Graphic humour isn’t for everyone. In Britain, in particular, the comic strip has always been under-rated. But for those bitten by this particular bug there is a real treat in store. Eli Valley’s new book, Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel is a glorious production on a lavish scale, a magnificent 14”×12” (35cm×30cm) compilation of cartoon strips produced over the past decade and more by one of the great masters of graphic satire. Unwieldy to pick up perhaps, in its monster format, it is impossible to put down.
Eli Valley is an American cartoonist/polemicist who often leaves Steve Bell looking timid by comparison. Coming from the heart of the American Jewish community, whose leadership rounds on its critics with remorseless intensity, Valley has responded with a quiet fury of his own.
Peter Beinen captures the world that spawned Valley in a brief, perceptive foreword to this collection, focusing on the moral bankruptcy of the leaders of the major American Jewish organisations. Top-level Israeli security officers have warned about the terrible effects of the occupation on Israeli society, but ‘America’s Jewish leaders don’t merely stay morally silent. They seek to enforce that silence by chastising Americans who condemn Israel’s behaviour and support pressuring Israel to change it. To justify that silence they insist that Palestinians bear sole responsibility for their own lack of basic rights.’
This is the mould from which Eli Valley’s passions spring. Son of a rabbi whose wife left him – and religious observance – when Valley was six, he and his sister grew up with a radical, now secular and very activist mother and a preacher father terrified of Jewish assimilation. Valley’s attempt to make sense of his world was helped enormously by his discovery of MAD magazine and the satirical revolution it heralded, with its vituperative attacks on American ‘values’ like McCarthy, Walt Disney and even Santa Claus by its resident cartoonists Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder, two Jewish children of immigrants from the tenements of New York.
Eventually Valley was to embrace but adapt this approach, ‘to direct the satirical energy inward’, his work embodying ‘the absurdist frenzy of MAD applied to the Likudnik lunacy of communal ideology’.
Always on the edge, often over the top, frequently disturbing and uncomfortable – they are images and stories you can return to again and again. A sheer joy!
You have to work at it sometimes because some of the references are lost in the midst of time and others always required inside communal knowledge. But this collection has dealt with that problem well. Each comic is accompanied by notes providing a commentary on the times when they were produced, the reactions to them by censorious editors and, above all, Valley’s careful, crafted response to the sledgehammer of communal disapproval. Nothing is innocent in Valley’s strips; each frame has been lovingly crafted, but they grow in insight and authority when placed in the context of the strip as a whole.
Starting from the historical Zionist denigration of the diaspora and the ‘new man’ that Zionism was going to create leads straight to his cartoon strip ‘Israel Man and Diaspora Boy’ with its Batman and Robin characters, Israel Man a ‘Man of Tomorrow’ and his pathetic sidekick, Diaspora Boy a ‘Harbinger of Death’.
‘The Diary of Doctor Lowenstein’ is another critical take on this theme, calling into question Israel Man. In it, a geneticist is charged by Ben-Gurion with a new project, seeking a ‘serum’ to create ‘the perfected Jews in our reclaimed homeland’. But there is setback after setback: the new creature created is bifurcated, seeing itself as both pariah and messiah and the serum escapes until all Israeli Jews are infected with it, with consequences we all know.
Valley is relentless in pillorying those who see anti-semitism under every stone, in every critical response when what Israel says or does is an affront to the liberal Jewish values held so widely in the community. Nowhere is this encapsulated better than in his glorious creation, Stuart the Jewish Turtle (see left), never one to miss a trope, real or insinutated.
After a satire on hasbarah (propaganda) against Stephen Hawkins’ decision to boycott Israel, Valley was asked by the Jewish Forward, which had published his cartoon, to respond to critics in an op-ed. Wrongly accused of advocating a boycott of Israel (cartoons are so easy to misread!), Valley pointed out the irony of asking a Jewish newspaper only to talk about certain things. With a pointed reference to BDS he writes: ‘Enough with attempted boycotts of Jewish views, divestments from Jewish thought and sanctions of Jewish opinion. In the Jewish community and culture that I treasure, there is a word to describe the movement to police and suppress Jewish expression. The word is shonda, and it means disgrace.’
And that probably sums up, in all its nuance, Eli Valley’s opinion of the leadership of the American Jewish community: a shonda.
Here is one of my personal favourite strips: Bucky Shvitz. It needs no further introduction. (Click to enlarge.)