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Sometimes a packet of instant falafel mix can give rise to much more than a few crisp falafel balls. Dorit Maya-Gur came across such a packet two years ago in a New Jersey supermarket, and decided it would save her a trip to her regular Manhattan falafel stands.

She took the packet into the kitchen of her dorm of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, turned on the electric stove and began to cook. Like at the best falafel stands, the sanitary conditions were not impressive ("Some jerk who used the stove before me didn't bother to clean it," she says) and soon thick smoke began billowing toward the smoke detector. The alarm frightened the peaceful neighborhood. Maya-Gur tried to open the window, but it was stuck - and she sliced her fingers in the struggle.

Two policemen quickly appeared at her apartment, and she tried to explain that it was a false alarm. They were not easily convinced. "Are you sure? What happened to your hands?" they asked suspiciously. As she led them to the scene of the crime to prove her innocence, she was surprised to hear another siren approaching. The New Jersey Fire Department had decided not to take any chances. Embarrassed by the uproar she had caused, she heard the neighbors through the window: "The Israeli girl is trying to make falafel," they laughed.

A few days later, when one of her teachers asked the students to invent a superhero, Maya-Gur knew exactly who her hero would be. At that moment Falafel Man was born. He is the protagonist of her new comic book, which will premiere today at the Ka-Boom! 3 annual comics convention in Tel Aviv (see box).

Like his American colleagues, Falafel Man gained his superpowers in the wake of a strange laboratory accident involving falafel. To his credit, he is far from perfect, and has a sense of humor. He has a glorious beer belly, an uncontrollable affection for falafel and a picture of Schwarzenegger hanging on a wall in his house. Is this loser capable of saving the citizens of Israel from all the criminals and bad guys?

Maya-Gur, 28, is one of the only Israelis who has studied at the prestigious school for cartoon art in Dover, New Jersey, named for its founder, Joe Kubert. Kubert, a successful comic artist, earned his fame while working for the American comics publisher DC Comics (he worked on "Sgt. Rock" and "Hawkman," among others). Kubert founded the school 30 years ago, and it is still considered a prestigious institution. It is the only one in the world that offers a three-year program devoted entirely to cartoon and graphic art. The school is famous, among other things, for its difficult entrance requirements, the demands made of the students and the high dropout rate.

Maya-Gur says that as a child, she filled her notebooks with drawings and was on the school decorating committee. During Hebrew Book Week, she would pass comic artist Uri Fink's booth and think, "What a lucky guy, he gets up in the morning and this is what he does." When she was serving in the Israel Defense Forces, she registered for a drawing course at the Avni Institute in Tel Aviv. "But it wasn't what I wanted," she says. "I wasn't interested in still life; drawing a few apples in a copper vessel didn't do it for me."

One day, after watching a television program about Canadian comic book artist Todd McFarlane, she asked her mother for her credit card to order some of his books online. When the books arrived, she was thrilled. "His drawings are so detailed, so precise; he emphasizes the smallest details. When I saw that, my reaction was, 'Wow, what a lot of information in your face, wow'; it felt like an epileptic seizure."

Maya-Gur's talk about comics is not characterized by understatement. It is evident she is excited by this medium, that she breathes it, that she's in love with it. Even after enrolling in an industrial design program at a Tel Aviv college, she remained obsessed with comics. She wanted to find out where she could study comic art seriously, and received repeated recommendations for the Joe Kubert school. These were almost always accompanied by warnings. An American man she consulted, for example, spoke highly of the school, but added: "It's impossible to get accepted there, but good luck."

"This statement was such a challenge that it made me only forge ahead," says Maya-Gur with a smile. Her determination and ambition helped her to survive later on, in spite of the difficulties.

A male profession

"Let me tell you, it's very hard here. The students don't have an easy time. And aside from that, there aren't many women here, and you'll be in the minority," Maya-Gur was told when she interviewed at Joe Kubert. But she stood firm. Her portfolio impressed the interviewer, her parents agreed to pay ($15,000 a year, not including room and board), and she was one of 30 students accepted that year.

She admits her studies were difficult. The students are required to submit a large number of projects, and draw for an average of 14-16 hours a day. They study drawing, layout, lettering, inking, coloring and narrative strategies. The school even offers detailed anatomy lessons to familiarize the students with the structure of the body and its muscles.

Eight survivors

Of the 30 students in Maya-Gur's class, only eight survived. And just as people had predicted, Maya-Gur was one of only two women. The other female student soon left. Maya-Gur has difficulty explaining why the comics world lacks women.

"It's strange, because after all, it's a profession that requires so much delicacy and attention to detail. Perhaps one of the reasons for the small number of women is the amount of time comic artists have to devote to their work. But I hope that will change. Nowadays one can have a home studio, and there's no reason why things should remain this way," she says.

She says that during the first year, when her projects began receiving positive critiques, she felt her classmates were snubbing her.

"It was strange. I didn't understand; what do they think, that I came here but I really want to work as a manicurist-pedicurist?" she says.

After she completed her studies, while she was deciding what to do next, the second Lebanon war broke out. She jumped onto a plane and joined her family in Holon. Since then, she has worked on a few projects for foreign firms, shown some of her work at the last comics festival, revived Falafel Man (she plans to issue a new Falafel Man comic book every three months), and is now starting to plan a graphic novel about an outstanding IDF officer who lapses into crime and drug dealing after reserve duty in the Lebanon war.

At today's comics convention in Tel Aviv, Maya-Gur is scheduled to lead a comics-making workshop. "If I get even one child excited about comics, if I get someone to leave the lecture and pester his parents to buy him comics, I've done my job," she says, mentioning something she saw at a Manhattan shopping center that has stuck in her memory: a businessman in an elegant suit who swept up a full shelf of comic books and bought them all. "I'm sure he read comics as a child. I want to help to create a new generation of comic artists in Israel. If a child buys a comic book once, he'll be addicted for the rest of his life."