Women’s Voices Through Comics

Sarah Lightman is an artist, curator and academic with a special interest in Jewish women creating autobiographical comics. She’s the co-curator of the touring museum exhibit Graphic Details: Confessional Comics and has just completed editing the book Graphic Details: Essays on Confessional Comics by Jewish Women, which will be published next year by McFarland. This will be followed in 2015 by her own autobiographical graphic novel, The Book of Sarah to be published by Myriad Editions in 2015. Lightman is also a director of Laydeez Do Comics, the first women’s led comics forum to focus on autobiographical comics with branches in the UK, Ireland and USA. While the concentration is on women, anyone may attend.

Danica Davidson, whose journalism on graphic novels has been published by Lilith, MTV and CNN, interviewed Lightman.

Danica Davidson: Can you tell us about Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women?

Sarah Lightman: Graphic Details is co-curated by myself and Michael Kaminer, who’s a New York-based journalist and comics collector. He wrote an article for the Jewish Daily Forward about some Jewish women comic artists he’d seen at a comics event. I read the article and realized that was exactly what I was doing in the UK, but I hadn’t found many other Jewish people doing the same thing. It was really exciting. I suggested to Michael that we make an exhibition out of his article, because I had already curated a number of shows, including a series on contemporary artists at Ben Uri Gallery, the London Jewish Museum of Art in London. Also, I’d just curated a show “Diary Drawing,” at The Centre for Recent Drawing, with Ariel Schrag and Miriam Katin. So I already knew a few Jewish comic artists but I didn’t realize there were quite so many making autobiographical comics!

The project snowballed from there, and it’s been touring for three, four years. It’s opening in Miami at the end of the month, at the Jewish Museum in Florida. The show is coming to London at the end of next year to a really great gallery called Space Station Sixty-Five. We’re going to be doing a one-day symposium about Jewish women comic artists at JW3, the new Jewish Community Centre for London, and we’re looking to do a study day as well for artists.

I just finished editing the book about the exhibition, and it’s about 400 pages. It will be published by McFarland, and it’s got essays and interviews, information and images about all the artists in the show. It’s going to be the first book ever published to focus on Jewish women in comics.

DD: What other work have you done to promote the work of women in the comics field, particularly Jewish women?

SL: When the exhibition opened in New York, I co-chaired a symposium with two New York academics, Tahneer Oksman and Amy Feinstein. I’ve just written a chapter about Diane Noomin’s comic, called “Baby Talk: A Tale of Four Miscarriages” that’s in Trauma Narratives and Herstory published by Palgrave Macmillan. None of the other essays in the collection were about graphic novels and it’s always great to bring comics to a new audience. I’ve written for websites, books and newspapers about Jewish women and comics. For example, I contributed to 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die, so I wrote about Charlotte Salomon, Ariel Schrag, Gabrielle Bell. I can make sure these women get included in collections. I also wrote about Jewish Women and Comics for the new Routledge Handbook to Contemporary Jewish Cultures(2014). Most recently I wrote for the Canadian website “A Bit off the Top” on the Israeli comic artist Ilana Zeffren.

I’m also doing a doctorate on autobiographical comics at University of Glasgow: “The Drawn Wound: Hurting and Healing in Autobiographical Comics.” I’m really interested in traumatic narratives and how people draw and visualize their lives and whether there’s potential for something called Post Traumatic Growth. It’s the idea that if something terrible happens, your life can change for the better. I’m especially interested in exploring how the creative process of making comics can make a difference.

In addition, I’m looking at how Jewish women have been written out of Jewish textual history and intellectual history, and how they’re using comics now to ensure their voices and life experiences are heard and recorded.

DD: Can you tell us about The Book of Sarah?

SL: The Book of Sarah is a project I’ve been doing since I was twenty-one or twenty-two. I called it The Book of Sarah because my namesake, the Matriarch Sarah, doesn’t have her own book, and my brother and sister are Esther and Daniel and they have the Scroll of Esther and The Book of Daniel respectively — so I had to make things fair!

I was at the Slade School of Art for my BA and MFA and I felt a bit lost. I decided I had to make work about myself and my history to help me learn who I was. At the same time I was also moving away from a more Orthodox lifestyle, because I was quite frustrated by women’s lives within it and how we were constantly asking permission from men to do things: talk in synagogues, read from the Torah. Also, I spent a year in Israel at yeshiva and I couldn’t comprehend how we only had male commentary on the texts. I wanted to know what women were thinking and how women would reinterpret the rules and stories we live by. So I decided to make my own book of the Bible and be a female commentator of my own life, rectify the silence of all those years without women’s contributions. I’ve got thousands and thousands of pages of these drawings about my life. Often they relate to Jewish moments or situations I find myself in, and I’m kind of trying to find a way to acknowledge the tension between living in a modern world and having a very traditional background.

For example, I did a series of drawings about my first year of marriage and it’s all the things I knew about in the Bible, like how a man’s not supposed to go to war the first year of marriage. He’s supposed to stay around and make his wife happy. But how does it feel to be the woman? And I want to explore the space between the inherited texts and my own lived life experiences—which included traveling and thinking about starting a family.

I make short, three-minute films with my drawings. Sometimes these are about very specific Jewish experiences, like “The Family Table,” and “The Reluctant Bride.” The latter is about feeling torn between having a traditional Jewish wedding (and finding it a deeply anti-feminist affair) and also my grandpa dying at the same time. I was caught between feeling frustrated by Jewish tradition and also finding it quite reassuring to have a set response to manage difficult times. I did another film called “Half Full, Half Empty,” where I traced my life through this half-full glass of water I draw every day. I used it as a way of knowing how my life was going and how I was feeling. If my job was going well, if my boyfriend loved me, the same glass looked full. It was amazing to use an object to tell my story for me, and that work got a great reaction. Even though it was about my life as a single Jewish woman at that time, it was really about how life has ups and downs. The object doesn’t change, but the way we look at it changes.

I like to engage with the traditional text but make sure I’ve got a feminist or alternative commentary on them. In my film “Family Table” I made a visual midrash on Psalm 133:1, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers sit together.” In my film I reference not just brothers but also sisters, mothers and fathers, grandmas and grandpas. Why should the male term cover all the other people? Why can’t the others be named individually?

The Book of Sarah will be published by Myriad Editions in 2015. I also exhibit my drawings and films in art shows and I had a show last year at Oranim College in Israel. This year I had a show in London, of The Book of Sarah, so I like to exhibit my artwork as well as collect it in this book.

DD: How did Laydeez Do Comics get started?

SL: It started because I went to a comics conference with a friend, Nicola Streeten, and it was frustrating to see all-male lineups on the panels. (It is better now but it still happens!) I was looking for a reading group about comics, and the one I went to was interested in zombies, and I wasn’t so interested in zombies. So Nicola and I decided to set something up, and it’s just been amazing. It’s expanded massively. There are about eighty people attending London branch every month. There are four branches around the UK as well as Ireland, San Francisco, Chicago. It’s open to men, it’s just run by women. There are three speakers at each event, and lots of time for discussion and questions and informal networking. It’s run in a way to make it informative and friendly. The academic world can be quite critical, hierarchical, and patriarchal, and we definitely needed an environment that’s none of that. At the beginning you get a cup of tea and a piece of cake, and at break you get tea and cake, and it just changes the environment to make it much more democratic and inclusive. If you went to a university lecture, you wouldn’t get that atmosphere.

DD: If someone is not familiar with Jewish women’s autobiographical comics, where would you recommend they start to learn more?

SL: Laydeez do Comics has got a blog, and it’s a great resource and has links to people’s books and websites. It’s a great way of seeing how much is going on at the moment. If you go to the Graphic Details website, you can see all the artists in the show and they have so many brilliant comics. I just taught a course at JW3, the new Jewish Community Centre in London about Jews and comics, and I was able to introduce people to so many works they’d never seen before. What was really wonderful was to then receive all the comics the students made in response to what they’d seen. That was beautiful, a really great experience.