Monday, May 09, 2011

Review: The Comic Torah

Is it mockery or midrash? This is the question I kept asking myself as a I read The Comic Torah: Reimagining the Very Good Book, an ambituous attempt by Aaron Freeman (Author) and Sharon Rosenzweig (Illustrator) to retell the Pentateuch as a graphic novel.

Read about it after the jump
This snippet review by David Holzel tells you something about the book, and also helps explain the paradox that lies at its center:

Moses is black and God is green -- and a she -- and both bear a strong resemblance to their real-life creators in "The Comic Torah," a graphic reimagining of history's enduring bestseller.

Husband and wife Aaron Freeman and Sharon Rosenzweig have written and illustrated a biblical midrash that is colorful, deep, funny and mind-blowing -- just like the original.

As the Five Books unroll -- with each Torah portion presented in a sumptuous double spread - the relationship between God and Israel develops in all its glory and chaos. What caught my imagination was the shifting relationship between God and Moses, sometimes like parent and child, other times like mistress and servant, and still others as mismatched lovers, even as Moses dreams of the Promised Land.

Those dreams are not so innocent and holy. Rosenzweig and Freeman depict the Israelites' ultimate quest as a blonde bombshell called Honey "The Land" Milkand. Other characters include an oily Jacob, with a suit, narrow tie and pencil moustache, and a dreadlocked Aaron. Other gods, dwelling in the etymological mists of the biblical text, make an appearance, including Zeus, who God turns to for advice. "You have a pantheon of support," she complains. "I'm a single parent."

"The Comic Torah" doesn't disparage the tradition that has grown up around the Torah. Freeman and Rosenzweig have clearly wrestled with the text. But they have also tapped into one of the secrets of the Torah's resilience, it's weirdness and primalness. "The Comic Torah" reads like a strand of tradition that never made it into the canon.

And it's often sharply funny. As God reveals to Moses her plans for a Tabernacle in the desert she conjures the image of a unicorn. "To cover the ceiling -- Tachash skin!" she says. "Wow, it's beautiful," Moses says, gazing at the creature whose non-existence has broken every child's heart. "Can I have one?" "No," God says, "I'm only making one. But you can kill it for me."

I wonder how some of the jokes will hold up, particularly popular references such as "Jew Tube" and to the Obama presidential campaign. (Joshua is a ringer for the president.) On the other hand, the Torah comes around every year, and is new every year, as Freeman and Rosenzweig acknowledge. "The Comic Torah," they write "is a snapshot of the arguments we had this year. Next year, different arguments."
Some of the touches I liked:
:: Black Moses. Works on many levels. Aside from the obvious (slavery, Exodus) it gives us a new and reasonable way to understand tzarras: Afflicted people turn white which marks them as sinners among the dark-skinned Israelites as clearly as any scarlet letter.
:: Female God. Also works on many levels, and the conceit is put to good use in many places. At the very end, She wraps Moses in an embrace and delivers the kiss that tradition says killed him before screaming in anguish "There will never be another one like Moses" - a rough paraphrase of the bible's last sentence. If we let ourselves think about the relationship between God and Moshe in the same terms as a male-female romance (without taking it literally, of course) much is made clearer. I just don't know why God is green. Jealous God perhaps?
:: The Land of Israel personified as a hot babe. This is the book's best innovation, and it also approximates how many Jews I know feel about it/her.
:: Issac as a grown-up infant. I didn't like seeing the Patriarch babbling, or wearing a diaper, but I understand what the writer is trying to do, and it fits both the text and the tradition.
:: God re-watching and re-watching Pinchas spear Zimri and Cozbi. (on JewTube!)  What a clever and contemporary way to illustrate God's appreciation of Pinchas's zealotry.

Some that I didn't like
:: Joshua as Obama, dismissing the slander of the spies with a robust "Yes we Canaan!"? Please.
:: When the Lord shows Moshe Her back, the illustrator shows us what the writer calls "Her fabulous backside" The drawing of Moshe drooling over the Lord's buttocks is meant to shock us, and many will turn away in horror. I could live with the shock, and the complaints of prudes if it advanced the narrative, or shed new light on the text. But, it doesn't.

Bottom Line
This Comic Torah isn't for everyone. Most kids, in particular, aren't ready for the racy irreverences. Also, prudes, humorless people, and crazed traditionalists are asking for heart attacks if they pick up this book. And I don't think people who are unfamiliar with the text or the tradition will understand some of the what the creators attempt to do. However, if you know the source material, and posses the ability to smile at parody and clever takes on old teachings, you're likely to enjoy this book.

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