Not Your Average Spiel
BY YOAV FISHER
In 1998, JT Waldman sat down to
write a 22-page comic book about Queen Esther. Seven years, three continents,
and 160 pages later, this Sunday-schooled Jew from the burbs had gone through
years of intensive study to produce what may be the first illustrated scholarly
work on ancient Jewish text. Below, Waldman provides a spiel of a different
Let’s begin from the beginning. When did you come up with the idea of making a
graphic novel about Megillat Esther,
and what was your motivation behind this project?
The spark of inspiration to make the Book of Esther into a comic book came to
me in the summer of 1998, in a cornfield in Upstate New York. I was with a new
friend, who was Modern Orthodox, and she related to me the story of Esther as
she was taught—and I was simply floored. Her recounting of the tale of Esther
was nothing like what I remembered from my Reform Hebrew school education. I
was so intrigued by the discrepancy between my recollected version of the story
and the actual story that something just clicked. I thought that if I had no
clue about the real text, other American Jews like me would be clueless as
well—and there’s a lot of crazy stuff going on in this story! Almost
immediately I thought that it would make a great comic. Just after college I
was determined to flesh out my understanding of Judaism on my own terms, and in
a language that felt comfortable and authentic to me. So I thought, "Why
not kill two birds with one stone and satisfy my childhood dream to make a
comic book, while exploring a text that is essential to Jewish ritual and
thought?" Along the way, my motivations and angles of interest changed,
but the initial impetus of making Megillat
Esther stayed the same.
Rumor has it that you spent seven years, on and off, researching,
preparing, and creating. Is this true? What happened over those seven years?
When I started the project, I thought I would make a 22-page comic—ah, naivety!
I started my research where I felt most comfortable, in art history and
comparative literature. I snuck into the University of Pennsylvania libraries
with a friend and began digging. Soon I ran into all the academic debate
surrounding the historic veracity of the text, the multiple versions of
translations, and all these weird and confusing elaborations called Midrash. I
couldn’t get a clear picture of what the story was really about. I felt shaky
deriving my understanding of the text and its cultural significance from other
people’s opinions. I wanted my own voice, not an amalgam of regurgitated
academic scholarship. And the only way to do that was to the learn Hebrew and
get down and dirty with my own translations, while also discovering how the
Book of Esther fits into Judaism in terms of history (Diaspora), literature
(Midrash), and ritual (Purim). There’s a lot to digest there and only one place
where I could really get my serving. So in January 2000, I moved to Israel, did
a Kibbutz Ulpan and enrolled in the now defunct Liberal Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
In Jerusalem I worked with a Bible Studies professor, Amira Meir of Hebrew
University, on the literal translations of the text. I also worked with my
mentor of Midrash, R. Moshe Silberschein, to understand how the Book of Esther
related to the rest of the Bible and where to look for the meatiest
commentaries and interpretations of the text to validate my retelling. When it
was all said and done I had spent three years researching the Book of Esther,
placing it within an academic and Jewish framework.
Then I entered the production cycle of the project. I moved to Spain and took
advantage of the then-favorable exchange rate, and lived the vida loca in Barcelona while I
illustrated the book. Months went by and the book kept growing, and eventually
I had 160 pages of drawings.
When the money ran out I returned to Philly, where I began work as an academic
tutor for kids and as a Hebrew school teacher (perish the thought!). Once my
finances were sorted out, I began the tedious and most time-consuming phase of
the project—inking and scanning the book. There was a big learning curve and I
had to teach myself design-and-layout programs to assemble the book, while
concurrently beginning the daunting task of finding a publisher. So from
conception to completion, seven years had passed.
Why Esther? Why not Noah or the Ten Commandments?
Call me crazy, but what kinda chutzpah
would send a secular American Jew raised in the burbs to make a comic-book
version of Moses or Abraham? What more could I say about those seminal texts of
religious doctrine? But a story on the fringe… a tale set in the Diaspora, with
no mention of God, and attached to a holiday devoted to bamboozlement and
drunken irreverence… even I could take a stab at that! And again, the fact that
the real story was so clouded and lost to me proved that the educational system
that reared me had missed a step. So Esther became an appropriate means to
align my secular and religious identities in the helter-skelter world of comics
Did you have difficulty finding distribution considering the Biblical
When I started, I naively spouted off about the personal goals and vision of
the project. Distribution was some vague term I learned in accounting class.
Somewhere in year three of the project, my mentor’s cousin, who works in book
publishing, got wind of the idea and told Moshe, my mentor, that this project
had great commercial potential. I was sort of stunned. I knew that there was
commercial viability in biblical themed entertainment à la the ecumenically watered
down Prince of Egypt cartoon. However, it
was the success of Gibson’s Passion
that really got me going in the hunt for a literary agent and/or publisher. But
graphic novels are still a hot potato in the book industry. I’ve been told my
work is too Jewish and esoteric and just too risky. And that’s what I heard
from the half-dozen publishers I specifically courted. All my rejection letters
asked, “Who’s the audience for this book?”
The comic book industry, though politely intrigued, stayed away with a ten-foot
pole. Religion and God have a hard time finding shelf-place next to X-men, Sin City, or anything Manga.
So self-publishing soon became my daunting task, and one that is quite common
and esteemed in the independent niche of the comic-book industry. I was two
weeks away from going this route when the Editor-in -Chief of JPS, who had
balked on the project nearly two years prior, came back and said, “Hold off on
going to print, we want to publish Megillat
Esther.” It took a lot of courage for JPS to even make the offer. And I
guess life imitated art here, for just as in the story, a crazy amount of
back-and-forth negotiation ensued in a condensed period of time and produced
Now that your book is completed and heading to mass publication next
month, what are your final goals for this project?
I’m just glad the book is done! I have no master plan to adapt the entire Bible
into some edgy comic or turn Esther into a cartoon. I used this project as an
apprenticeship to hone my storytelling skills while learning about my heritage.
I’m exhibiting artwork of the book at galleries and doing some talks and
workshops on using comics to generate Midrash, but aside from that, no
Right now I’m more interested in the educational and academic value of comics
and the disproportionate participation of Jewish minds in the creation and
production of this medium. Where do comics fit alongside Medieval illuminated
manuscripts, Talmud, or artist books? Is the union of text and image in comics
mending the Golden Calf and leading to our destruction, or enlightenment? Books
like Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow,
or the literary investigations of Will Eisner’s work by academics like Laurence
Roth of Susquehanna University, spark my interest. But it’s time for me to move
one… I’m actually going back to school in January to study Interface Design.
Your book presents some of the ugly glossed-over undersides of the
story of Esther; the sex, the boozing, the vindictive nature of the main
characters. In addition, your drawings are not necessarily provocative, but
definitely suggestive of the more hedonistic and animalistic nature of human
beings. How has your more corporeal interpretation of the story been accepted
by the more religious audience, who might possibly expect a children’s novel at
Orthodox folks don’t know what to make of the book or me, for that matter. Even
though there is nothing overtly explicit in the drawings, the text itself
points to lewd and violent conduct that would be characterized as PG-13. My
book was never intended for little kids. But comics in the USA are just coming
out of the puerile stereotype that many old school people still hold onto. If
anything, I’ve found that my use of Midrash, and my presentation of variant
commentary that strays from tradition, is more of a thorny issue for Orthodox
How has your book been received by the secular community?
When I previewed the book at the San Diego ComicCon in 2003 I was pleasantly
surprised by how well received the book was by Goth kids! Other people seemed
interested in the “historic” elements of the book, or the value of the piece as
an example of Jewish folklore. Most people appear familiar with the name of
Esther, but unclear of her participation in the Bible. That curiosity, along
with the apparent feminist aura of the book, has been my hook with many secular
How is this 2,500-year-old story relevant to Jews of today?
I think the story of Esther reinforces the idea that if one of us is in danger,
we all are. The global rise of anti-Semitism, post-Intifada II, corroborates
this notion. But the greatest lesson I have gleaned from the text relates to
how Jews, women, and eunuchs (read: non-breeders)—people on the “fringe” of
society—can manipulate communication to achieve their goals and change society.
Vashti is banished for trying to buck the system. However, Esther, Mordechai,
and the eunuchs mold the system through patience, deft word play, and some
One of the most interesting things about your book is that interspersed
in the narrative are four separate “interludes.” The first is about Timna, the
riches-to-rags convert to Judaism who was the mother of Amalek. The second is
about whether the Mashiach hails from the House of Jacob or the House of Yosef.
The third is about the conflict between Saul and David over who will be the
rightful more about these four side stories and how they relate to Megillat
Thanks! I’m especially proud of the “interludes”—or subplots as I call them—since
they are my contributions of Midrash to the Book of Esther. There are actually
ten subplots in all, one for each chapter of the book. The first page of the
graphic novel depicts the Tree of Life. I read this Tree as a family tree,
mapping out the relationships between the main characters of the Esther
narrative, the relations between their ancestors, and the relations between
their descendants. Each subplot intends to connect the story of Esther to
another character or situation in the Bible, to try and suggest larger themes
in the entire Bible. I developed the subplots on an almost instinctual level.
As I discovered the far reach of Midrashim connected to the Book of Esther, I
wanted to find a way to include them in my work. Developing the English
translation and visual translation of Megillat
Esther was very cerebral and literal, so I used the subplots as a sort of
playground to toy with significant ideas suggested by the text.
There are two threads of the subplots. One concerns Timna, the mother of Amalek
and the matriarchal ancestor of Haman. The other thread highlights the rivalry
between the House of Judah and the House of Joseph. I wanted to show that
family competition lies at the heart of Judaism, as insiders and outsiders vie
The prologue with Timna sets the stage for the entire book and suggests the
ramifications of exclusion. Timna returns in chapter eight, with Amalek and
Esau, for a more expressive moment inspired by a Midrash I found about Timna
dissuading Eliphaz and Amalek from attacking the children of Israel. There’s
something powerful in the notion that the ancient Jewish Boogieman is really
just trying to vindicate his mother, who’s really pro-Semitic, yet he still has
it out for the Jews because they hurt her feelings.
Meanwhile, I explore the nature of sibling rivalry between the offspring of
Jacob in the other subplots. In chapter two, the subplot explores the rivalry
between Mashiach Ben David and Mashiach Ben Yosef, two characters associated
with the End of Days. Mashiach Ben David is depicted as the political and
spiritual leader of the messianic age, while Mashiach Ben Yosef is more brutish
and warlike and responsible for the defeat of Magog. This debate is infamous
for being hyperbolic, so I set up this scene as a game show, an incongruous
setting that frames an equally absurd dispute. The placement of the subplot as
Mordechai’s dream is an allusion to the Greek addition to the original Hebrew
text in which Mordechai dreams of two fighting dragons. At the end of the
nightmare, Mashiach Ben David is felled, foreshadowing that Esther and
Mordechai (in line with Mashiach Ben Yosef) are the heroes of the day.
The Saul/David subplot is connected through a line in the Bible that states that
"wicked proceeds from the wicked" (Samuel I 24:13). This line is used
in a Midrash to explain “the wicked” ways of Haman. As I connected disparate
Midrash to the story of Esther, I tried to find the clal (Hebrew for "key literary devices or elements") in
each chapter and use that as my jump-off point with connecting Midrash. So in
the fourth chapter of the Book of Esther I found that clothing played a crucial
role in symbolizing power. So not only did this episode in the saga of Saul and
David include the aforementioned “wicked“ quote, but it also used clothing as a
symbol of power as well (David cuts off the fringes of Saul’s robe to prove
that he could have killed him). Meanwhile, in chapter four, Esther places an
odd emphasis on clothing because she is peeved about Mordechai’s fashion sense
at the King’s Gate (an arguably petty concern), while the rest of the Judeans
in the land don sackcloth to represent their lack of power. It’s hard to
describe the Midrashic mindset—which is very stream of conscious—but that’s
what I was going for in this subplot.
Some subplots are obviously apart from the narrative, like the Tales of Justice
comic inside a comic, while others are embedded in the story, like the
Bezalel/Joshua images or the prophetic musings of Ezekiel at the conclusion of
the book. Some are straightforward Midrash, like the quote from Deuteronomy in
the beginning of chapter three, while others are specifically more vague, like
the Timna/Esau vignette of chapter eight.
The Midrashic subplots are intended to add layers of depth and context to the
Book of Esther. I really enjoyed developing them, but if readers find them
extraneous, they can simply skip over them. I wanted there to be some mystery
to my interpretation and not have everything be on the nose. The subplots
manifest the mystique of the work.
Another interesting aspect of your book is the extensive use of
footnotes and references from various religious sources. Tell us more about
these footnotes and their significance.
The greatest work
by Maimonides, his Mishneh Torah, was very controversial because he failed to
cite his sources—a requisite that finds biblical precedence in Esther 2:22. I
felt that if I included the sources of images and dialogue, then my comic book
would be just as legit as any other scholar’s work, except there’d be pictures
to get your mind going, too. The bibliography and footnotes are my attempt to
champion the medium of sequential art as an academic tool.
Douglas Rushkoff has been hard at work writing his own graphic novel,
to be released by DC Comics, entitled Testament,
which claims to “expose the real Bible as it was actually written” and “reveal
how its mythic tales are repeated today.” Do you think you have started a trend
in religiously-tied comics?
In no way have I started a trend in Bible comics. They’ve been around in the
comic industry since almost the beginning. They normally have different
distribution than mainstream comics so you don’t hear much about them… but they’ve
been there all along. I think the current zeitgeist
that I am a part of involves the need to take religious texts and filter them
through a secular lens. Comics are an amazingly pliant medium for that
endeavor, as is film or performance art. But it is a popular trend… R. Crumb is
working on Genesis now and Mike Allred (creator of Madman and Red Rocket) is
doing the Book of Mormon. There’s already a comic book called Testament, put out two years ago by
Metron Press…the trend is in full swing!
Do you have plans for another project in the future? Is there a second
installment in the making?
No concrete plans as of yet for another project, and no Megillah 2: The Revenge of Amalek in the pipeline. I have some
brainstorms brewing, but nothing I can coherently describe yet. As I mentioned
before I’m expanding on the language of sequential art by going back to school
and focusing on Interface Design… we’ll see what ideas come from that!
version of this interview originally appeared in the New Zionist, where Zionist programs
are tracked and discussed.