Barry Deutsch, a Jewish cartoonist from Portland, Oregon, got tired of comics about Jews focusing on tragic periods of Jewish history. Even if some of them were praised, he wanted to do something completely different.
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He wanted comics that would let him return to his Jewish roots, but the books would still be fun to read. They would incorporate elements of fantasy and imagination, just like the comics he cherished.
The surprising result is "Hereville," a series of graphic novels by Deutsch that follow the adventures of Mirka, an 11-year-old girl who lives in a town where all the people are ultra-Orthodox Jews. She's independent, adventurous and sharp, while loving challenges and poking fun at danger.
Her biggest dream is to become a brave dragon fighter, but she’s shackled to her dull routine; in addition to school, she has to help her parents take care of her eight brothers and sisters. She dreams of dragons but she’s busy preparing for the Sabbath. She fantasizes about monsters but has to sit home and knit.
The change happens in the first book when Mirka encounters in the woods a terrifying talking pig. She wins a terrible fight with him, entitling her to meet his owner, a witch who gives her a special sword to help her fulfill her dream and become a dragon slayer.
Mirka now goes out on adventures that involve, for example, a troll who lives in a forest clearing, a fish that desperately tries to be rescued from a spell, and a meteorite that threatens to destroy the Jewish village. At the last moment, the big rock turns into a perfect replica of Mirka and turns her world upside down.
"Hereville" started out as a Web comic; Deutsch eventually self-published it as his first comic book and promoted it at the Portland Comic Con. As luck would have it, he was put next to Scott McCloud, a revered cartoonist and leading theoretician in the field. McCloud’s agent was impressed by Deutsch’s work; within a few months Deutsch had a contract with Abrams Books.
The first book in the series, “Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword,” was published in October 2012. The second, “Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite,” followed a month later. “Hereville: How Mirka Caught a Fish” came out around three months ago.
Magic and adventure
Deutsch conceived the idea of "Hereville" seven years ago when he was searching for a new project. A cartoonist friend told him that a Web-comics site specializing in stories for girls was looking for new talent.
Deutsch recounts in a video that a few years earlier he had read the story “Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family” by Lis Harris, which made a powerful impression on him. The book made him think that the ultra-Orthodox world could be an interesting setting for his next comic.
“I didn’t want to make a comic about Judaism. I wanted to do a comic about magic and adventure but where the setting is fully Jewish and the character is fully Jewish,” he told Haaretz.
“And entire Jewish towns are towns where virtually everyone is Orthodox. I also wanted the rhythms of her life to reflect Judaism. It’s important to her if it’s Shabbat or the day before Shabbat.”
Deutsch himself is a Reform Jew, and when he began researching for the book he was delighted to discover that there were many Jewish legends and that adventures and magic weren’t alien to Judaism.
And he had to do extensive research to get to know the ultra-Orthodox way of life; he knew he wanted to place his heroine in these surroundings. Indeed, the characters in "Hereville" sometimes speak Yiddish and take part in religious ceremonies that accompany their daily lives.
For example, in a pause between adventures, readers follow Mirka preparing for Shabbat, encounter the candle-lighting ceremony with her, observe her rest on Shabbat and get a peek of the Saturday-night Havdalah ceremony.
Deutsch borrowed things from his own life, like his mother lighting candles. He took pictures of her and used them as a basis for his drawings. He also consulted with an rabbi who offered to read the books beforehand and correct any mistakes on the ultra-Orthodox way of life.
Most ultra-Orthodox Jews don’t read comics, Deutsch admits, but he says many of them have patted him on the back. He says the more he showed ultra-Orthodox Jews his work, the more confident he became because of the positive response, mainly from ultra-Orthodox girls.
Deutsch has had the chance to meet religious girls at bookstores and schools, some of them Modern Orthodox. Of course, he has heard from parents, too.
“I get very positive reactions. It’s sort of easy on me because there isn’t enough material available, especially fun material as opposed to education material, with characters who reflect these kids’ lives,” he says.
“So it’s not like I have a lot of competition out there. For a lot of them it’s also the first time they’ve read a fun comic book with a hero that leads a life similar to their lives.”
Deutsch’s focus on girl protagonists in "Hereville" is intentional.
“I read several books by anthropologists on the lives of Orthodox girls, and what I found striking was how girl-centric their lives were. Other than their brothers and cousins they aren’t socializing with boys enough. So I wanted to get that feeling of a very girl-centric universe,” he says.
“That’s why I wanted almost all of her siblings to be girls, and her relationship with her stepmother to be more prominent than her relationship with her father. That extended also to the villains, like the magical twin sister in the second book.”
According to Deutsch, another source of inspiration was the Bechdel test, a tool for vetting female representation in artistic works. Alison Bechdel developed it in her comic series “Dykes to Watch Out For.”
It checks whether a work of fiction contains two female characters talking about something other than a man. Deutsch says he wanted to pass the test and put women at the center of the action.
Deutsch is currently working on another project but he’s keen to release more books in the "Hereville" series. In the next book, Mirka will grow up and become a young woman.
He says it would be a dream come true if his books were translated into Hebrew. Alas, no such plan is in the works, so Israeli ultra-Orthodox girls will have to find their own adventures for now.