Gentle Wisdom from a Graphic-Novel 'Cat'
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If you're used to comics smacking you over the head with superheroes and fantasy, prepare to be seduced and charmed. Joann Sfar's series about the rabbi and his talking cat draws on the Franco-Belgian artist's roots to recreate the sights, smells and vibrancy of early 20th century Algeria.
Like his friend Marjane Satrapi (the author of Persepolis), Sfar is a member of l'Association, the whacky anarchist French graphic novel collective that turned the international comics world on its ear in the 1990s and early 2000s with emotionally driven comics drawn in a raw style. The author of more than 100 graphic novels, Sfar has in Europe advanced the dramatic scope of the medium the way Art Spiegelman (Maus) has in America.
The first book in this series, The Rabbi's Cat, won the 2003 Jury Prize at the prestigious Angoulême comics festival, and its sequel has the same sparkly richness, but greater emotional maturity.
Combining two titles — "Heaven on Earth" and "Africa's Jerusalem" — that appeared separately in France, Cat 2 chronicles the experiences and adventures of the rabbi, his cat and their friends and family in the vast cultural mix of colonial north Africa. The first part involves the rabbi's cousin Malka, an aging storyteller — and a trickster to the end — who meditates on his own death. (Follow one of Malka's adventures in this excerpt.) The second takes us on a wild trip to Ethiopia in search of a fabled lost kingdom of proud African Jews.
Despite the overt religious content and the social tensions of their setting, these stories aren't political in nature. Rather, Sfar has a kind of Isaac Bashevis Singer-like love of rambling, subtle yarns with universal appeal. The artist's wavering line beautifully renders his characters' sympathetic imperfections, but the real magic is in the gentle wisdom of his words. It's a rare book that makes talk of art, faith and humanity as exciting as a rollicking thriller.
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