Getting Into the Picture

Is it finally happening? Is it possible that Israel is about to join the family of nations that appreciate and value comics? Will Israeli fans of the graphic novel soon be able to enjoy a steady supply of local works in Hebrew? Or is this, perhaps, just wishful thinking, with Hebrew comics destined to remain forever on the fringe, far from the mainstream, appearing in only especially small quantities?

It seems that slowly, a change is indeed taking place. Usually the number of comics titles (books, not magazines) and graphic novels published in Israel annually can be counted on one hand. This year, though, the situation is radically different: In the last four months alone no fewer than 12 such books were published here, either originals or in translations. What's more, half those titles were brought out by regular publishing houses, as opposed to self-published, or brought out by specialty comics publishers. And, most impressive, four graphic novels by local artists appeared in recent weeks, or will arrive this week, on bookstore shelves, with a few other intriguing works in the process of being completed.

Illustrator David Polonsky and director Ari Folman, who earned much praise earlier this year for their animated film "Waltz with Bashir," recently signed a contract with Kinneret Zmora Bitan publishers for a Hebrew version of a graphic novel based on the movie, which related the director's experiences as he seeks to gain access to his own memories from the First Lebanon War. The book was originally commissioned more than a year ago in an English edition, by the New York publisher Metropolitan Books.

"The work on the book took a lot longer than we could have imagined," says Polonsky. "At first, we thought it wouldn't be complicated, because the drawings already existed, but after we started, we discovered there are a lot of differences between comics and film. In animation, for example, the goal is to create movement using a series of static drawings, but with comics, it's exactly the opposite: You try to convey events using the static pictures."

There are other things happening too: At the animation and comics festival opening tomorrow at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, another Hebrew graphic novel that has been anticipated with positive advance notices, has its premiere: Rutu Modan's "Exit Wounds" (Am Oved publishers). Modan's book arrives in Israel after having already been published in 10 languages, earning itself a place of honor in a number of world newspapers' lists of the best books of 2007. The book also earned Modan such prizes as a Will Eisner Comic Industry Award, the comics equivalent of the Oscar, for the best new graphic novel of the year.

Until not long ago, local comics artists could only dream of a situation where several publishers would pursue them for the privilege to publish their graphic novels. Now both Modan and Polonsky find themselves courted by several respected publishers. And that's just the beginning. Mira Friedman, Modan's colleague in the Actus Tragicus Comics group, recently signed a contract with a French publisher for a graphic novel; next month, Uri Fink ("Zbang") will publish in France for the first time - an adult comic book featuring short stories; and Dorit Maya-Gur ("Falafel Man"), a graduate of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, in New Jersey, is working on her own graphic novel. All of the above are coming out in languages other than Hebrew, but if they are successful abroad, chances are good that someone will consider publishing them domestically as well.

This week, in addition to Modan, two young comics illustrators will appear at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque plaza at stands loaded with books that still smell of the printing press. Rachel Rotner, a member of the Armadillo comics group and a graduate of the Midrasha School of Art at Beit Berl, will unveil her first graphic novel, "The Other Side of the World," published by Babel (in Hebrew), and Gilad Seliktar, an alumnus of the group that published the comics magazine Blender, will present "The Demons of Mongol," published by the comics imprint of the Third Ear, which was launched just two months ago.

Other comic books recently released or forthcoming include Ester Shakine's autobiographical graphic novel "Tika's Journey" (Schocken Publishing), based on the author's survival of World War II in her native Hungary and her arrival to Palestine on the refugee ship Exodus; "Based on a Real City" which features the stories of several graduates of the Bezalel Academy of Art; and "Israpol," a collaboration of comics artists from Israel and Poland, which will appear next month.

As with other genres, comics in Israel are affected, with a certain delay, by events abroad, principally in the U.S. Graphic novels in North America had already taken off several years ago. Data recently reported in Publishers Weekly, for example, showed that sales of graphic novels in the U.S. and Canada totaled $375 million in 2007, a 12-percent increase over the preceding year, and a fivefold increase in sales, as compared to 2001. Mainstream authors like Stephen King are now publishing graphic novels, with notable success, and the number of traditional publishers issuing graphic novels is on the rise.

Like their colleagues overseas, several local publishers have also recently started to jump on the bandwagon. Am Oved, for example, in addition to publishing Modan's "Exit Wounds," will bring out a Hebrew translation of a comics based on Paul Auster's "City of Glass."

"I wasn't raised on the comics culture and it never appealed to me that much, but over the years I started to realize that it can be a serious form of art, using sophisticated and complex expression, despite its seemingly pop nature," says Moshe Ron, one of the editors of Am Oved's Sifria La'am imprint.

Amit Rotbard of Babel publishers also says the decision to publish Rotner's book was not the result of a specific desire to release a comics title, but rather was based on the impression made by a certain work. "We received a manuscript, we considered it just as we would consider any text manuscript, and it interested us," she says. "Abroad there is a tradition of comics books. In Israel, this culture is only now starting to make its way from the fringes to the mainstream."

Additional proof of the growing popularity of comics can be found in the data on visitors to the Animation, Comics and Caricature festival, which will mark its eighth year this week. Six years ago, the festival lasted three days and drew 2,400 people; in 2004, the number of visitors increased to 7,000 (over four days) and last year it was attended by 18,000. Another push came from the opening last year of the Comics and Caricature Museum in Holon, which regularly features exhibitions and events and enables the local audience to expand its knowledge of the genre and see works by both local and foreign artists.

Another important contribution to finishing off the last vestiges of the old-fashioned view that animation and comics necessarily deal with shallow content and are therefore suitable mainly for children came from the animated film "Waltz with Bashir." If an animated film can win over respected critics in Israel and the world, and use comics-like drawings to discuss a painful and serious subject such as war and the massacre of civilians, it is hard to imagine that anyone still daring to claim that comics and animated films are just for kids.

Recognition of the artistic value of illustrations is also hidden in the recent decisions of several local publishers to release illustrated novels, such as a Hebrew translation of Brian Selznick's "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" (Keter Publishing) and "Professor Fabricant's Historical Cabaret" by Yirmi Pinkus (Am Oved). Pinkus, one of the veteran comics artists on the local scene, who is among the founders of Actus, claims that one reason for the current flourishing of comics in Israel is the professional turn the artists themselves have undergone.

He notes the teaching of comics in universities, and the sense of continuity and persistence that has emerged alongside it, thanks to the annual festival and the comics museum. "The festival enables artists to have a spread," says Pinkus, "and at the same time to establish themselves among viewers. [And the museum] is here all year round, so that it's not just a passing fling. If people have where to consume comics, they consume comics, and if they have what to read, they read."

Of course it is also impossible to ignore the technological developments and the changes in the local culture brought about by television and the Internet. "The Internet era is friendlier to the visual story," summarizes Pinkus. "The importance of the text decreases and that of the visual image increases. It is the visualization of the culture. Today everything comes with a picture, an image - and comics seep into this reality very naturally."