The native language of comics

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden (Vertigo, $24.99) is a travel memoir by a skeptical cartoonist. The author explains her project as follows:

“Before I came here, I read as many firsthand accounts of the Birthright experience as I could online. Many of the alumni wrote that from the moment they set foot in the land of Israel, they felt a real connection. A few even said that they felt like they were ‘finally home.’ To me, it’s more like spotting a celebrity on a crowded street. Someone whose crazy life has been splashed all over the tabloid pages for years. And there they are…Right in front of you.”

The book describes a gradual widening of Glidden’s perspective, and a fracturing of her view as she realizes things in Israel are not as clear-cut as she thought. Through her journey, the narrator’s prejudices are sometimes confirmed, but more often she realizes that the truth is diffuse. It’s touching to watch her become less certain of herself as she peers into the lives of the different people she meets.

The pages of the book are divided into nine panels. For subtle changes in mood Glidden alters the grid a little — when, for instance, in the lower left corner of page 24, the narrator realizes that the long wall she’s been gazing at from the tour bus window is “The” wall between Israel proper and the West Bank, the sudden expansion of her mind is articulated as a double-wide panel, containing an expanse of concrete.

The most moving parts of the book are when Glidden steps back from the narrative and treats us to something from her bright-eyed imagination: a courtroom scene inside the narrator’s clamoring mind in which judge, lawyers and jurists are played by herself in different outfits; a confused war scene in which paratroopers ride T-Rexes; a sci-fi robot shooting at a knapsack; various absurd and poignant ghosts. Escapism is the native language of comics, and Glidden is most herself when escaping from her own story.

Evolution of a Crazy Artist by Sophie Crumb (Norton, $27.95) is less a story of the artist’s search for self than hard evidence of it. Sophie is the daughter of two underground comics makers — her mother is Aline Kominsky Crumb, and her father is the legendary R. Crumb, regarded as the founder of the underground comix movement and author of a recent comics version of the book of Genesis. The three of them compiled this book together. In his forward, Sophie’s father disarms the anti-snobs in us: “Naturally, Aline and I always thought that Sophie was an exceptionally gifted artist, but the main point of this compilation is not to show off her talent, but to track the development, the evolution, of a given human being through the medium of drawing, starting from very early childhood.” Self-portraits abound, intimate and agonized, in this collection of sketches made by Sophie Crumb between the ages of two and 28.

Sophie’s drawings are sometimes wonderful, but never pretty. The young cartoonist’s work looks like what one of the little girls in the paintings of outsider artist Henry Darger might have drawn. The teenage Sophie discovers drugs, sex, and other ways of torturing herself, and runs off to circus school, away from her parents and the tug of her artistic talent. In her early twenties she runs farther, to New York, where she has some terrifying hard times. There’s so much angst in her art, and not just the kind of caricaturist’s angst that turns to joy on the page.

Still, we can tell from the pictures at the end of the book that Sophie has begun to find what she was looking for. She has settled down in France with a nice man and their baby. The drawings from this era are crafted by a wonderfully competent artist, comfortable in her own skin. Whether it was nature or nurture that made Sophie a compulsive artist her art certainly derives from her parents, and it seems that a loving family is what moves her to create.

Evolution of a Crazy Artist is dense with emotion and meaning, and you can get lost in the drawings. Still, I’d hesitate to look through it again. It’s the paper trail of a girl’s flight from herself, and the reader who sits thoughtfully with Evolution of a Crazy Artist will probably weep with vexation at the pointless suffering it documents. I can’t wait till Sophie Crumb makes some more real comics.

Liana Finck is making a graphic novel about the Bintel Brief. She writes a graphic blog for the online magazine Tablet. Her graphic blog “The Shul Detective” first appeared on The Lilith Blog.