"Comics were once for superhero action stories," said cartoonist Alison Bechdel in an interview with HuffPostLive. "That was pretty much all they did, and then people started pushing the boundaries."
Bechel is a MacArthur Fellow (recipient of what's commonly referred to as a genius grant) who sees herself as a graphic memorist. Her bestselling graphic novel, Fun House, was nominated for a National Book Critics Award and is now a Broadway musical.
Bechel credits Art Spiegelman, who penned his father's haunting story of surviving the Holocaust as the groundbreaking graphic novel Maus, as having paved the way for her to tackle serious subjects.
"Spiegelman's 'Maus' changed comics forever," she said. "Comics now can be about anything — any topic that's as serious as you can come up with."
In fact, the influence of Maus, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, is so great that it's hard to quantify. It is credited with altering not only how we see comics, but also the wider worlds of literature and the way history is conveyed about the Holocaust. Schools use it to teach in fields ranging from history to psychology, and it has spawned an industry of academic research and literary criticism.
Today, a new generation of cartoonists are using graphic novels to tackle tough subjects. One of these artists is 27-year-old Liana Finck, whose first book,A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, brings to life the trials and triumphs of Jewish immigrants on New York's Lower East Side.
On Thursday, May 7 at 6 pm, Liana Finck will be visiting Chicago to discuss her work in a free presentation at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, where her original drawings, etchings, and sketches for the book are on display in the first floor vestibule gallery through July 19.
Finck, a recipient of a Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists, was inspired by an advice column that ran in the Jewish Daily Forward beginning in 1906. Called A Bintel Brief(Yiddish for "A Bundle of Letters"), the column was a precursor to Dear Abby and all the advice columns that followed.
In discussing A Bintel Brief, Finck explains the importance of the letters she adapted for the book. She says, "The Forwardwas a lifeline for Jewish immigrants in New York during the first half of the 1900s. Its beloved advice column…introduced by the paper's legendary editor Abraham Cahan, [was] full of the kind of raw desperation and hopefulness we all feel, under everything."
In her adaptation, Finck imagines that Abraham Cahan climbs out of a notebook of collected letters, right into her New York apartment in the present day. As their friendship develops, Cahan shares letters from readers who seek relationship and career advice, solutions to complicated family problems, and strategies for dealing with the dark clouds of depression. Although from an earlier time, these letters — and the advice Cahan gave in return — still resonate.
Unterzakhan by Leela Corman from 2012, is another graphic novel that portrays the world of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York in the early 1900s. Unterzakhn(Yiddish for "Underthings") tells the story of twin sisters, children when the book begins, who end up taking very different paths as they navigate the limited and sometimes seedy choices then available to young women and struggling immigrants. The book received rave reviews from an impressive array of publications, with Publishers Weekly calling it, "beautifully drawn and hard to forget," and Comic Book Reporter praising it as "fantastic, particularly when Corman infuses her female characters with a snarl or a sneer, conveying a lifetime of pent-up emotion in a single panel."
The search for answers that drives A Bintel Brief and Unterzakhn is also front and center in another graphic novel, one that also touches on immigration, but the in America of today. Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel is by Anya Ulinich, author of the award-winning Petropolis. In it, Ulinich, an alum of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, paints a painfully funny, shamelessly personal portrait of the post-divorce life of a young Russian immigrant (not unlike Ulinich herself) who seeks love and finds herself. (For a wonderful interview with Anya Ulinich, check out this column from — where else? — the Forward: Anya Ulinich Makes Her Graphic Debut.) For more recommendations of graphic novels about the Jewish experience, visit the website of the Jewish Book Council at jewishbookcouncil.org and search for "Graphic Novel."