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New generation of US Jewish graphic artists appears

 
4 january 2013

Since Superman ushered in the Golden Age of comic books in the United States some eighty years ago, Jewish publishers and artists have played a large role in the genre. And while comic books have fallen in popularity in recent decades, a new generation of graphic artists are taking up the charge, including Eli Valley who uses the format to inform - and provoke - a mostly Jewish audience.

 

From a cramped studio apartment in Manhattan, Valley sketches out his latest work.

 

His shelves are packed with a mix of Zionist titles and sci-fi comics.

 

His work appears regularly in the Jewish Daily Forward, where he is wrapping up his tenure as artist in residence.

 

But his are not single panel cartoons - rather they are expansive, whole-page stories that resemble comic books more than comic strips.

 

Eli Valley, New York based artist:

 

"I feel like single-panels are too reflexive and too much of a reaction to news - I’m more inspired by comics which are mutli-panel and which are passages through time, which are narratives. Because then I’m able to play not only with icons but with storytelling and I like telling stories."

 

Self-trained, Valley lived in Prague and wrote op-eds before delving into graphic art, a medium which he has found to be a fruitful outlet for his views.

 

Eli Valley, New York based artist:


"There’s something much more trenchant and visceral about imagery than just words on a page, you know."

 

Valley describes himself as left-wing, and a frequent target of his critical eye is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

 

This past year, he published "The Diary of Doctor Lowenstein".

 

The work takes aim at what Valley sees as a contradictory effort by Netanyahu and his political allies to embrace the role of victim and strongman.

 

Eli Valley, New York based artist:


"They’re the same kind of people who’ll say that Israel reflects Jewish renewal and rebirth in this new man, you know, but they’re also saying the world hates us, we’re the Jew of the world, we’re the ghetto. It’s weird how they try to have it both ways like that but I was trying to reflect that multiple personality syndrome in this comic."

 

And he does so quite provocatively - creating a ghoulish hybrid character that combines two of Jewish history’s most vaunted figures, Anne Frank and Judah Maccabee.

 

Not surprisingly, the backlash was harsh.

 

One commenter on the Forward website wrote: "What happened? Did the major Iranian newspapers all turn this down as just too crudely anti-Semitic?"

 

But Valley says his depiction isn’t meant to offend - rather he believes his work often requires drawing on Jewish iconography to make a point.

 

Eli Valley, New York based artist:


"Anne Frank has become this icon perhaps the most indelible icon of the 20th century in terms of Jewish life and death. So as an icon I really felt it was important - it’s like as an artist icons are my palette, and so I wanted to use that icon to show what Israel has become, and also Judah Maccabee the other icon, the hero in all of Jewish mythology in the Hanukkah story.

 

So I was playing with that. Basically I think that Israel has become in some ways a mashup of the two in very extreme cartoony imagistic form and I wanted to portray that."

 

Valley concedes he’s an equal opportunity offender.

 

In another recent piece, he chastised a New York City congregation that recanted after coming under fire for supporting Palestine’s recent United Nations bid for increased recognition.

 

Eli Valley, New York based artist:


"It was like you know what, that’s just so disappointing, and it really cleaved into the heart of a certain segment of American Jewry which really had a lot of hope based on the initial email, and I was just so upset by that that I just wanted to draw what happened, and I had to do it quickly because the events keep moving - that’s why I did a one panel for this because you know it wouldn’t work if I took a month to draw it."

 

Overall, his criticisms have less to do with politics and more to do with how power is used and exploited, both on the left and the right.

 

Eli Valley, New York based artist:


"It’s very hard to satirize the Jewish community because it keeps out-satirizing itself, so if I think I’m doing something that’s so outlandish that’s like three steps ahead, it takes me a very long time to draw these because they’re all done in brush, very intricate, and so I’ll be reading the news when I’m halfway done and sure enough some figurehead in the Jewish world will do something even further - or in Israel - even further than my wildest imaginings. And then it’s like all well gotta do another comic now."

 

Blending artistic skills with sharp criticism, Valley has opened up a new avenue for Jewish critical thought. And while his tenure is coming to a close at the Forward, he says so long as there is controversy within the Jewish community, he’ll have plenty of material to work with.

 

Stephen Fee, JN1, New York

 

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