There are certain comics that carry tremendous nostalgia for me. The squeaky teens of the Archie books and the adorable deformities of the Harvey roster take me back to long childhood hours in the station wagon headed from Cincinnati to Massachusetts or Missouri. When I think of super-heroes, images by Johns Buscema, Romita, and Byrne and George Pérez illustrate those thoughts.
In spite of relatively limited exposure to his work (The Rabbi’s Cat, Vampire Loves, a short in Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators), Joann Sfar has managed to make his way onto the list of creators whose work I feel like I’ve been happily reading forever. There are plenty of cartoonists whose work I admire and will happily seek out, but there’s something special about Sfar.
The imminent arrival of Klezmer (First Second) provides another opportunity to figure out exactly what that special quality is. It’s the first installment of a story of a ragtag group of musicians who find their way together through a shared focus on traditional Jewish songs. In it, Sfar covers familiar territory – faith, the intersection of cultures, love, death, and art.
As with his other works, there’s no apparent precision to Sfar’s storytelling. He has a tendency to wander off point and riff on subjects seemingly as they strike him. The tendency can manifest itself as a surprisingly tender and romantic look at the history of Odessa or a who’s-on-first exchange about life after the Yeshiva. But the wanderings end up contributing to the whole. In a Sfar book, you can learn as much or more about the characters when they aren’t talking about themselves as when they are.
And the cast is linked in their shared flight. The band leader saw his companions murdered. The singer is avoiding the inevitability of an arranged marriage. Two have been thrown out of their respective yeshivas. The guitarist almost died at the end of a rope.
Each is ambivalent about the world around them and the sudden arrival of companions as they travel through it. For some, klezmer is a recent discovery. It’s a useful way to make some money or simply the thing that they’ve decided to do next after their original plans fell apart. But the music and the act of performing it has the power to sneak up on them. It’s something they and their audiences can share, even if it isn’t the product of their culture or if it holds no particular nostalgia for them.
It all unfolds in a lovely way that’s both casual and powerful. More than just about any other comic creator I can think of, Sfar folds in big ideas without ever turning them into Big Ideas. His observations can be absolutely scathing, but they don’t curdle things; the tone of Klezmer is ultimately expansive, even if individual moments can be bleak.
His illustrations, done in watercolors, are perfectly in synch with the story he’s telling. Sfar’s visual style is distinct but incredibly versatile. It can be simplistic, even crude, and wonderfully expressive at the same moment.
I’m still not precisely sure how Sfar has managed to make such an impression on me so quickly. It’s enough that he always creates inviting, imaginative worlds to visit, places that are both warmly familiar and surprising.
(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)