In graphic detail – An Exciting New Approach to a Familiar Old Text

By Ilan Preskovsky

One of the hallmarks of any Seder is the challenge of keeping both old and young interested in what’s going on. Whether it’s the familiarity of a ritual we go through once (twice in chutz l’aretz) every year, the potential inaccessibility of a text that was old when the middle ages were young, or the way the main meal feels ever further away the more the Seder goes on, it is, at times, less than easy to engage in something that, by all rights, ought to be a highlight of the Jewish year.

This is why the Haggadah itself has been bolstered by catchy melodies, insightful commentary, plenty of opportunities for those of all ages to ask questions, and even a “treasure hunt” for the kids. It’s these small things that bring a vitality to something that could easily become rote and overly familiar. This is not a knock on the Seder, to be clear, but recognition of one of its best and most defining features. We are taught to “recount the story of our Exodus from Egypt as if we ourselves are going through it” and it is exactly these fights for relevance that makes this at all possible.

Following neatly in this tradition, Jordan B. Gorfinkel brings his years of experience in the comic book field to create, for old and young alike, the world’s first Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel. And, as it turns out, he was just the person to do it.

A Bit of Background

Gorf, as he prefers to be called, is one of the very few Torah-observant Jews to work professionally in mainstream comics – an industry that, let’s not forget, was largely created, defined, and redefined by Jews. This was certainly true when he began his career in comics in 1991, when, just out of university, he got a job as an editor in the Batman offices at DC Comics. He would continue at DC throughout the 1990s, helping to oversee a rapid expansion of the “Bat-books” in the wake of the massive success of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film.

What was once a couple of comic book titles dedicated to the continuing adventures of the Dark Knight became almost its own imprint as the two existing books were joined by a couple of extra Batman ongoings and an apparently never-ending stream of miniseries, graphic novels, and ancillary titles for most of Batman’s many allies. One such series was Birds of Prey, an all-female superhero team led by former Batgirl Barbara Gordon that Gorf created. The title remains a perennial seller for DC to this day and is currently being adapted into a major motion picture for release next year. Towards the end of his time at DC, he also oversaw the highly acclaimed No Man’s Land storyline, which was to be the basis for the most recent season of Fox’s TV show, Gotham.

After leaving DC at the turn of the century, he founded his own comics and multimedia company, Avalanche Comics Entertainment, where he would provide content for major businesses and entertainment companies – most recently writing a tie-in comic for the film Bumblebee, which accompanies the film’s DVD release – and worked on a number of his own comics as well.

Most notable of these, at least for our purposes, is the weekly comic strip that he started in the mid-’90s and continues to produce to this day called Everything’s Relative, a humorous look at traditional-but-modern Jewish life. Over the years, he has also held a number of comic book workshops at Jewish summer camps and synagogues that teach aspiring writers and artists how to create comics that also happen to reflect their own Jewish identities.

I don’t think Gorf would disagree if I was to suggest that the Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel is the culmination of his career to date.

A Twist on an Old Classic

For those not in the know, “graphic novel” is a term that refers, quite interchangeably, to a certain kind of literary comic book, comics that are compiled into book form, or simply to comics in general, but, fundamentally, what we have here is a Haggadah that makes use of the particular strengths of the comic-book medium to present an entirely new and refreshing perspective on the well-worn Haggadah.

Most Haggadahs do include a certain amount of illustrations, to be sure, and there have been some gorgeous, fully-illustrated Haggadahs printed over the years that match this ancient text with world-class modern artwork. What Gorf and his collaborators have put together here, though, is something else entirely.

On the more conventional side of things, the Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel features the complete and authentic Haggadah text, presented side-by-side with an English transliteration for those who can’t read Hebrew or Aramaic – albeit in a manner with a greater eye for design and layout than your average Haggadah. Where things get interesting, though, is that, save for prayer-oriented texts, the entire English translation is presented in comic book form with the text newly translated by David Olivestone, who you may know best from his work on the world-famous NCSY Bencher.

Paging through each stunningly produced page of the Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel (and I am basing this purely on a digital preview; I’m still waiting to get my hand on a physical copy, but Gorf assures me that the non-virtual version puts the preview to shame), it looks for all the world like the comic book was all but created for exactly this purpose. It’s hard to believe that it took so long for a project like this to come along.

Well, not that hard to believe, mind you. Comics have battled for decades to break out of the “lowest common-denominator trash for young children and the mentally infirm” ghetto they were placed in at around the same time that Joseph McCarthy was trying to rid the world of the “Red Menace”. They have, undoubtedly, grown in acclaim and acceptance over the past few decades, but that old stigma is hard to shake. With that kind of reputation behind them, it is perhaps not too surprising that despite the American comic book industry being Jewish to its very core, there was an apprehension about pairing something routinely described in such terms with our holy Haggadah.

And yet, anyone even passingly familiar with what acclaimed comic book creator Will Eisner called “sequential art storytelling” knows that comics are only ever as trashy or juvenile as they are made to be. In reality, the comic book is a uniquely versatile art-form that has been used to create modern-day myths, to tell intimately personal stories, to encapsulate the human condition through wildly imaginative visual-metaphors, and even to educate.

Gorf and Israeli artist Erez Zadok clearly understand their potential as the way they integrate comics into the various different parts of the Haggadah shows a keen understanding of both the art-form and how it can be adapted for various purposes. Before even putting pen to paper, however, Gorf had to work out one overriding (and quite obvious) challenge in applying a comic book structure to the Haggadah.

Finding the Narrative

The problem is this: comics are a brilliant storytelling tool, which is all well and good except that the Haggadah does not exactly follow an obvious narrative structure. Even Magid, the section of the Haggadah that nominally tells the story of our exodus from Egypt, rejects any and all narrative conventions in doing so. We all know the story mostly from the opening chapters of the book of Shemot in the Chumash, but rather than being explicitly retold in the Haggadah itself, it is broached in a way that is entirely in keeping with the Talmudic origins of the text: through the arguments and discussions of our great Talmudic sages.

So, why did Gorf turn to the Haggadah, of all things, to adapt into a graphic novel? He didn’t come to this decision lightly or through any single “eureka moment”, but his lifelong passion of using comics to add to our great storytelling tradition and hopefully inspire new generations of Jews, led him to what he sees as a work that is, as he puts it, the “perfect representation of Judaism”. It’s hard to argue that point. As Gorf notes, the Haggadah is stuffed full of theology, history, and philosophy, all wrapped around a story that is our own (not so) “secret origin”; one that tells of how a small family of nomadic ethical-monotheists suffered years of oppression and slavery only to emerge as a nation chosen by G-d to be “a nation of priests, a holy nation” and to be a “light unto the nations”.

Still, the question remains: how to apply a narrative structure to something that doesn’t have one? Gorf’s answer was to take “a page from George Lucas” (whose first Star Wars movie was episode IV) and decided to work his way “from the middle out”. He knew that if he could crack Magid, with its strange mixture of quite technical rabbinic discussions, children’s sing-alongs, deep psychological insights into four very different kinds of “sons”, and even some smatterings of conventional narrative, the rest would probably fall into place.

And fall into place it did. The brilliance of turning Magid into a comic book is that comics have a unique ability to say plenty simply by placing two different drawings next to one another, and by adapting this to the Haggadah, what once looked like a jumble of disconnected ideas suddenly looks like an epic story. As presented here, Magid is a tale told across space and time, jumping from Ancient Egypt to Second-Temple-era Israel to a modern setting that could just as easily be Jerusalem, New York, or even Johannesburg, effectively bringing the events of three-and-a-half millennia ago right to our 21st (or 58th) century Seder tables.

The rest of the Haggadah, whether it’s the recitation of Hallel or instructions for what and when to eat, is no less impressively rendered, presented as it is through a mixture of single-page comic strips that portray the stories and ideas told in individual passages and songs, more conventional “single-image” illustrations, and, of course, our guide for this particular journey, an anthropomorphic goat that may or may not be tied to the titular kid of the show-stopping finale of the Haggadah, Chad Gadya.

The Perfect Partner in Crime

This, of course, would all be entirely impossible if Gorf wasn’t partnered up with such an immensely talented young artist. Gorf specifically wanted an Israeli artist for the project: “I wanted someone who, when they would draw Bnei Brak, for example, could literally go outside and touch the very stones of modern-day Bnei Brak.” Erez Zadok, who had just finished a degree in visual communications from Bezalel Academy of Arts in Jerusalem, proved to be the perfect collaborator for the project.

His classic comic-book artwork (think Cameron Stewart mixed with Jamie McKelvie, comics fans!) doesn’t simply look beautiful; its inventive layouts, clean linework, and effortless expressiveness are all key to the success of Gorf realising his vision. As Gorf himself says, “Erez is every bit as good as even the best comic-book artists I worked with at DC.”

The Haggadah took three years to produce from inception until its recent publication. Part of this was the sheer weight of the undertaking, but mostly it was because, though it is being published by the famous Koren Publishers, Gorf chose to raise all the funds for the Haggadah himself. A not-for-profit project, the Haggadah is primarily the result of crowdfunding through Indiegogo and major donations from a number of private individuals (who are personally thanked at the back of the book) and though a labour of love for all involved, it stopped and started production according to the money coming in.

During the lengthy hiatus periods, they collaborated on “3 O’clock Club”, an original graphic novel co-written by the Nickelodeon TV creator of “Fairly Odd Parents”, Butch Hartman. This gave them an alternative income stream, which was especially crucial for Erez who, like all freelance artists, only gets paid for the work for which they are commissioned. It also gave Erez a chance to further hone his already excellent craft.

The results speak for themselves. From Erez’s spectacular artwork, to Gorf’s ingenious script, to David Olivestone’s fresh translation, the Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel is, in no uncertain terms, a stunning achievement and an essential edition to both your Jewish and graphic novel libraries. It is also, hopefully, only the first in a line of Jewish graphic novels that Gorf hopes can be built on the back of the Haggadah’s success and welcomes “the support and collaboration of any reading this article”.

As an oversized hardcover graphic novel and a Jewish book, the Haggada’s retail price of $20 is an absolute steal. It can be bought, quite conveniently, at local Jewish booksellers and even on some of South Africa’s biggest online stores. Kollel Bookshop is also giving away a free copy to one lucky winner (see below for details).

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