Miriam Libicki is a United States-born Jewish comics artist who packed up and moved to Israel to join the IDF, despite being rather ill-suited to the soldiering life. She has since relocated to Canada and created an autobiographical comic book, jobnik! about her experiences, as well as created several drawn essays in which she takes a critical look at comics, art, Israel, sex and sexuality, and of course, being Jewish.
I met Libicki at New York’s MoCCA festival, where I was instantly drawn to the personal/critical nature of her work, and she kindly agreed to answer some questions for BUST. Read on!
BUST: You write and draw a comic, but you’ve also done a couple of drawn essays examining comics and literature. Do you feel like you’ve given some of your secrets away, particularly in examining Jewish memoir?
Miriam: The secret that I know I’m better looking than jobnik’s Miriam (as you mention), I guess. But the tropes I examine are not things that I consciously put into jobnik. Nor are they tropes, once recognized, which would ruin my enjoyment or suspension of disbelief in reading a memoir. I just enjoy making connections and having more ways to analyze stories.
BUST: Clearly, Jewish identity plays a big role in your work, and yet in Jobnik! you don’t so much examine it as simply accept it as part of the setting. Do you prefer to keep the examining in the drawn essays or will we see more examining as jobnik! goes on?
Miriam: It was mostly because I felt it would be too heavy-handed to start examining things that fascinate me and kind of crop up in jobnik (Jewish-American identity, Jewish-Israeli identity, the clash when those identities meet, and sexuality and gender thrown on top for fun), that I started writing the drawn essays. They are where I can put my armchair philosophizing, and it won’t derail my narrative or take you out of the head of a girl who is too wrapped up in her dramas to be taking a dispassionate sociological survey. But I hope jobnik can make you think of similar questions to the drawn essays, but in more subtle ways.
BUST: In the drawn essays, you use illustration both to make points and occasionally as counterpoints to what your writing says. Yet they’re certainly not drawn in typical comic format. Can you talk a little about the interplay of the art and the writing in these pieces?
Miriam: Towards a Hot Jew grew out of photos I had taken, both while serving and on research trips back to Israel for jobnik. The pictures were supposed to be for my own reference, but I thought they were a fascinating document of how I never got over my soldier fetish (which might be the fault of a comic-ridden childhood, but I digress), even after having been a soldier and hating most minutes of it.
In parallel, there was the experience of moving from Israel to Canada, and suddenly seeing the situation, the political violence, the intifada, from an American/Canadian news perspective. It was brought home to me that before Bush’s wars, the Israeli army was both the most reviled and the most lusted after military on the planet (after Bush’s wars, the US military is probably more hated, but they don’t really scream sex to people, Lynndie England possibly excepted. But I digress again). This push-pull was best exemplified in the constant variations on one news photograph that accompanies every story of Israeli imperialism: an Israeli soldier in the extreme foreground, taking up the entire vertical space and usually cut in half vertically so his (usually his) body extends out of the photo in three directions, with a determined almost-heroic look on his face, while centered in the photo (but about 1/10 the soldier’s size) are the Palestinians being oppressed, running or handcuffed or picking through the rubble of their house or whatever. The handsome young Israeli is clearly the star here. Sexy, but evil. But sexy.
So photos were the genesis and the impetus for me to start trying to organize my thoughts around this conflict, so I wanted them to stay at the heart of it. Just sizing the photos to fit didn’t work, firstly because they came from all different sources, with the news photos mostly found on the internet, and thus mostly very tiny. Secondly, just having b/w cutouts from photos with text over top looked cheap and zine-y at worst and cold and documentaryish at best. The original point had been that these photos weren’t cold, they were all about the passionate gaze of the photographer, whether that was me or Jewish tourists or Western journalists.
So I decided to trace and draw over top of the pictures and text, to put the messy human lust back into the formal(ish) research essay. I tried to make the drawings of the soldiers as delicate and beautiful in their details as I could, both to betray my fetish and to attract the viewer and trick them into reading, you know, a research/opinion essay. The essay was aimed at Canadian art students originally, and they’re an exceptionally apathetic bunch.
BUST: Jobnik! is autobiographical, but autobiography often skates a line between fiction and nonfiction. You mention in Jewish Memoir Goes Pow! Zap! Oy! that comic-Miriam is an exaggeration of several characteristics, and that the autobiographer gets credit for being brave for making herself look bad. Can you elaborate on this more?
Miriam: I’m writing about my experiences, but I see Miriam as a character first and foremost, albeit one whose head I can enter into very easily. Likewise I see jobnik as a story first and foremost, and it being my life or what happened to me when I was nineteen is decidedly secondary. So I want to make sure that jobnik-Miriam is true to herself, in both looks, emotional responses, and if that consistency causes her to drift away from what I am, that’s neither good nor bad.
Also, there is the fear of the Mary Sue, of course. It’s distasteful if your protagonist is a naked plea for love from the readers, though in actuality, having some big flaws that stand out usually makes a character more sympathetic. No one can tell the utter truth about themselves, cause it’s both a lot simpler and more complicated than we can see from the inside. You either pump yourself up or put yourself down, clearly, putting yourself down is more honest and brave when you had the choice to go the other direction. (When you go too far in self-deprecation, it just folds right back into self-aggrandizement, though, so I try to keep jobnik-Miriam in the zone of average overwrought-teenager-with-poor-judgment).
As far as looks, I’m not convinced that she’s really so much worse looking than me. I wish I had such giant eyeballs, for one. I think she carries the extra weight better than I did. I find her more pleasing to look at than your average tiny-featured wispy superheroine or manga babe, but that’s me, I guess.
BUST: Are there specific things about your time in Israel that made you decide to tell the story as a comic rather than as straight prose?
Miriam: Not specifically, just that I am more comfortable when I can use both text and drawing to get my points across. I’m glad I can show you surroundings that are particular to the time and place, without having to waste text describing them. I think the setting of this story is very important, so it’s good to use my photo references to keep the universe of 2001 Israel in front of you always, without needing to remind the you it’s there. Also, I find drawing sex scenes really fun, cause I get to think about sex and bodies and take pleasure in depicting them well, as opposed to trying to write the scene out without sounding ridiculous, which is hard for even good writers.
BUST: You note that it’s easier to draw the setting than have to waste text describing it, and I wonder if that goes along with the desire not to be heavy-handed in examining in jobnik. Is it easier to subtly put something in the background in a drawing, where with the text it might perhaps come off too heavy?
Miriam: Yes, I think so. I do spend a lot more time thinking about my backgrounds than anyone is going to spend looking at them (I care about what’s in them, but I know I’m no Gerhard). So I think that probably some of my subtle storytelling isn’t being seen at all, and I go too far in thinking people will see what I’m getting at.
BUST: Also, you mentioned moving to Canada and seeing Israel from a different perspective in the news. How do you think your views have changed from when you were in Israel and serving? You mention that your soldier fetish isn’t gone, but how has the distance changed it?
Miriam: I definitely notice that I move to the right (although I’m still a peacenik) in Israel, and to the left outside of Israel. I can feel it happening even when I visit (the essays fierce ease and ceasefire are partially about this).
As far as my soldier fetish, one thing that’s changed is I’m aware now of how much younger soldiers are than me. Seven years is a big difference. I still find them beautiful, but it’s more of a nostalgic, untouchable kind of beautiful (whereas before it was an Israeli it was a aspirational untouchable beautiful). I do see them as human moreso than I did growing up, so they’d be in the same box in my head as kids of college age, if I try to imagine their personalities. But their looks are still so larger than life for me, if I’m over there, watching them or surreptitiously photographing them out in public.
Exposure to non-Israeli media can’t change how I see Israeli soldiers. Political realities, yes, cause I never felt like I had a really firm handle on them, no matter how hard I tried. But I know soldiers.
Miriam’s work is available through her website , or, if you’re going to San Diego Comic Con, she’ll be at Table M05 in the small press area.