Vanessa Davis went to fat camp. Lauren Weinstein still played with Barbies in junior high. Ariel Schrag lost her virginity in a hotel room in Capitola.
For some people, these would be secrets too shameful to admit in public. But for the Jewish women whose work is now on display at San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum, there’s no such thing.
“Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women” opened at the museum on Oct. 1. The exhibit features the work of 18 female cartoonists who create candid visual memoirs of even the goriest details of their lives.
On Oct. 21, the museum will have a discussion featuring several of the exhibit’s artists, its curators and comic experts.
The genesis of the exhibit was a 2008 article by N.Y. writer and public relations veteran Michael Kaminer that appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward. In it, Kaminer, a comics collector, examined the popularity of the confessional comics genre among Jewish women artists.
A few months later, Sarah Lightman, a British artist and University of Glasgow Ph.D. student, read the piece. Lightman had been creating diary comics for years, but often felt isolated in her work. “I never found a community of artists who did anything similar to me,” she said in an interview from her home in north London.
Lightman got in touch with Kaminer — and it was the perfect match.
Kaminer had been thinking about creating an exhibit to display the work of the women who had appeared in his article. And Lightman had curated art exhibits before, and had worked at the Ben Uri Gallery at the London Jewish Museum of Art.
The Cartoon Art Museum was Kaminer’s “dream venue” for the show, he says. Luckily, the museum loved the idea.
Artists on display in the show include comics pioneers Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Trina Robbins, Diane Noomin and Sharon Rudahl, as well as Schrag, Weinstein, Davis, Miss Lasko-Gross, Sarah Glidden and Laurie Sandell.
The exhibit also attracted several international stars. Canadian cartoonists Bernice Eisenstein, Sarah Lazarovic and Miriam Libicki; Lightman and Corinne Pearlman of the U.K.; and Israelis Ilana Zeffren and Racheli Rottner all have work in the show.
“If we had a bigger show and bigger budget we’d have [even] more,” Lightman said. “We could just keep finding more — there’s loads out there.”
“Graphic Details” will be on display at the Cartoon Art Museum through the end of January. After that, it has already been booked at Toronto’s Koffler Centre for the Arts, the Yeshiva University Museum in New York and the Slusser Gallery at University of Michigan’s School of Art and Design in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The show features sketchbooks and comics from the artists, including several works never before displayed to the public. The curators also commissioned Pearlman to do a special comic about the topic for the show.
In addition to the work in the gallery, Lightman and Kaminer put together a catalog with eight essays about Jewish confessional comics. The Forward, the show’s media sponsor, is publishing 8,000 copies to be distributed to museumgoers.
The catalog includes a special treat: a comic collaboration between artist Tara Seibel and Harvey Pekar that was one of Pekar’s last works before his death in July of this year.
Unlike Christianity, which has inspired paintings, sculptures and other media for millennia, Judaism doesn’t have much of a tradition of purely visual art — likely because of the second commandment, not to create graven images or idols, Lightman noted.
“Comics can be seen as a development from illuminated manuscripts — there’s enough text there that it’s not such an extension away from that traditional view of visualizing,” she said. “Jews are really comfortable with words. They can justify images if they have enough words.”
As for the confessional element, Lightman likens it to Jewish comedy.
“Woody Allen, Joan Rivers — you’ve got this genre of Jews being quite confessional in public and people finding it very entertaining,” Lightman said. “It’s really an extension of that, in many ways.”
Though the show focuses on Jewish women, its curators see its message as being applicable to everyone.
“The work, like most great art, has universal appeal,” Kaminer said. “The themes speak to everybody.”
“Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women” is on display now through Jan. 30, 2011 at the Cartoon Art Museum, 655 Mission St., S.F. A panel discussion with artists, experts and curators will take place at the museum Oct. 21. For information, call (415) 227-8666 or visit www.cartoonart.org.
Edgy and distinctive … and also Jewish
Before Vanessa Davis started making comics for Tablet magazine, she deliberately avoided inserting anything Jewish into her work.
“When you’re young and making art, you want to be edgy and distinctive,” says the 31-year-old Davis, who lives in Santa Rosa. “My whole life I’d been surrounded by Jewish people, in South Florida and New York. Being Jewish is one of the least distinctive parts of my personality.”
Fortunately, when Davis did start incorporating her Jewish identity into her comics, it wasn’t at the cost of being edgy. One of her diary pieces in the “Graphic Details” show depicts Davis and a friend in a sex shop, where they run into a Chassidic man.
“[He] was really obviously eavesdropping on the questions the saleslady was asking us,” Davis wrote in the comic. “I wanted to tell my mom about seeing him there, but I didn’t want to tell her about me being there.”
Davis grew up in West Palm Beach, Fla., and went to Jewish day school until the sixth grade, when she switched to an art school.
The idea for her diary comics mainly came out of having kept a journal and sketchbook simultaneously in high school. Davis also was inspired by a professor she had at the Maryland Institute College of Art, who had drawn a small picture as a diary entry every day for several years.
All of Davis’ work is autobiographical, though she recently dabbled in a more journalistic tone with a comic for Tablet about Torah theft.
In addition to appearing in Tablet, Davis’ work has been included in several comic anthologies, including Ariel Schrag’s “Stuck in the Middle: 17 Comics From an Unpleasant Age.” She’s also published two books of her own: 2005’s “Spaniel Rage” and “Make Me a Woman,” which was released at the end of September.
One of the trademarks of Davis’ work is its candidness. She writes — and draws — frankly about miserable dates, sex, shul and fat camp, all in vibrant watercolors.
“But I don’t feel like I’m just confessing,” Davis says. “When I write comics I have to think about my audience. I always try to consider whether revealing it is going to be valuable — creatively, narratively or psychologically.”
While she once might have bristled at being labeled a Jewish woman cartoonist, Davis now embraces her religious background as a major part of her art.
“It’s awesome that there’s a place for my voice within a Jewish context,” she says. “I’m grateful to Judaism for being so diverse.”
From painting to ‘Girl Stories’
For many comic artists, creating a confessional piece is cathartic — a way to come to terms with, and even laugh about, life’s traumas through art.
Not for Lauren Weinstein.
“Right now I’m working on a book about my mom’s car accident, and I’m reliving this experience of when I was 13, the most awkward time of my life, and is it therapeutic? No!” she says emphatically. “It’s like putting a very fine lens on something very traumatic over and over again.”
Weinstein, 35, is the author of “Girl Stories,” an autobiographical book of comic vignettes based on her early teen days. The book is profoundly confessional Weinstein depicts herself honestly, and often brutally, as she tries desperately to be popular, has a disastrous first kiss, pierces her belly button and agonizes over still playing with Barbies.
Weinstein never set out to be a confessional cartoonist, instead falling into the gig when she got a job at gURL.com to do semi-autobiographical comics. She’s quick to point out that not all her work is confessional — she’s done surreal comic strips for an alternative newspaper in Seattle, as well as the sci-fi/fantasy “The Goddess of War.”
Weinstein grew up in Brookline, Mass., in a home that was culturally Jewish but atheistic. She went to Hebrew school and had a bat mitzvah, but found her greatest connection to Judaism in food.
After graduating from high school, Weinstein went to Washington University in St. Louis to study painting, but soon realized she didn’t know what to paint. She did, however, love drawing and telling stories.
“The first comic I ever did was a confessional comic,” Weinstein says. “It was about being really depressed in college and going to Red Lobster and seeing all these breaded fish, and being like, cheer up — at least you’re not breaded.”
Weinstein has also used her confessional comics to come to terms with her Jewish identity. In “Girl Stories,” one tale is about feeling weird about being Jewish on Christmas. In the sequel, she will revisit a surreal moment from her youth: having a seder in the hospital where her mother was recovering from the car crash.
“The Jewish id and comics can’t be separated,” Weinstein says. “The gossipy dishiness, the yenta-ness of being Jewish probably has something to do with it.
“The masochistic side of me that could spend hours and hours at the drawing table? There’s nothing fast about it, and it’ll probably never make me a lot of money. But that probably has something to do with being Jewish, too.”
Today Weinstein lives in Maplewood, N.J., with her husband, Tim, and their 1-year-old daughter, Ramona. In addition to working on the “Girl Stories” sequel, she is collecting material for a comic about pregnancy.
“Now all I’m doing is confessional stuff,” Weinstein says. “Having a baby is this crazy cosmic experience that merits that. I’ve been documenting everything.”
‘Outsider’ finds a home in comics
After an illustrious career as a pioneer in the underground feminist comics scene, Trina Robbins finally settled down to become a full-time writer and “herstorian.”
The one “herstory” she doesn’t like to tell? Her own.
“At first I turned it down,” Robbins says in an interview from her home in San Francisco’s Castro District, talking about being invited to participate in the “Graphic Details” show.
“I said, I don’t do confessional comics. All too often I feel that the artist or writer is telling me more than I really want to know.”
But she changed her mind after seeing the list of artists lined up for the exhibit. “I was very impressed,” she says. “I said, I have to be in this.”
Born a “red-diaper baby,” Robbins grew up in Queens, N.Y. “We were the only Jews for miles,” she says. “I’ve always been different, always been an outsider. I think that creative people of any ethnic background often spend their formative years being different.”
Robbins has been involved with the comics world as an artist and writer for more than 30 years. In the ’70s she helped found the first all-women underground comic book, “It Ain’t Me Babe,” and has written several books about women in cartooning. She’s also written a number of educational books and comics for children.
Robbins’ latest book, “Forbidden City: The Golden Age of Chinese Nightclubs,” is an oral history of the nightclubs that flourished in San Francisco’s Chinatown from the late 1930s to the early ’60s. She is currently writing a graphic novel about Jewish comic artist Lily Renee, who was saved from the Holocaust by the Kindertransport.
As a herstorian, Robbins has her own theory on why confessional comics appeal to women.
“The side of the brain that rules communication is much bigger in women than in men,” she said. “The majority of women don’t like superhero comics — they have no interest in overly muscled guys with big chins and thick necks fighting it out in outer space. The mixture of words and pictures [in confessional comics] is just ideal.”
It’s a point of pride for Robbins, who came of age in an era in which there was rampant misogyny in the comics industry, to see women today being embraced in the world of comics.
“There are more women drawing comics now than ever before,” Robbins says. “If you go to the Alternative Press Expo [in San Francisco], you’ll just see women everywhere, selling and buying.”
While Robbins isn’t a fan of most of today’s confessional comics, she respects the genre.
“I’m a storyteller,” she says. “I like stories. That doesn’t happen in superhero comics.”
Survivor has drawn her life story
When it comes to life stories, Miriam Katin has enough to fill several volumes of comic memoirs.
Born in Hungary in 1942, Katin and her family were in hiding during the war. After trying to tough it out during the communist years in Hungary, they finally left for Israel in 1957, after the Hungarian Revolution.
They arrived in the Jewish state with nothing, and teenage Miriam was plunged into an unknown world. “It was quite a shock,” she says in an interview from her Manhattan, N.Y., home.
So at first, Katin wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be sympathetic to her fellow confessional cartoonists.
“I did a [talk] with [some of the ‘Graphic Details’ artists] in Paris, and was a bit angry, as a survivor,” says Katin, 68. “These women were born into peace and prosperity. What’s their bitch? What are their problems?”
But as she grew familiar with their work, Katin’s position softened.
“Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s parents told her she was ugly,” Katin says. “Everybody has deep, deep pains and questions that take you through life.”
A self-taught artist, Katin served in the Israel Defense Forces as a graphic artist and later fell in love with cartooning when she did a series of ads about saving energy for the Israeli children’s magazine Kulanu.
She also was inspired by her children’s Tintin comics, which are “still my bible,” she says.
After moving to the United States, Katin worked for years in animation for giants such as MTV, Disney and Nickelodeon. In 2000, a colleague noticed her doodles and asked if she would contribute to a comic anthology.
Her very first comic, a four-page work, received a glowing review from a comics expert, Katin says.
Next, she created a 12-page comic about the Hungarian Revolution that was nominated for an Eisner Award (the Oscars of the comics world), then a full-length memoir, “We Are On Our Own.”
Writing and drawing her life story wasn’t easy. While Katin notes that she had a happy childhood overall (“In communist Hungary they took good care of children,” she says), her Jewish identity was problematic in a virulently atheistic country where Jews who survived the war were called “walking miracles.”
“I grew up with the confusion of being a Jew,” she says. “When I tried to do my first comic, it was trying to express various incidents in my childhood that were confusing or sad. The war is always there, and the things that happened.”
Yet while writing the book dredged up painful memories, it also helped Katin come to terms with her past.
“I had a hard time talking about the war, but I realized after I finished this book, I can simply talk about it,” she says. “It’s cleared this enormous pain.”