What fanzine made the Israel Police arrest a group of high school students on suspicion of having cooperated with Syria? A new exhibition examines the way Israel’s reality – from the national trauma of the 1973 Yom Kippur War to the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin – is reflected in comics.
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In the summer of 1973, just before the national trauma of the Yom Kippur War, several gifted, creative, funny Tel Aviv kids with a sense of humor decided to publish a satirical comics fanzine. The cover illustration looked like a good-natured parody of the Popeye comics, then a childhood staple, but the contents were anything but mild.
The “Freaky” series was an all-out attack on Israeli militarism - it sneered at the rising tide of patriotism, mocked the sexual prudery in the schools, and had no problem directing its zingers at the prime minister, defense minister and Theodor Herzl.
“Godspeed and good luck. See you in a wheelchair, if you come back at all,” they wrote to about-to-be-inducted youths, hoping to rouse them from automatic obedience to the conventions and norms of the time.
But the creators of “Freaky” never imagined just how violent the authorities’ reaction would be to their youthful mischief. Immediately after the war, in December 1973, when the trampled honor of the defense forces needed immediate rehabilitation, several stalwart members of the Israel Police decided to arrest the creators of “Freaky.” The cops informed them that the reason for the arrest was agitation for revolution, and put them in interrogation rooms at the Abu Kabir lockup in south Tel Aviv.
Once there, they found out to their great dismay that they were accused of nothing less than working with Syrian intelligence services in an attempt to further depress national morale.
“It was so out of left field,” remembers comics and new media artist Ido Amin, who was then all of 17 and drew all the illustrations of the booklet. “When we wrote that stuff, we were just having fun, but after the war we realized our terrible jokes had actually come true.”
From the 'new Israeli' to the 'freak'
“Freaky” will be one of the exhibits at the “Teenage Acne” exhibition opening Thursday at the Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon. The purpose of the exhibition is to give an overview of Israeli comics 1975-1995, thereby completing the picture first presented by previous Cartoon Museum exhibitions of recent years that looked at Israeli comics and cartoons before 1975 and from 1995 to the present.
Maya Devash, curator of the new exhibition, collected some 150 comics created in this period showing the transition from consensus-minded cartoons glorifying the perfect “new Israeli,” to a critical genre scoffing at the country’s leaders and reflecting a society growing ever more materialistic and individualistic.
The exhibition also reflects the flourishing newspaper cartoons of that period and their frank, rebellious tone that mirrored the public atmosphere of the time. Devash chose to include the time-worn originals, partly out of a desire to heighten the sense of the period in which they were created, as well as to provide a glimpse into working methods that are all but gone from the world.
Devash also chose to place the cartoons in a broader context and show them to be one expression of many that reflected the social, cultural and political changes taking place in Israel at the time. So, for example, the exhibition will also display one of Uzi Weill’s “Back Page” columns published in the Tel Aviv local weekly “Ha’ir,” a section of a short story by Etgar Keret about the invention of an anti-anxiety pill, a segment from a novel by Orly Castel-Bloom about a melting self, and a portion of an interview with novelist A.B. Yehoshua about the great national anxiety that attended the political upheaval of 1977, the year that the 29-year-long hegemony of the Labor Party came to an end.
The water department clerk’s depression
In the catalog accompanying the exhibition, Baruch Blich, academic adviser to the exhibition, writes that along with its entertainment value, Israeli comics are “a sensitive seismograph providing an authentic reflection of the local life and atmosphere.” Until the mid-1970s, he notes, most of the comics series that were made in Israel and aimed at children fell into lockstep with the official Zionist vision. By contrast, starting in the mid-1970s, with the rise to prominence of comics creators such as Dudu Geva, Ido Amin, Ze’ev Engelmayer, Noam Nadav, Tzahi Farber, Uri Fink and others, the tone started to change and made way for sarcasm and critique.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, creative groups such as Actus Tragicus, A4, Nothing in a Pita, the Dimona Gang, as well as individual artists, emerged to offer “self-aware, inward-looking comics, undertaking a long, hard investigation of a polarized, fractured and conflicted society,” according to Blich.
The era spanning the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s was a particularly significant one for Israeli society with its upheavals and changes. “It was a time when Israeli society experienced the breakdown of the great ideologies, from a nationally mobilized past to an individual, private present, and the splitting of a single, central narrative into many smaller narratives,” says Devash. “In this period, Israeli society underwent some real shocks.
In addition to the attempt to recover from the Yom Kippur War, there was the rise of the Black Panthers [which debuted two years before the war], the peace agreement with Egypt, the first Intifada, the Oslo Accords and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. As a result, there was the beginning of an acceptance of the other, the realization that society wasn’t homogenous but comprised of individuals who differed from one another and cherished different narratives.”
Many artists were responsible for the change in tone in Israeli comics between 1975 and 1995, and their work is displayed in the exhibition, but Devash and Blich decided to place particular emphasis on two who were especially prolific and prominent: Geva and Fink. “At the one extreme you had Dudu Geva, who addressed the experience of the Israeli living in the country and carrying the burden of the Holocaust, the rites and rituals of Israel Independence Day, and his series about Yosef, the municipality’s water department clerk, expressing the defeated Israeli anti-hero who makes peace with his fate as a cog in the oppressive machine of the municipal bureaucracy,” writes Blich.
By contrast, Fink presented a different kind of critique of the Israeli reality, in his successful “Zbeng!” series aimed at teens, which became an instant hit when it started running in the weekly “Ma’ariv for Youth” in 1987 and in other series. “When I started ‘Zbeng!,’ I was only 24. I was very much influenced by ‘MAD Magazine’ and I really just wrote whatever I wanted to read as a teen,” says Fink. “’Zbeng!’ had no intention to suck up, but to draw a caricature of Israeli youth and critique it. My agenda was to help kids open their eyes, show them when somebody was trying to put one over them, when others made them consume garbage, and what their cultural heroes really looked like.”