Tone on the page.

*The new comics aren’t out until Thursday, and Diamond’s list isn’t up until tomorrow, but no federal holiday can deter


The Trials of Shazam! #1 (of 12) (this was pretty ok, I thought)

X Isle #2 (this, less so)

All Star Superman #5 (this was great!)

Solo #12 (but this was the best of the week)

Golgo 13 Vol. 4 (of 13): The Orbital Hit (and this I got to late, but Duke is always ready to go)

What labor.

Klezmer Book 1: Tales of the Wild East

Another upcoming book from First Second, due pretty soon. This one is 144 full-color pages for $16.95.

It’s intimidating for the English-only fan to even consider grasping the breadth of writer/artist Joann Sfar’s career - the man’s only been active in comics since the early 1990’s, and already there are over 100 books in print featuring some form of his creative contribution. One would not be blamed much for suspecting that they’re not getting the most complete view of the man’s talents; French-language comics are rarely top-sellers in the best of circumstances, and even the finest, most successful works brought over from popular creators tend to bring in their wake largely similar works into our language. It’s simple market sense: in a sales arena as delicate as this one, it’s helpful to ‘hook’ new releases from a creator onto prior recognized volumes as much as possible, even if the newer-to-English work departs from the earlier one in certain ways.

First Second has cooked up a nice hook for their new English release of Sfar’s 2005 Klezmer, setting it up as a sort of spiritual companion to Pantheon’s high-profile 2005 release of Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat. They didn’t need to stretch much - in a 15-page bonus essay to the rear of the book, Sfar himself reflects upon how the story’s harsh early 20th century Eastern European setting represents the upbringing of his mother’s side of the family, standing in contrast to the North African environs of The Rabbi’s Cat that reflect the experience of his paternal ascendants. Indeed, the two works are ultimately deemed companion pieces, complete with contrasting character motivations (the cast of the Pantheon book speak often of God, while the characters here have largely rejected their faith), and recycled character designs in the grand Osamu Tezuka tradition. Or maybe that’s just my limited English-language view talking.

Sfar is obviously an intelligent, thoughtful man, his essay darting from handwritten text to dialogued sketches, leaping between topics as far apart as the conveyance of ‘music’ on the comics page to his personal opinions on what being ‘Jewish’ means today, so it’s no surprise to find that the comic itself is rich with historical detail and carefully observed studies of cultural relations - but what’s invigorating is how effortlessly it drifts by you. This is quite the breezy comic, a swift read despite its somewhat dialogue-heavy construction, the story itself composed mainly of conversations between traveling characters and gently telling vignettes of religious confusion or contradiction. A rabbi throws his best student out into the cold for stealing his coat, then meets the lad outside the yeshiva to give him the same coat to aid in his future wanderings. That same boy later happens upon a cave-swelling community of devout men who seem determined to believe the lad is the reincarnation of their own deceased rabbi, especially due to the boy’s ‘test’ of their faith through his own evident lack of belief. People will believe what they want to believe, and common heritage both binds many and guarantees no kindness or quarter.

There’s not an awful lot of forward-momentum ‘plot’ in here (not that there needs to be), as Sfar spends nearly the entire book leading up to the meeting of all five of the main characters. Not all of them are Jews, but everyone is interested in music, the Klezmer folk tradition played by small bands wandering from town to town. We first meet Noah, a grizzled former Polish soldier whose band is gunned down in the book’s opening pages by a separate group of Jewish musicians, hell-bent on protecting what little income they might expect from gigs. Noah is the sole survivor of the massacre, but proceeds to destroy his rivals not physically but musically, in a sequence generously excerpted online for your pleasure. His victory attracts nubile Chava, a fiery girl who’s determined to escape her village and learn to sing. Meanwhile, the aforementioned boy thief, Yaacov, runs into nervous Italian yeshiva expellee Vincenzo and boastful gypsy Tshokola, and the three piece together a rapport from music instruments picked up from the dead and a common desire to survive the dangerous wilderness.

And there is danger about. There’s actually quite a lot of violence in the book, shootings and attempted hangings and vengeance killings, and a general stoicism about murder and death held amongst the cast. Some of them are always ready to kill, even if their kind nature seems to defy such proclivities; it’s needed when nobody is really trustable, and life hangs by a thread. Sfar, however, refuses to allow such inner darkness to dominate the book - one could easily picture any number of other creators surrendering the story to some study of 'the killer within,' but this writer/artist is determined to view life with the genial, take-what-pleasure-can-be-found attitudes of his characters’ daily living, not fixating on the cruel necessities of survival in such a place.

If you followed that link above, you’ve no doubt gotten fixated yourself on Sfar’s visual approach, a loose, watercolor style prone to bathing his expressively simple line art in hues more responsive to momentary tone than spatial consistency. Look on page 9, at how warmth radiates outward from Noah’s red scalp and his hot harmonica sounds, the chilly blue and gray clothes of the characters in the top tier of panels set off by the jarring color in the interested crowd’s faces. Then, on the second tier, heat literally blasts from Noah’s playing as the nearby dancers are washed over in crackling orange, the force of the music trailing off to the dim glow of the dancers in panel four, some of it even touching Noah’s icy rivals in panel five, the radiance of music encircling everyone by Noah in panel six. Page 10 sees a related, but largely subtle color scheme. It doesn’t matter - the moment is what dictates what we feel through hue, a level of visual stimulus operating on a more subconscious plane than the obvious simultaneous appeal of Sfar’s line art. It’s emphatic, dual-layered approach to the page, mirrored in the author’s lettering, which both provides the most direct of visual information while subtly shifting from cursive to printed fonts, wavering from captioned to free-standing styles with little apparent structural attention paid. He gets you from in front and behind, and it’s an impressive dance.

Very much worth picking up, then. I dare say it’s a fine introduction to Sfar’s work, at least speaking within the limited parameters of what’s available in English. It goes without saying that First Second’s packaging is very fine, with an additional six pages of studies and sketches included as bonuses along with Sfar’s essay. Book Two is already out in France, and one hopes it’ll appear in English before too long, the debut now established in the market’s conscious. Like the small moments this book is comprised of, it’s all over a bit too fast, and you’ll want to be back to these characters and the pulsing, flushing colors of their contradictory world and collective interior state.