep my memories of my mother alive, to keep her close and present."

Leavitt is able to convey the complex and difficult emotions and events in Tangles, not only through her careful yet light drawings, but also through a number of visual devices -- including tracing her mother's increasingly illegible notes to her. "My mum was such an intellectual person, so interested in language, such a good writer. It was terrifying to watch her handwriting and language skills deteriorate until she was unable to write at all. It was such a powerful expression of her overall decline."

Leavitt has been gratified by the positive reaction to the work. She says: "One of my favourite things is meeting people who've not read comics before but who decided to give Tangles a chance. Once they finished it, they then went on to read more and more comics. It's like a gateway drug!"

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