The cover and title of Tahneer Oksman’s “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs successfully convey one of the central issues of the book: gender asymmetry. Pioneering comics artist Aline Kominsky Crumb penned the titular question in her 1989 comic “Nose Job,” and Lauren Weinstein, a representative of a younger generation of cartoonists, drew the noseless woman on the cover. A metonymy of the Jewish body and a stereotype of Jewishness, the oversized nose has been a standard feature in caricatures of Jewish men, but it is more often women who continue to undergo painful and expensive rhinoplasty to appear less Jewish and assimilate into white American standards of beauty. Oksman claims that this asymmetry is not only prevalent in the Jewish cultures depicted in the memoirs she discusses but also symptomatic of how scholars have approached the history of comics. Male perspectives have dominated the world of comics, she contends, and the history of American comics has been told primarily as one of successful Jewish male acculturation, starting with the superhero genre. Recent scholarship such as Simcha Weinstein’s Up, Up, and Oy Vey!: How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero (2006) and Arie Kaplan’s From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books (2008) has perpetuated this perspective by focusing on the Jewish male creators of superhero comics. Oksman’s book provides a much-awaited corrective to this male-dominated history of the medium and its genres. Focusing on Jewish women’s experimental comics, Oksman relates how these artists have used “innovative modes of self-representation and expression” to tell nontraditional stories about American society (17). Their work, which is often noncommercial, at times self-published, and can afford to be sexually explicit and nonconformist, owes much to the American underground comics of the 1960s and 1970s, in which Kominsky Crumb played an important role. Spanning the last forty-five years of comics art, the book examines memoirs by Kominsky Crumb, Vanessa Davis, Miss Lasko-Gross, Weinstein, Sarah Glidden, Miriam Libicki, and Liana Finck. For Oksman, the memoir genre effectively expresses these artists’ “dis-affiliation” from Jewishness and Judaism (2-3). She maintains that the need to reject or rebel against certain aspects of one’s identity is a defining aspect of Jewish women’s lives in postassimilation America. The process of visually mapping out identities through comics often entails such scenes of dis-affiliation; at the same time, rejection can lead to acts of creative reimagination and even reacceptance of certain aspects of Jewish identity. The cartoonists discussed in this book treat the memoir as a fragmentary form, consisting of discrete vignettes, which are then broken down further into panels. Such formal choices allow them to depict narratives that emphasize multiple, fractured, and hybrid notions of the (Jewish) self. For instance, Kominsky Crumb’s Need More Love (2007), the topic of the first chapter, includes family photographs, typed journal entries, reproductions of paintings, and reprints of previously published comics. As Oksman explains, this memoir asks its readers to actively piece together disparate stories and temporally distant events. Kominsky Crumb also uses multiple personae throughout the collection, and each persona undergoes further changes in appearance and behavior, also contrasting with the photographic images of the artist. For Oksman, this intermedial work draws attention to the “performativity and deliberateness of [Kominsky Crumb’s] autobiographical depictions” (26). Although the artist imagines the ever-transforming woman’s body as grotesque and even monstrous, Oksman maintains that the comics do not perpetuate misogynistic attitudes but rather convey her dis-affiliation with Jewish norms and stereotypes. Yet Oksman’s analysis might be enhanced further by considering how this trailblazing Jewish cartoonist works within a highly heteronormative framework. Discussing Weinstein’s art in chapter 3, Oksman does draw on Erica Rand’s broad definition of queerness, which designates the “odd, irregular, and idiosyncratic,” or else points, in Oksman’s words, to a tension between “the conventional and the unconventional” (151). Since this notion of queerness overlaps with the position of dis-affiliation, Oksman could have considered more extensively how the feminist art she discusses offers—or, at times, avoids—a queer critique of Jewish heteronormative society. The book’s chapters are organized primarily around thematic issues: narratives of self-creation, adolescent perspectives, and travel to Israel. While scholarship in the field of ethnic comics studies tends to focus more on the content of comics than the interaction between words and hand-drawn images, Oksman provides insight into how panel layout, composition, and drawing style play a role in these artists’ personal narratives. In chapter 2 on Vanessa Davis, Oksman draws on Stuart Charmé’s “antiessentialist” notion of Jewish identity as situated both spatially and temporally, thereby reflecting synchronous diversity but also spiraling forward and integrating past identities into the present self. Devoid of grids, frames, and borders, the images in Davis’s work merge into each other, creating a spiral motion and enabling a reciprocal relationship between past and present. The spatial fluidity of the comics page in this and other works has allowed artists to challenge “conventional notions of ‘space and scale’” as they pertain to women’s lives (10). In an astute reading of a panel in Lasko-Gross’s “Of Little Faith II” (2006), Oksman points to the use of an oval spotlight on the child figure in order to evoke a mediated sense of recollection of the past from a current perspective. The spotlight, a cinematic device translated into comics, shifts the past sentiment of isolation and resignation into a more productive sense of defiance, also functioning as “a kind of portal to that incident, a space where its emotional impact can be opened up, prodded, and reoriented” (137). “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?” abounds with such interpretative insights. Although the book could have expanded more on some of the cultural contexts for the emergence of these women’s comics, Oksman succeeds in unraveling the ambivalent positionality of secular Jewish women in American society, showing how comics open up new spaces for creative transformation. The book thus serves as an important model for the study of ethnicity and gender in comics with the potential to inform future considerations of this medium's confrontation with, and responses to, questions of identity. © MELUS: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 26, 2018
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