Two recently released graphic novels detail the lives of independent Jewish women: Greg Rucka’s Batwoman Elegy (DC Comics $24.99) is a slick and powerful superhero story where a woman takes command; Vanessa Davis’s Make Me a Woman (Drawn and Quarterly, $24.95) is an irreverently told slice-oflife autobiography.
This is nothing new. The subject of Judaism in graphic novels — a genre once dismissed as “just comic books” and now a major presence in the publishing world — has been as divergent as our history in every other medium. There are dramatic graphic novels like Art Spiegleman’s classic, Maus, a retelling of the Holocaust with the Jews as mice at the grip of feline Nazis. And there are lighthearted graphic novels like Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat, with its impish talking cat who wants to have a bar mitzvah.
Political commentator Rachel Maddow writes in her foreword to Batwoman Elegy, “For all the brilliant literary allusion, mystery, and trademark Rucka attention to detail, what you won’t be able to shake when you’re done here is that damn compelling lead character” when talking about Jewish lesbian superhero Kate Kane, a.k.a. Batwoman. In Rucka’s story, she came on the Gotham scene the year Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman backed off.
While Kate shows sensitivity in her relationships, and pain when faced with homophobia, she is tough. After a childhood as a military brat, she joined the army — only to be caught with a female lover and forced to leave. The graphic novel thus delves into the realm of our present-day political implications of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
Refusing to let heartbreak hold her back when her girlfriend leaves her, the masked superhero continues to fight wrongs and uncover gruesome details from her deadly past. Judaism plays a background role in this graphic novel. While we see a menorah and the Kabbalistic Tree of Life in her house, and the High Holy Days are once mentioned, the draw here may be more about how the phrase “lesbian Jewish superhero” is going to catch people’s attention.
All this would cause Make Me a Woman to feel like a book in a completely different genre. Davis has written an autobiographical graphic novel in vignettes which detail her life from childhood to adulthood. Some of these run several pages, while others are less than a page. Her people sometimes look like irreverent doodles from an artist’s sketchbook. Davis describes everything from going to fat camp as a kid (which she enjoyed) to her relationships as a grownup (which she doesn’t always enjoy). In this book, Judaism plays an integral role. The book opens with our hero attending a bat mitzvah and describes her own ceremony, as well as her time in Jewish day school: “Having grown up almost exclusively around Jews, pretty much every weekend in 1990 I spent at a bar mitzvah.” Eventually she ruminates, “I think a lifetime of High Holy Days and Jewish values have impressed upon me the importance of self-reflection! And I feel lucky to have been brought up in this broad-minded Judaism, that lets me belong, even when I pull away.”
The two graphic novels tell strikingly different stories about Jewish women. We might say that Batwoman is the ideal: the “perfect” woman who can fight wrong and never lets herself get beaten. In contrast, Vanessa Davis’s autobiographical character is the real woman, with foibles and flaws we recognize as human. Batwoman takes us into a whole new world; Make Me a Woman makes our own world relatable through art.
Danica Davidson has written about graphic novels for Booklist, GraphicNovelReporter and Publishers Weekly. Read some of her many articles at www.danicadavidson.com.