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There were dolls representing Superman, Spiderman and X-men, crates full of comic books featuring Batman, Wonder Woman, Hulk and the other American super heroes, book stands run by publishers like Keter, Am Oved and Modan, dozens of colorful comic books in Hebrew and English on chromo paper, computer games, a television journalist wandering among the stands - dressed up as Catwoman - fingering the furry ears on top of her head as she chatted with children and teens smiling shyly at the camera, and excited children who pull their tired parents from one stand to another.

In the hustle and bustle of the third Israeli Comics Cartoon and Animation Festival held at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque lobby last week, only the sharp-eyed would have noticed the pale poster with the colored felt marker letters indicating the location of the alternative comics exhibition on the upper floor, above the washrooms. The lights at that exhibition were a bit dimmer, while the stands - which primarily displayed amateurish, homemade looking comic books without colors or chromo paper - were set up close to each other beside the staircase. The throngs of festival visitors did not reach the alternative exhibition, nor did the cool climate-controlled air from below. Two large industrial fans stood on the floor doing their best to move the humid air a bit, occasionally lifting a rogue comic book into the air, where it fluttered and fell to the floor.

Miri Kluner, who offered editions of her comic book, "Anti," recalled how for a moment in the afternoon, a cool breeze had swept through the area. That happened, she says with sparkling eyes, when the movie ended, and the air-conditioned theater's doors opened. "After that, we tried to open the doors again to enjoy some of the air conditioning, but we couldn't."

This year, for the first time, the festival's management decided to give the alternative comics their own space in order to enlarge the variety of cartoon styles on display at the festival. "It is important for us to provide a stage for the youngsters who are fresher and uncensored, who cannot publish professionally," says Nissim Hizkiyahu, the festival's art director. The cartoonists were asked to pay only a symbolic fee for their stands at which they sold their creations during the the three days of the festival. The display was comprised of 10 stands, and most of the salespeople were the creators themselves.

On the festival's second day, they got fed up with the intense heat and their distance from the visitors below, and realized that, as always, there must be an alternative. Assi Halfon, 16, was the spearhead, and the others followed him. One after the other, they gathered up their stands, took them down the stairs, and set them up at the cinematheque entrance. Next year, says Hizkiyahu, management will try to find a solution to the problem of the air conditioning too.

NIS 1 per page

"Format: A4, illustrated on both sides of the page. Means: Photocopy machine. The mandate: The small group has complete freedom not to accept decisions. Anarchy. All are invited. Let each person draw as he sees fit. Pluralism. Deviance. Tits and ass. No selections. No direction. No God. Everything is distributed, the strong sells." This is how the independent A4 comics group defined itself on the inside cover of the six comic books it published for the festival.

At the group's stand, beside the books, there was also a stack of A4 paper with black-and-white comics depicted on them in a print quality that could not be described as enviable.

"Part of our concept is the fanzine look," explains Yuval Caspi, one of the group's founders and coordinator of festival activities for the alternative exhibition. "We are a group of pluralists that accepts anyone who draws cartoons. We never refuse anyone." Each comics page sells for a shekel, and every 16-page comic book costs NIS 15.

The group has its own web site (www.aaaa4.tk), which, Caspi says, registers about 200 visitors a day. The site has an active forum that cartoonists can use to upload their works, and therefore, join the group.

"We already have about 150 cartoonists," says Caspi. "One or two new ones join each day. We have sold about 3,000 A4 pages so far." Caspi notes that all revenues are used toward printing costs and for hosting events at which the comics are sold. Alongside known artists who are members (Dudu Geva, Zev Engelmeier, Uri Fink), the group includes young artists, mostly aged 15-16.

The group does not censor content. Thus, for example, one can find an A4 comic book with stories about an Israel Defense Forces soldier who is a suicide bomber, dubious connections between Ilan Ramon and Omri Sharon, the adventures of a talking cup, and a tour of Chen Blvd. in Tel Aviv with a dog who prefers his own kind.

"We are not mainstream," says Caspi. "Anyone can write about sex, violence, drugs, politics or even a simple love story."

More than an industry of individuals

The group was founded about five months ago at the initiative of Caspi, Geva, Rani Levanon, Boaz Kadman and a few others. "We wanted comics to be more than an industry of a few individuals, that it should become something more popular, that anyone who wanted to express himself could put out a comic book," Geva says. "[We wanted] to give an opportunity to every child, every old woman, everyone who couldn't afford to publish works on his own."

Geva took upon himself the printing of the first 100 of the group's cartoons on his home photocopier. "I made 50 copies of each page, on both sides of the page, which comes out to about 10,000 copies," he says. "I felt like a print shop owner, a small Communist contributing to mankind."

Another group of artists that exhibited in the alternative comics exhibition was the Dimona group, whose five members have been operating together for a year-and-a-half. The five - Sagi Morad, Michal Baruch, Merav Shaul, Yifat Cohen and Amitai Sandy - studied design at either Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design or Vital, the Tel Aviv Center for Design Studies.

"We preferred to work in a group, because a group has much more power, both in the economic sense and from the perspective of dividing the work load," says a group member. "Putting out a book independently is a lot of work, and this way we split up the tasks: one distributes (whoever has a car that day); one is in charge of printing; another is responsible for public relations. We have no fixed roles, switching with one another all the time. Beyond that, Dimona is also a kind of support group. We meet, show one another what we have done, and share ideas."

In the beginning, they approached regular publishers, who were not enthusiastic about the group of young inexperienced artists who insisted on drawing cartoons. The group refused to be discouraged, however, and decided to do everything on its own.

"We discovered that it is great to publish on our own," says another Dimona member. "It gives us a sense of independence. We have no restrictions on the content we put in the books. Each one of us can do what he wants on his pages."

The group's members agreed to write their cartoons in English so they could distribute the comic books overseas, and they chose the name Dimona because they wanted an Israeli name that non-Israelis could pronounce easily. The have published two books, participated in the International Comics Festival in Angoul, France, and had their works published in two anthologies - one in German and the other in Slovenian. This week the five are going to the Internationales Berliner Comicfestival.

Every so often, they pack copies of their books, "Dimona" ("We picked it up from the printer a day before our trip to France) and "Dimona Israeli," which came out last week ("on the first day of the Cinematheque festival we ran to get it from the bookbinder") into Baruch's car, and distribute them to small bookstores like Prose, Ha'ozen Hashlishit, Tolaat Sfarim, and Salon Mazal in Tel Aviv.

"You won't find our books at Steimatsky's," they say. "We don't distribute to chain stores."