The Divine Renaissance of Comic Books in Hebrew

It took a few decades, but local publishers have now realized that there are profits in comics.

Asaf and tomer Hanuka

Walk into any Israeli bookstore and you’re likely to see big stacks of children’s comic books prominently displayed. Israeli kids can finally breathe easy: With just a slight delay of a few decades, local publishers have begun to realize that kids in this country love comics just as much as kids in other countries, and that this love often inspires a devout loyalty that can translate into very nice profits.

“When I proposed ‘Bone’ and ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid,’ the publisher told me, ‘Comics are nice, but that doesn’t sell here,’” says Michal Paz-Klapp, who edits children’s and young adult literature, as well as comics, at the Kinneret publishing house. “About ‘Bone’ they said, ‘It’s so thick, and in full color, it would cost a fortune, why should we do it?’ And so, when ‘Bone’ hit the top of the Hebrew best-seller list for the first time, I cried real tears because I never believed it would ever happen.”

The first book in the Israeli version of the “Bone” series, a comic fantasy by Jeff Smith that has won 10 Eisner Awards and 10 Harvey Awards, came out in August 2008. It was followed a month later by the first book in Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. (These are not really comic books, but they do have a very close and balanced combination of text and illustrations.) The two books were snapped up off the shelves, signaling the start of a flood of comics for children.

In 2010, Kinneret published the first book in Dav Pilkey’s “Captain Underpants” series, and a year later Keter launched its “Nate the Great” series (by Lincoln Peirce) and Yediot Books came out with the “Phineas and Ferb” series, based on the successful Disney show. The trend continued in 2012, when Keter brought out a Hebrew version of Kazu Kibuishi’s “Amulet.” And not long ago, Yediot Books came out with “Super Strika,” based on the popular television show. All of these series have been highly successful and are still selling well.

The huge popularity of children’s comics — among both boys and girls — has led not just to the publication of more material in the genre (spin-offs and a long list of translated comic book series,) but to a welcome burst of original Israeli comic books. Prominent examples are Rutu Modan’s “Maya Makes a Mess” and Noam Nadav’s series about Max the time-traveling porcupine, whose adventures coincide with various historical events. Modan and Yirmi Pinkus started the Noah’s Library publishing house to publish graphic novels for children.

But what about Israeli graphic novels for adults? In this area, the revolution isn’t quite here yet. Every so often, some original graphic novels show up in the bookstores — like Asaf Hanuka and Etgar Keret’s “Pizzeria Kamikaze,” Ilana Zeffren’s “A Pink Story” or Ari Folman and David Polonsky’s “Waltz with Bashir.” And of course, there’s also Rutu Modan’s “Exit Wounds” and “The Property.” Occasionally, translations of graphic novels from abroad also turn up (“Persepolis,” “Sandman,” “The Rabbi’s Cat” and more.)

The bleak state of the Hebrew graphic novel for adults is exemplified by “The Divine,” a new book by Tomer Hanuka, Asaf Hanuka and Boaz Lavie. The Hanuka brothers are respected cartoonists both here and abroad, and their new book, which was published early this year in French and is soon due out in English and Italian, was highly anticipated. It has also earned rave reviews.

But for the time being, no Hebrew version is in the works. “Original comics for adults that come out in Hebrew mostly have to do with subjects related to politics and history, or the Israeli experience,” says Tomer Hanuka. “Publishers are less willing to gamble on genre books like ours, on adventure and science fiction, because the market is so small. But we’d be very happy if it would happen.”