Hereville, Thereville and Everywhereville, by Elayne Riggs
Oregon has become the latest state to garner the national spotlight in this Democratic Presidential campaign "silly season." Just about every liberal blog I read had effusive reports of the huge turnout at last weekend’s rally for Barack Obama in Portland’s Waterfront Park. Now me, I can’t think of Oregon without thinking of two things: the annual Stumptown Comics Festival, which I’ve never attended but which sounds pretty neat; and the person who first introduced me to the idea of Stumptown, my friend of many years, Barry Deutsch.
Barry and I go back so long that, like ComicMix commenter Vinnie Bartilucci, he knew me before my first marriage. As I recall, he visited me a few times back when I worked in the East Village, we probably even shopped at St. Mark’s Comics together, and he was an utter delight to be around. He still is, whenever he comes back east to visit. But he currently makes his home in the wilds of Oregon, so I pretty much see him around MoCCA time and that’s it. Fortunately, I get to see his art whenever I want to.
Barry’s been sketching and doing comic strips for awhile now. His political work reminds me a lot of Matt Wuerker’s style, the way it relies on gentle caricature and well-thought-out illustration to get his points across easily and without straining the reader’s credulity. He’d been bending my ear for awhile about a special long-form project of his, and that project has finally come out. It’s called Hereville. You’ve probably seen lots of reviews about it online already. Here’s another one.
Pen-Elayne For Your Thoughts – Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword
Writer/Artist: Barry Deutsch
Here’s what I thought…
The main thing that struck me in this tale was that I couldn’t really put my finger on a sense of place and time. I suspect this may possibly be a function of living in Oregon, which I imagine can seem very remote and very modern at the same time. When does this story take place? I kept wondering, probably to distraction. The presence of electricity, indoor plumbing and somewhat modern clothing led me to believe it could be a fictionalized town existing contemporaneously with my own life, either the way I remember things being in yeshiva in the ’70s or the way they are now in my heavily-Jewish neighborhood of Riverdale (the non-Archie one). And Barry confirms in a comment section of his Hereville blog that "Aherville (the town where Hereville takes place) isn’t a shtetl, in that the people are modern and they’re mostly pretty well-off. However, it is very isolated from the larger culture, which I think gives it a bit of that feel. Additionally, the point of view character for this storyline is an 11 year old girl; the grown-ups have much more awareness than Mirka does of Aherville as a town that’s located in a wider world."
This renders the story more like magical realism than fantasy, as matter-of-factly as the fairy tale elements are inserted into the narrative, but who’s to say an 11-year-old’s POV isn’t a fairy tale one to begin with? Mine probably was.
But you know, that’s all minor pigeonholing anyway. I don’t think we’re meant to derive a specific setting as much as a general feeling, and on that count Hereville succeeds marvelously. We become privy to a whole culture — one with which, given my upbringing, I could pretty easily identify — and family interrelationships, as well as universal experiences like bravery, ambition, cleverness and dreaming big.
Our protagonist, Mirka Herschberg, doesn’t seem to crave too much of the outside world anyway. We know she wants to vanquish evil in the way of the knights of eld — first she decides she wants to slay dragons, and then later her aim is to battle a troll — but what she doesn’t want to do seems ambiguous. She dislikes the "womanly arts" her stepmother (not an evil stepmother, by the way, a very welcome change from the usual in these sorts of stories) attempts to teach her, skills which, naturally, she will grow to need as the narrative reaches its climax. On the other hand, she accepts unquestioningly the bigger picture, that of the severe gender separation within the Jewish culture as a whole.
And I think back to when I was an 11-year-old tomboy, and I think, "So did I." Sure, I wanted to play baseball and have lawn-mowing as one of my chores instead of doing the dishes or vacuuming, but I hadn’t yet arrived at the point where I’d find myself in a couple of years, finally questioning the morning prayer where men thanked God for not making them female and women substituted that prayer with one which thanked God for "making me as I am" (i.e., dutifully and even joyfully accepting second-class citizenship). Mirka’s not meant to be a bigger-picture "why don’t we have a feminist haggadah" and "heck with it, women should be on the bima and maybe, just maybe, God isn’t actually male" revolutionary yet. She’s still navigating the treacherous waters of pre-adolescent adventure.
At the same time, she’s able to participate in and marvel at what she considers to be a pretty comforting lifestyle from her point of view. Sure, she may not wish to sew or cook, and she cleans the house and polishes the candlesticks somewhat grudgingly, but she absolutely delights in observing the Sabbath with relatives and friends. She enjoys the community it brings her, the intellectual opportunities, the specialness. There’s a lot of the 11-year-old me there, except Mirka doesn’t seem to fall asleep in the pews at the Shabbos service the way I always did.
Of course, unlike me, Mirka is the troublemaker in the family, to the eternal frustration of her little brother Zindel. And while her insistence on adventure, whether it’s defending a helpless older woman from neighborhood bullies or stealing out at night in search of monsters, is enough to wear out the lad, his loyalty to his big sister is constant and touching.
Barry has developed a number of great visual storytelling methods to keep us emotionally involved with Mirka during her journey. His facility at facial expressions is superb, he effectively uses her full-size figure to break across panel borders during scenes where, for instance, she’s facing inner conflict. I think my favorite panel is one where Mirka’s describing the smell of challah baking, and Barry draws her outline within the loaf as if she’s ecstatically buried herself in the smell. But he doesn’t overdo the artistic tricks, saving them for high moments in the story; the two 2-page spreads near the end, as Mirka frantically contests the troll in his chosen contest of skill, are particularly rewarding.
Every character is clearly delineated, with differing facial features and heights and body types (that’s the caricature skill at work). And Barry’s palette choice ("henna tones" as one reviewer describes it) also works quite well, all pinks and browns and maroons. I found the brown-black of night particularly nice, punctuated by the occasional whites of Mirka’s determined eyes. And the plot is very satisfying, in that — as with many young adventurers — Mirka manages to achieve her goal in her own eyes, even if that goal isn’t immediately apparent to the adults around her.
This is a book I’d unreservedly recommend to pretty much anyone, especially if they come from a Jewish background (although Barry translates all the Yiddish expressions). I’d take this one home to mother. In fact, I did! She read it on Mother’s Day and pronounced it "quirky," which I’m pretty sure is a good thing. And, come to think of it, sums up Barry himself pretty nicely. He took it as quite the compliment. If you want a taste of what the book’s about, Barry’s currently serializing it online, and he’ll have lots of copies with him next month at MoCCA.
So, what did y’all think?
Elayne Riggs blogs here, is working on a Bible story comic that is in fact a "bigger picture" feminist kinda thing, and is also a sucker for the smell of challah baking.