Book Review: Political comics

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Warning: If you have no sense of humor about Jewish continuity, the Diaspora versus Israel debate, Jewish American communal politics or the Israeli government, then you definitely won’t want to read Eli Valley’s “Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel” (OR Books). Of course, you’ll miss some very funny and extremely challenging looks at the extended Jewish world. Valley’s style is satire a la Mad Magazine, meaning that his drawings are caricatures and his humor heavy-handed, but he also has a gift for duplicating the double talk offered by some Jewish communal and political leaders.
His comics are a response to what Valley calls the preposterous way Jewish communal organizations view Israel and the Diaspora. He notes that the comics were drawn “partly as a defense of the Diaspora and as a way to explore the meaning of pride after a century of denigration.” For Valley, the American Jewish community is flourishing since young Jews feel proud of their Jewish heritage, even though they affiliate less with older Jewish organizations. He sees communal fears of Jewish continuity as a waste of time and effort. The difference between what young American Jews think about Israel and the defense of Israeli policies offered by communal Jewish organizations form the basis of his most controversial comics. Valley does note that these same cartoons are considered less controversial in Israel, where more criticism of the country is allowed.
Fortunately for the reader, Valley offers commentary on his strips. Some need little, while others receive a full page of discussion. This is important, though, because, when I read some of the comics before reading the commentary, I was unable to determine the specific events or proclamations to which he was referring. That’s partly due to the comics appearing years after they were written. Some of the figures featured were also unfamiliar to me, or at least, I was unable to determine who they were by the drawings. Valley’s explanation of the satire also shows why some of his critics misread the comics: they don’t appreciate the Mad Magazine tone, particularly Valley’s tendency to take things to extremes – something not everyone can tolerate. However, he challenges readers to take off their blinders and see how their reactions may be affected by emotion, rather than reason. This makes the strips worth reading, even when you disagree with him.
Among my favorite comics are: 
“What If... Batman and Robin Worked in the American Jewish Community,” which takes an extreme look at the American Jewish community’s fear of assimilation.
A hysterical view of the changing meaning of Hanukkah in “The Festival of Lights.”
“Jews and Comics,” which satirizes books that suggest all comic book superheroes have Jewish roots.
A controversial look at what occurs when liberal Jews begin discussing Israel in “The Incredible Hulk.” 
“Bucky Shvitz, Sociologist for Hire,” which focuses on the divide between young Jews and Israel, and the larger Jewish community’s reaction to the issue.
“Diaspora Boy” is an oversized paperback: measuring 12 inches by 14 inches, it was difficult and clumsy to hold. However, if the comics were printed any smaller, reading them would be a problem, especially for older eyes. Valley’s comics are obviously not for everyone. Sometimes he goes a bit too far, although even when his material is vulgar, it’s still usually funny. Almost everyone will find something offensive in his work, which is also what makes it good satire.
To see more examples of Valley’s comics, visit www.orbooks.com/catalog/diaspora-boy-eli-valley.