The Amazing World of Israeli Comics

The Comics, Animation and Caricature Festival opens at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque on Saturday. As the country's largest comics market, the festival attracts thousands of fans and artists every year.

Shirley is leaning on the kitchen counter, dressed in underwear and a tank top, holding a teaspoon in one hand and a can of Chocolite cocoa powder in the other. "This whole business of being the sexiest and groaning and grunting the most, doesn't do it for me," she tells her boyfriend, who is seated opposite her. "What, nowadays, we tell jokes and laugh all day - why all of a sudden do we have to behave like two porno stars in bed?"

Shirley, the heroine of Noa Abarbanel and Amitai Sandy's new comics, refuses to conform to behavioral norms and is unwilling to change her spots the minute she gets into bed with a guy. But she has to pay a heavy price: the men in her life refuse to accept the fact that this intelligent and funny chick insists on being herself between the sheets, and therefore, she can't keep a long-term relationship.

Sandy and Abarbanel's book "Shirley" was published only yesterday, and on Saturday, they plan to offer it for sale in a tent in the Tel Aviv Cinematheque plaza at the opening of the fifth Comics, Animation and Caricature Festival. Dozens of local comic strip artists will be selling their wares, after having worked around the clock over the last few weeks to finish up long-time projects. The festival has turned into Israel's largest comics market and each year it attracts thousands of fans and artists.

"What is happening this year in terms of the number of titles coming out prior to the festival is crazy," says Sandy, who is one of the organizers of the comics market. "I've been in the local scene for many years now, but this year, all kinds of people are calling me, even ones who I've never heard of, and telling me that they're now publishing a comic book. There is huge growth that is way out of proportion to the size of the population. Although not all of them are good, there are a lot of styles, a tremendous variety - 17-year-old kids, university students doing final projects, depressing material, funny material, everything."

Sandy, 29, is a veteran figure in the local comics scene. When he was 17, he was already a partner in the publication of "Stiyot Shel Pinguinim" (Penguins' Perversions) - a comics and alternative culture magazine based on unrestrained and wild content ("a lot of nonsense, sex, a little necrophilia, social criticism, statements about the religious and foreign workers").

He studied visual communications at the Bezalel Academy of Design, did political comics, and together with four other comics artists set up Dimona - a group that publishes books with comics by its members and distributes them in Israel and abroad. The contents of these books are more personal, explains Sandy - less politics, less crazy humor.

In the past, Abarbanel, 23, wrote the fashion column in Akhbar Ha'ir - the weekend entertainment supplement of the Jerusalem local paper Kol Ha'ir - designed clothes, wrote political commentary for the Indimedia Web site and presented and produced independent video-clip programs on television. Now she is completed her undergraduate degree in communications. Together with Sandy, she wrote one of the stories published in Dimona 2, and when they worked together on a story for Dimona 3, the two realized that their "Shirley" had evolved and grown to the point that it was worth releasing in a separate book.

Early this year, they published "Shirley" in English and sold it alongside Dimona 3 at the Angouleme Comics Festival in France. Now, as the Tel Aviv festival approaches, they have released a Hebrew version of "Shirley."

It's an entertaining story with several dusky sex scenes, and for anyone who hasn't been convinced yet, it will make clear, once and for all, that comics long ago stopped being just for kids. "We're not aimed at people who read `Spiderman' but at people like us, who are interested in real-life subjects, who like to read about relationships, about our life here," says Abarbanel.

They say that "Shirley" was born out of long get-togethers of talking and joking. "Noa comes up with a torrent of ideas," says Sandy, "and I sit and draw them on the spot. It all happens in the course of talking, and sometimes also pantomime. Because they're comics, you have to think about the frame layout, to decide where each character is, so we're basically directing as we write. Noa plays the characters, does the mimicking, and I immediately draw the movement she performs. That's how the `storyboard' comes out alive.

"I have pages of drawings of Noa in all sorts of positions. Noa also decided in the course of conversation what Shirley would wear in each frame - this skirt with that and this necklace - and I drew it," Sandy says.

So the external similarity between Noa and Shirley is not coincidental.

"We really didn't intend that," they laugh. "We actually looked on the Internet for pictures of women and we focused on one that we liked."

Building the story takes several months. "As we worked, we argued about when something is funny, and when it's too much; when humor is provocative for the sake of provocation and when it comes to make a certain point, with a chuckle or some satire, and this subject became what Shirley talks about," they say.

"Shirley is actually infantile, and that's not mature, it's considered a fear of intimacy," says Abarbanel. "But why really? It is after all the funniest and the most fun. When you grow up, your home becomes cleaner and your things are suddenly more orderly, but all of that orderliness and cleanliness take a lot of time. Suddenly, things start to bother you even in other people and you are bothered that they don't grow up and find work. Sex is a metaphor for the place where Shirley feels free. Suddenly, this infantile nature bursts out of her and people react with hysterics because sex is sacred."

"People can have fun and laugh all day," says Sandy, "but the minute they get into bed they say, hold on, now we start to desire and be desired, to let out groans full of passion, and two minutes after it's over, you can go back to making jokes. For many people, it really is a bourgeoisie thing and for others it's simply what the culture dictates to them."

Searching the depths of the soul

Another interesting work released a few days ago is the autobiographical comic book "From 26 to 27," by Noga Roich. Roich, 27, has lived in Paris for the last four years. She decided to document a year of her life in a comic and says she spent many days holed up in her apartment and drew. "This booklet comes to address many needs of mine, not just artistic ones," she says. "I was in crisis, I felt I need to understand many things about myself, and alongside psychological treatment, drawing helped me a lot with that."

Roich published a page of comics in Stiyot Shel Pinguinim and did short comic strips here and there, but this book is her first serious full-length work, she says. "I learned a lot, primarily when working on the first part of the book," she says. "I did it all spontaneously, but on each page I had a new understanding. Slowly but surely I learned how to build a frame, how to build a story."

The heart of the book is the star-crossed and humor-filled love story between Roich and a French cartoonist. The pages of the book are filled: there are black-and-white sketches with an abundance of detail and information, and next to them two balloons filled with text, the dialogue and thoughts of the characters. The numerous details and abundant text create a feeling of emotional overload, and more than once she manages to engross readers in an in-depth peek at the author's soul-searching.

"During that year, the comics and my life were inseparable. They affected each other and I didn't always know what came first," she smiles. "When I draw, it's emotionally intense. Sometimes it stirs in me feelings of loneliness, depression and fear, but at the same time, it enables me to cope constructively with those feelings, and that's wonderful."