Not Your Average Spiel


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 kind.

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 subject matter?

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 triumphant results.

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 grandiose plans.

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 first glance?

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 people.

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 readers.

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 well-placed liquor.

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 Esther.

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 for acceptance.

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!

A version of this interview originally appeared in the New Zionist, where Zionist programs are tracked and discussed.