Comic Boom

Avi Pitchon celebrates the anarchic freedom of Israeli graphic novels

‘Retreating with disgust is not the same as apathy’. So says one of the peripheral characters in Richard Linklater’s 1991 film, Slacker. This statement rings true for several of the artists involved in Take The Bassa With Sababa, an exhibition of Israeli comics and graphic novels, and for me as a curator it certainly hits the nail on the head.

Overcoming simplistic, news-driven notions about what Israeli art might look like and deal with, or what it should deal with, and how, is a constant struggle. The challenge is to defend a space of artistic freedom, not only from restriction, but also from expectation. In a reality where the problems and even the solutions can seem black and white, it is often artistic and cultural activity that is the most nuanced, delving deepest into the reasons as to why Israel has struggled to solve the conflicts plaguing it since its formation. Art and the cultural discourse can often be the field in which the seeds for a solution are sown or buried, but all too often people lack the vision to notice, too engaged with the superficially immediate.

In the early 90s, I was an angry anarchist 20-something, living in Tel-Aviv. Taking my first steps away from full-on political activism, I was headed in the direction of expressing radical ideas through art. At the same time, Israel was entering an era of hope, with Rabin’s government engaged in peace negotiations with the PLO. The three-year period, which ended with Rabin’s assassination in 1995 and the subsequent change of administration in the 1996 elections, provided a relatively emergency-free window of cultural opportunities. Out of this was born a fascinating cultural scene, within which independent comic and graphic novel artists now operate.

There are plenty of material changes that account for these developments, all of which took root in the new hopeful political horizon. Most revolve around Israel’s increasing openness to global capitalist dynamics. The country’s first commercial television channel began broadcasting in 1992 (there had been only a single, state-sanctioned station until then), and cable television, mobile phones and internet were embraced in the following years. This technological revolution opened Israel up to the world and gave young Israelis a wider cultural context in which to work. The impact was felt almost immediately across all fields of intellectual activity — television, cinema, literature, music, and indeed art, including the comics which had been operating at its fringes. For better and for worse, the Jewish Israeli social glue — the utopian ethos of Zionism — was gradually disintegrating. (Many believe this began with the near-failure of the Yom Kippur war in 1973 and intensified through the Lebanon war of 1982, the first that was deemed unjust and unnecessary by many Israelis).  For better, because the disintegration allowed the different ethnic, social and cultural minorities within Israel to assert their identities. For worse because nothing had yet arrived to bind society in its place, resulting in a rampant, brutal and often corrupt market logic, as well as a growing attitude of decadence, which filled the huge gap.

The Vietnam-like atmosphere of the Lebanon war drove many youngsters to look outside Israel’s cultural boundaries, towards English punk and new wave. A club scene emerged that exerted a profound influence over urban culture — not just musically, but also in terms of journalism and art. The period of peace talks in the 90s, along with the changes it brought, added a new, cosmopolitan culture to the existing mix.

Back then, during the first Palestinian Intifada, as dozens of protest groups against the occupation appeared on the Israeli side, I was trying to apply revolutionary politics to the artistic field. However my baiting of ‘apathetic’ art ceased after seeing Slacker, when I finally realised that the blossoming of artistic practice in all shapes and forms, not just the politically mobilised ones I personally appreciated, was vital for the normalisation of Israel as a culture and a society. Those scenes, no matter how universal they appeared, either described Israel or added extra layers of contemplation and understanding — of its history, its politics, its culture, and most importantly, its people.

Contemporary Israeli comics began with the new journalism of the early 80s. Artists like Dudu Geva drew strips for Tel-Aviv’s influential new weekly newspaper, Ha’ir (The City), which became central to the development of Israeli satire. Yet it was not until the early 90s that a younger generation of artists began producing strips independently, some of whom (Rutu Modan comes to mind) were employed as illustrators in mainstream newspapers. Forming a critical link between Israeli politics and an emerging peripheral milieu of teenage malcontents — indie-minded mallrats, sci-fi nerds, punks and outsiders — was a comics fanzine called Stiyot Shel Pinguinim (Penguins’ Perversions). Its success lay in combining a truly punk grasp of the unruly, the provocative and the downright disgusting with a sharp satirical edge.

Amitai Sandy, one of its founders and publishers, represents the activist wing of the current Israeli comic scene. The sharp, uncompromising black humour of his political strips predated, predicted and influenced a generation of nihilistic kids, who rejected the ideals of the previous decade. Sandy’s latest and perhaps most brilliant campaign began as a reaction to the scandal of the Muslim caricatures published in Denmark; he  instigated a competition for anti-Semitic caricatures, drawn strictly by Jewish artists.

After the folding of Penguins’ Perversions, many of Sandy’s strips were banned by the newspapers who employed him. His treatment of taboo issues like the Holocaust evidenced a desire to break free from formal representations, especially within the Israeli educational system, seemingly reducing a horrific trauma to a banally familiar annual ritual of excorcism, marrying the sad story of the Holocaust with a happy end — Israel itself. In an era of disintegrating values and dissolving consensus, the system looked corrupt and empty, incapable of passing on its own heritage to the next generation, who deemd its storytelling manipulative and cynical. In that sense, Sandy represented a generation that had replaced the dominant narrative with its own propositions — propositions that were not always subversive in a negative way. Many young Israelis, for example, were rediscovering different strands of pre-war European Jewish culture, a culture divorced from the Zionist educational curriculum because it did not suit the identity shift from helpless European Jewish victim to the new strong Israeli that the authorities liked to portray. The regenerating searches for European Jewish roots were often accompanied by applications for EU passports, demonstrating an increasing alienation many youngsters felt towards the country of their birth, as well as a post-Zionist pragmatism that would probably have seemed absurd to the founders of the State. But for a new generation of Jews, Europe or America seemed like a safer place in which to make career plans and raise children.

A few years ago, Sandy formed the Dimona Comics Group, of which another Sababa participant, Meirav Shaul, is a member. Her neurotic and apparently apolitical portraits typify the kind of contemporary art that is key to understanding the Israeli psyche. Although Shaul’s portraits seem escapist, they encapsulate the concept of retreating in disgust, so important to understanding Israel’s youth. At first, Shaul’s CD covers and animated TV commercials seem to celebrate Israel’s rising young capitalist leisure culture. But the dark, fearful tone suggests a threatening environment from which one can only hide, a fearfulness many feel is imposed by the severity and hopelessness of the political situation.

The desire to retreat into a bubble — an enclave of dwelling totally devoid of any relation to daily reality — is often the way secular, hedonistic Tel-Aviv is perceived by other Israelis. However, these bubbles are not merely a privileged, apolitical escape to parties, yoga and quality coffee; rather, they serve as models for normality operating within a praxis of insanity. And with fine art still a relatively elitist domain, and protest art still too simplistic,  it is left to comics and graphic novels to strike the perfect balance between artistic excellence and a clear, comprehensive reflection of a state of mind.

Dula Yavne strikes this balance, reducing militarism to a colourful, innocent surrealism. One image, depicting an eyepatch-wearing child riding a miniature pink tank and performing a Nazi salute, might be seen as provocative. However the colourful presentation and continental elegance of her style hints at a more complex outlook. The image of the tank, along with the taboo-breaking comparison between Israel’s military operations and those of the Nazis are placed outside a political context and rendered playful, redundant and emblematic of Israel’s nihilistic young. Yavne’s approach is not confrontational per se, but transcends the polarity of for and against, replacing it with a sober and tantalising indifference.

Dismissed by some as pure escapism, the comic-book culture is in fact a new form of post-modern, disillusioned maturity. It is significant that while the Israeli political left is very much in decline, the cultural and artistic milieu is thriving. Its subversive insistence on normality, along with its love of complexity, absurdity, and contradiction, makes it perhaps the only source of real hope in a country stuck in horrific political deadlock. In the 80s and 90s it was easy to keep up with every independent manifestation of culture — a fanzine, an exhibition, a CD — whereas nowadays it is simply impossible; there is just too much going on. The younger generation is no longer waiting for saviours — it has become its own, in the face of tremendous hardship and adversity. In that sense, this exhibition, although encompassing a wide range of influential young artists, is by no means a representation of everything that is happening in this particular field. Hopefully it can serve as a satisfying first taste.

Avi Pitchon is an Israeli journalist, artist and curator based in London. He has written for Haaretz, Ha’ir, Maariv, and Yediot Acharonot newspapers and the Israeli art monthly Studio. He also co-curated Wonderyears: New Reflections on the Shoa and Nazism, in Berlin in 2003 and Conflicted: Contemporary Israeli Photography, as part of the Dash Festival, London, 2005.

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