Graphic novels explore contemporary visions of Israel

It’s not the creator’s politics that matter, only his or her willingness to explore the many nuances of an extremely complicated country.

That’s a lesson from two graphic novels focused on Israel: Guy Delisle’s “Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City” and Harvey Pekar’s “Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me.”

Graphic novels about Israel have become a little genre in recent years, thanks to the work of such Israeli creators as Rutu Modan and Galit and Gilad Seliktar, and outsiders such as Joe Sacco.

Delisle’s, assembled as a series of vignettes recounting the French Canadian’s year in Israel, explores contemporary life in a city that is beautiful, tense and absurd.

The city’s history and its contentious politics appear only as they relate to what Delisle sees and experiences. He spends most of his free time wandering the streets in search of good spots to sketch, but mobility is one of the most restricted aspects of life in Jerusalem, especially since the separation wall was erected.

Delisle, who is not Jewish, grows accustomed to two bus systems (one for Arabs, one for Israelis), taxis that won’t go into certain neighborhoods and historical sites that are closed to different religions at different times. Even the Israel Defense Forces security checkpoints become a part of his routine, though these never cease to amaze, as both a media spectacle and a daily humiliation.

The art is simple and iconic, presented in sepia tones and the rare splash of color — a vibrant red highlighting a goat’s slaughter. It manages to convey the sounds and sights of Jerusalem, and Delisle’s innocent tone makes it easier to digest the graver issues.

Most interesting are his observations about how the big moral questions weave themselves into the mundane, and how both sides of the conflict casually contradict their deeply entrenched positions.

For example, Delisle is desperate for his favorite breakfast cereal, shredded wheat, but the only supermarket that sells it belongs to settlers whom he’s not sure he should patronize. However, the wish for cereal trumps politics, and on his way out, he notices a line of Muslim women loaded with grocery bags exiting the store.

Delisle is also surprised to learn that some Arabs move into Jewish settlements for economic reasons (“resettling the settlements”) and that the settlers who want plastic windows installed in their cars (to better withstand thrown rocks) prefer the services of the Arab mechanics at Wadi Al-Joz.

Like a great journalist, Deslisle simply presents such findings, allowing the reader to make the most meaningful conclusions on his or her own.

Less worthwhile is Pekar’s “Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me,” his first posthumous graphic novel, which unfortunately amounts to little more than an illustrated Wikipedia entry.

Toward the end of the book, sitting with book illustrator JT Waldman at a library in his native Cleveland, Pekar explains his reluctance to recount the numerous failed peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians.

“There are plenty of other places [where] people can get a blow-by-blow of historical events … I doubt anyone wants me to rehash every detail …”

But rehashing is almost exclusively what Pekar and Waldman do throughout the book’s 176 pages, a crash course in Zionism starting with the first Jew, Abraham, and ending roughly with the present.

The history presented is well researched, eminently readable and entirely unnecessary. It’s not just that most of the content could be replaced with any one of countless history books or even an afternoon on the Internet, but there are far more interesting graphic novels about the same subject, so Pekar can’t even be commended for introducing an important issue to a new audience.

When engaged in the subject that its title suggests — the difference between the Israel Pekar’s parents knew and loved and the Israel Pekar had to contend with after their deaths — the book offers the unique, simultaneously funny and sad perspective that was the backbone of Pekar’s distinguished career.

His take on the effect of late 20th-century developments in Israel on Jews living in Cleveland offers a fresher and more interesting perspective on the subject (especially to Israeli readers).

In one funny episode, shortly after being kicked out of the U.S. Navy, Pekar meets with an Israeli official in Chicago in hopes of pursuing a more promising future in the fledgling Jewish state. The official dismisses him, explaining that Pekar doesn’t have a single practical skill Israel would be interested in.

A book composed entirely of such anecdotes could have been entertaining and enlightening, but these insights are few and far between.

“Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City”
by Guy Delisle (320 pages, Drawn and Quarterly, $24.95)

“Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me” by Harvey Pekar and illustrator JT Waldman (176 pages, Hill and Wang, $24.95)