Sunday, May 13, 2007

100 Great Pages: J T Waldman's Megillat Esther, page 84

Tenth of a series of posts about 100 great comics pages.
Links to: an introduction to the series; an index of posts by creator; an index of posts by title.

"Megillat Esther" is the Hebrew term for the Biblical book of Esther ("Megillat" means "scroll"); and it's the title that JT Waldman uses for his 2005 graphic novel version of it. (Throughout this piece I'll use "Esther" to mean the biblical book and "Megillat Esther" to mean the graphic novel). Megillat Esther isn't, strictly speaking, an adaptation of Esther into comics form -- because it's not quite right to say it's an adaptation: the entire text is presented, in Hebrew, as well as in English in Waldman's own original translation,* and it seems not quite right to say that something is an "adaptation" when the original is fully present. But Waldman's version isn't simply an illustrated translation either: it's much more centered in its visual presentation than that would imply.

Waldman's own term for what he's done is "midrash". On his own web site, Waldman defines midrash thusly:
Midrash is the name for the process and body of work that interprets and expands stories from the Bible.... Midrash fills the gaps or holes within the biblical narrative. Unexplained changes in continuity, peculiar grammatical syntax and other strange phenomenon in the Bible are addressed through Midrash.
As Waldman suggests, "Midrash" can refer to both a specific set of texts -- the canonical Midrash from the Talmud, Midrash Rabbah and elsewhere -- and to a type of storytelling which has continued into modern times. Waldman is not adapting Esther -- the whole text is there: he's using the comics medium to engage in midrash on it.

Waldman engages in midrash in multiple ways. Simply by illustrating the story, he engages in midrash -- adding details, suggestively rewriting passages, finding hidden treasures of story where the Biblical text only suggested. Much of this is original to Waldman himself, but other elements are in fact drawn from the earlier midrashic tradition, with Waldman showing visually details which are in the midrash but not in the basic text of Esther. The visual elements drawn from earlier sources Waldman dutifully footnotes -- including the notes right in the art, which I've never seen before, although he manages to make it quite unobtrusive (indeed, they're easy to miss entirely.)**

In addition to those varieties of midrashim, Waldman adds ten different passages that he terms "interludes", which are more explicit midrashim on the story, ones which are more personal and less grounded in earlier tradition, although even here they often (always?) have some grounding in the earlier midrashic texts. These are often in a humorous vein, such as putting Biblical characters into the vernacular of a modern game show. Others of these are simply inclusions biblical passages which the Midrash connect to Esther. One of my favorites of these, however, is a visual retelling of this Midrash:
Timna, a princess of Hor, yearned to join the tribe of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went to Esau and said, "I would rather be a servant to your people than a princess of another nation." Esau heeded her request and gave her to his son Eliphaz as a concubine. Timna then bore Amalek, he who greatly afflicted Israel. And why did this come to pass? Because the patriarchs should not have rejected her for not reason. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 99b)
This Midrash is retold purely visually, in five stark, silent pages right at the beginning of Megillat Esther. Esther as a biblical book is rather triumphalist, including a rather nasty piece of preventative (in the just-war-theory-sense) slaughter which may be justified but is rather horrible to celebrate. But the Jews also have a very admirable tradition of self-criticism, and by placing this wonderful midrash at the front of his book Waldman places himself explicitly in that tradition.

So far as I can tell, JT Waldman is a first-time graphic novelist (and Megillat Esther took him seven years, so I suspect it'll be a while before we see a second from him.) But he's an extremely talented comics artist, and his book is a visual feast: I bought it on sight because I was simply bowled over by how visually rich the work was.

Megillat Esther got a lot of attention from Jewish media (magazines, newspapers, blogs) -- but not as much, that I've seen, from comics media, despite it's back-cover plugs from Will Eisner and Scott McCloud. I'd heard of it before coming across it (at the always-fabulous Harvard Book Store's (deducibly-but-also-actually) fabulous graphic novel section), but it really hadn't gotten the sort of attention that work of this caliber should be getting. Of course, it was published by JPS (the Jewish Publication Society) rather than, say, Drawn & Quarterly or D.C.; and I think it was marketed accordingly. But it's a shame, and while it is, indeed, a work with deep and rich roots in the Jewish tradition -- one which will interest anyone seriously engaged with that tradition*** -- it's also a simply terrific graphic novel, and one I recommend to fans of the form (and, really, to almost everyone: it's purely and simply a great book.)

The book also has one other feature that I feel impelled to mention, an interesting attempt to make not only the visuals of the book, not only the layout of a page, but even the physical experience of the book as an object contribute to the narrative experience. Halfway thought, you get a crazy page (as the King dreams) which is topsy-turvy: to read it you have to flip the book upside down. And then, for the second half, the book proceeds backwards. Instead of turning pages right to left, moving from the left-hand cover towards the right-hand cover, you begin turning the pages left to right, moving from the right-hand cover towards the left-hand one. Reading in this direction can be disorienting if you're not used to it, although readers might be familiar with it, since a number of books are created to be read that way. Two types are particularly relevant here: books in Hebrew are read "backwards" (relative to English speaker's expectations), since of course Hebrew itself is read right to left, and thus the opposite order on the larger scale follows; and, in the world of comics, Japanese manga are read in a way that is to English speakers backwards since Japanese, like Hebrew, is read tfel ot thgir. For manga, this affects the pictures to: series of panels are read right to left just as the text is; and in the second half of Waldman's graphic novel, the pictures, like the pages, are read in the opposite direction than in the first half. ****

It's an intriguing device, an interesting attempt to bring the physicality of the book to bear on the emotion and texture of the story.

But the page I want to talk about, page 84, comes (just) before the switch (which occurs at chapter 6, verse 1 -- halfway through the book), and therefore reads in the familiar, left-to-right fashion of ordinary English-language comics.

Page 84 is the beginning of chapter 5 -- the first half of verse 1. In the 1985 Jewish Publication Society translation, Esther 5:1 reads:
On the third day, Esther put on royal apparel and stood in the inner court of the king's palace, facing the king's palace, while the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room facing the entrance of the palace.
It's a dramatic moment in the story, when, after a three-day preparatory fast, Esther goes to the King (breaking the law by approaching him unsummoned), as prodded by her uncle Mordecai, hoping to beg, beguile or seduce him into saving the Jewish people from the genocide the King's advisor Haman has planned. Here's how Waldman illustrates the moment:

(Click for larger version.)
In the beginning was the word, as the Distinguished Competition says, so let's start with the language: the Hebrew on the page corresponds to the words "On the third day, Esther put on royal apparel and stood in the inner court of the king's palace...". But while the rest of the Hebrew verse continues on the next page, the illustrations/English on page 85 are already dealing with the text of verse 2 ("As soon as the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won his favor"), the Hebrew of which is also on page 85. Thus while the English words on page 84 are a more-or-less literal translation of the Hebrew words also on the page, the second half of verse five ("...facing the king's palace, while the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room facing the entrance of the palace") is shown only in the illustrations (even though, again, the Hebrew text appears to be complete). The Hebrew is thus not always perfectly aligned with the illustrations/English, although it's close.

Visually, the most striking thing about this page is probably Waldman's use of the tree as the organizing structure of the page, with its trunk melding into the archway where Esther stands "facing the King's palace". It's a wonderful design, which lends a marvelous unity and balance to the page, the atmosphere of calm within a larger narrative tension. Why a tree? I'm not entirely sure: it may simply be that Waldman decided, rightly, that it looked cool. But there are other reasons too. As a frontpiece to the work -- even before the title page -- is a (partial) family tree, with the names placed on the literal image of a tree, showing how various characters -- Mordechai, Esther, Haman -- are related to the first patriarch, Abraham. (The relation of Haman to Abraham is of course through Esau, based on the aforementioned midrash from Sanhedrin 99b.) This image is recalled by the tree's use on page eighty-four. And it is of course precisely this familial connection -- in the larger sense of a people, a tribe -- that Mordechai has called on to get Esther to go to the king: she, too, is a Jew (even though no one knows that), and she has responsibilities to her people. So the notion of Esther's roots is very much tied up with this moment, and thus the tree's use as an organizing device has thematic resonance in addition to simple visual elegance.

The top two-thirds of the page show Esther's preparations over the three days in which she has given herself to prepare (asking the entire Jewish community to fast as she does, presumably as a sort of prayer, although it's not spelled out). On the top tier (the panel order is still quite clear despite the use of tree-branches as gutters) we see her fasting: dancing, bathing, laughing (along with her chorus of maidens who follow her around through this part of the story like it was a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta). This is all midrash on the notion that she "put on royal apparel": this is a big moment, and we see her treating it as such.

It's also worth noting the stylized suns in panels two and four (as well as on the second tier, in panel six, where the sun (wonderfully!) doubles as a window on the wall in Esther's room), as well as the stylized stars in panels one, three and five. These are not meant as literal representations: the stars are in a semi-circle, the sun in a semi-circle bending in the opposite way. But even the highly symbolic sun and stars work quite well: they note the passing of time and they add pleasing elements to the design (with the alternating curvatures of the stars and the sun lending a nice element to the page too).

Most dramatic, perhaps, is the fifth panel, in the upper-right-hand corner of the page. there we see Esther the night before she is to approach the king crying, terrified -- being comforted by one of her maidens at a moment when her nerve is breaking. It's a terrific touch: Esther is (as she points out to Mordechai on the previous page) breaking the law, risking her life, to go to the king. Of course she'd be scared... but it's not made explicit in the story (and to my knowledge not in any Midrash either; at least Waldman doesn't cite any for this particular page). It forces us to reinterpret the previous image as well: the rejoicing with her maidens is not simple partying, but rather a desperate, over-the-top attempt to keep her fear and trepidation away -- an attempt that fails in the end, as her spirit momentarily quails. This is a marvelous example of what I mean when I say that Waldman is doing midrash on the biblical text: Esther, like much of the bible, is written in a very spare, almost minimalist style: not much time is spent on character development or private emotional moments. So here Waldman shows us one: the three days of preparation, and how Esther, momentarily, lost it.

But only for a moment. On the second tier we see her making her final preparations the day before, adjusting her hair before a mirror, a bowl and pestle (for make-up?). Then we see her staring out the window: she was -- again one is tempted to say of course -- ready too soon. She has to wait for the right time. So she stairs moodily out the window, perhaps ruminating on the risk she is taking, perhaps preparing herself mentally for whatever she will have to go through, or perhaps simply checking the time by the moon to see if the moment is ripe.

And then, finally, we see her standing there -- "in the inner court of the king's palace, facing the king's palace, while the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room facing the entrance of the palace". She grounds the page: all the preparation are rooted in the necessity of this moment, they are all preparation for this. The instant is drawn straight-on, with the classical perspective strongly highlighted by the tiling on the floor. The outer columns of the courtyard frame the panel in the way that the tree branches did the upper panels: now Esther has left the comforting, natural roots of her maidens and has come to the cold, stone world of the king. Inside are more columns; and inside, smaller still is the king.

The king is slumped to his right (leaning is a traditional prerogative of kings in Jewish folklore, which is why you're supposed to lean at a seder, since on Passover everyone is royalty); it also is the only departure in the middle-bottom of the page from the absolutely balanced, renaissance-style order -- one which keeps it from being too ordered and too dull. The figure of the king is quite small -- when he wants to Waldman is perfectly willing to use (and capable of using) very tiny figures† -- but his body language is still quite clear: he is bored. And he's lonely: the book of Esther starts off with his exiling his earlier queen and then regretting it, and Esther's judgment about when to approach him is clearly quite good.

The words, of course, are central to the design here: the Hebrew is inscribed (white against dark hatching) on the trunk of the tree, their English translation on the floor of the court. There are fewer words on this page than on many (although more than on some), but still they're very prominent: Waldman does not shy away from using the look of his words as part of his design, of making them things not simply superimposed on an image, but that contribute to the image itself. (Waldman, incidentally, did the Hebrew calligraphy along with the translation and the art; but the English lettering was done by Elisha Solmes.) Using the two types of letters help tie together the two backgrounds: the wood and the stone, the private world of Esther and the cold public world of the court. They also help fill up the page: Waldman's pages are stuffed full; -- not overfull (at least I never find them so), but they're rich, with lots happening everywhere. Part of this is because of his decision to include the text in two languages along with his images: it demands a busy style, since it's simply a lot to get in. But he uses the lettering as part of the drawing (often far more literally and directly than here), and it ends up balancing his art very well.

What about the two figures in the bottom-right and bottom-left corners -- what's up with them? They, it turn out, are part of a parallel story, a sort of harmony that runs in parallel throughout chapter five (which, like many such devices Waldman uses, helps give chapter five its own visual unity and distinctiveness). Throughout the seven pages devoted to the chapter,†† Waldman devotes the lower corners of each page to these ongoing narratives. The narratives are silent, save for the Hebrew names on page 84, which are finally given their English equivalents on page 90 at the side-stories' end: that's Bezalel on the left and Joshua on the right. Their appearances on page eighty-for is simply designed to introduce the characters, whose tales are then told by their appearances on the remaining six pages of the chapter.

Hold on. Joshua, of course, is the eponymous character from the sixth book of the Hebrew bible, the successor to Moses. But who is "Bezalel", anyway? -- I hear you cry. -- Well, Bezalel is a character from Exodus, who is the architect who builds the tabernacle. -- Okay, but why does Waldman telling us the tales of Bezalel and Joshua in parallel to chapter five of Esther?

That, I have to admit, I'm not sure about. All Waldman says on the matter (in the footnotes) is this: "The juxtaposition of Joshua the Conquerer [sic] and Bezalel the Artist alludes to the decisive action of Esther in chapter 5." (p. 163) Waldman says this as if Joshua and Bezalel are typically contrasted -- but if so, I don't know anything about it. And why chapter five is unclear to me too. (Oh, I could make something up. But I'd be faking it, so I won't.)

Certainly for the purposes of page 84, they work quite well as part of the design. The focus, at the bottom of the page, has to be on Esther and her straight line-of-sight through to the king on his throne: having panels in either corner would be distracting... unless they're clearly separate from the narrative, as here. The strong blacks of Bezalel contrast with the lightness of the panel above it, while the lightness of Joshua contrast with the blackness of Esther's robe in the panel directly above it. So they work very well on this page, even if I personally don't know what they're supposed to mean.

And, anyway, I think it's okay that I don't. As Waldman says, when asked about this (and other motifs) in an interview:
The Midrashic subplots are intended to add layers of depth and context to the Book of Esther. I really enjoyed developing them, but if the reader finds them extraneous they can simply skip over them. I wanted there to be some mystery to my interpretation and not have everything be on the nose. The subplots manifest the mystique of the work.
This is simply one of the mystiques of the work -- an extra element that plays along with the main story, adding (as it were) a harmony to the main melody.

Start again. Another way to look at this page is as all about Esther's hair. We see her, prominently, washing it at the top center of the page; we see her combing it in the panel on the left-hand side of the page; and it is the main focus of our attention when Esther stands before the king with her hair braided to perfection. The hair here stands (as it does in Judaism more generally, and indeed in other religious traditions as well) as a metonymy for beauty and sexual attractiveness, and indeed Esther's hair is part of her voluptuousness which Waldman is not shy about emphasizing. Esther is certainly not drawn in the model-thin-with-breasts-of-silicone style that has, alas, become the stereotype for "sexy" in too many mainstream comics. But she is drawn as alluring -- as she has to be to make the story work -- and, indeed, as self-consciously so. (I also find that her face looks quite conventionally Jewish -- on this page you can see this most clearly in panel four, when she's dancing -- which I think is sort of a nice touch too.) This page is, in many ways, the preparation for a seduction scene -- not a literal one (no sex is shown), but an implied (or anyway symbolic) one, in which Esther gets the king to fall for her in order to save her people.

I should talk at least briefly about Waldman's linework. You can see just on this page a lot of different type of line: the dark, thick hatching that makes up the tree; the stylized parallel lines that form the night sky on the top tier; the detailed lines that make up the human figures throughout; the thicker line that serves to draw Bezalel, and the lines without any sort of hatching that make up the figure of Joshua. There are a lot of different styles on this page -- the highly stylized stars and suns, the marvelous realism of Ester, the abstraction of Bezalel and Joshua.

Waldman is also a master of balance: the darks and the lights, the various figures, the detailed, thick, rich art all serves to make a pleasing, whole pattern, rather than simply the chaotic mess that this much detail and information might make in the hands of lesser draftsman.

Waldman uses a panoply of visual styles -- his various interludes, for example, are drawn rather differently than the main story is; individual chapters will have stylistic unities the rest of the text doesn't; and certain pages are simply wildly different in various exuberant and effective ways. A lot of this art has its visual roots in Jewish sources, as Waldman explains on his web page:
Most of the architecture and design influence [for Megillat Esther] came from the Achamenian period of Persian art from 600 - 400 B.C.E. Other examples include a Renaissance depiction of a scene from the Book of Esther, a 16th century Persian painting, and a 1970s French illustrated Megillat Esther.
(I should emphasize that none of these sources are used at all slavishly or reductively: they are perhaps inspirations and guides, but Waldman's style is, quite clearly, very much his own.)

Given this richness of stylistic variation, it's hard to say what a "typical" page of this graphic novel looks like. But in many ways that page 84 is about as typical of Waldman's style as you can find. (It's greatest divergence is probably that the Hebrew is somewhat less prominent than on many pages -- although there are also totally silent pages, with neither Hebrew nor English, so it's not all that extreme even along this dimension.) And at the very least it is typical in its inventiveness, its visual excitement and interest, and its richness of design and image and thematic motif. And from the pictures of Esther you can get a sense of the way that Waldman draws people, which is always important in how one relates to a comics narrative.

If you look at this page and say, 'Yeah, so what, it's the bible story with some pictures" -- well, then Waldman's work is not for you. But if you find yourself interested by the richness of the design; if you find yourself moved by the story implicit in the partying-against-fear and breakdown in panels four and five; if you find yourself intrigued by the decision to lay the stories of Bezalel and Joshua alongside that of Esther for a chapter -- then seek out Waldman's book. There's far more richness and narrative power and intriguing intertextuality where this came from, and it's all beautifully drawn and thought out, richly attentive to the traditions both of biblical midrash and of the graphic novel. If you like this page, I urge you to seek it out.

* That is to say: the Hebrew text is, I believe, complete -- although I certainly didn't check it. The English text, however, is definitely partial: some of the "translation" is done through the illustrations rather than through the use of English

** Why bother to footnote? Waldman himself explains, in one of the appendices that follow the main graphic novel, "Why is it Important to Cite Sources" (p. 157):
According to Rabbi Chanina (200 B.C.E.), "Whoever repeats something in the name of one who said it brings redemption to the world." ... This quote connects with verse 2:22 of the Book of Esther, when Esther notifies King Achashverosh in the name of Mordechai of the treachery of the palace. The tradition of citing sources has remained a continuous and integral aspect of rabbinic study for centuries. The inclusion of the rabbinic sources within Megillat Esther locates this book within the framework of rabbinic literature.
Hence footnotes.

*** Although a few of the pictures -- Esther is presented as very much the temptress (as fits with the story) -- may put off those of a more orthodox bent. (Although I'd say it's all pretty strictly PG-13 (or even just PG) -- suggestive not revealing.)

**** In English translations of manga, you find both books that are "flipped" so that the pages read as English-language (and French, and Spanish, etc.) comics do, and ones that are translated and presented as-is. But anyone who reads manga seriously (which I admittedly don't) will certainly have come across the "backward" versions (which I believe are preferred by purists).

† Page nine of Megillat Esther is a wonderful page with well over a hundred panels, of varying sizes but mostly quite small, showing the richness of the king's court. As usual in writing entries for this series, I had many possible pages that I thought of using; page nine was one of them.

†† pp. 84 - 90. Chapter 5 is done comparatively succinctly: Esther has ten chapters, and Megillat Esther is 153 pages long, not counting its (comics) preface, or its textual footnotes, explanations, etc. Even leaving some of those aside for Waldman's midrashic interludes, the chapter adaptations still vary in length, and I think the pages given to chapter five -- well superbly done -- are terser than other parts of the narrative.


Anonymous said...

wow. i'll have to go read that page again.

it's said of all the best graphic novels that they get richer with successive readings, & waldman's reasearch is so extensive & his pages are so packed that a hundred readings would still turn up new stuff.

i am likewise mystified how little press this book got in the comics world. i heard about it first from people from my synagogue, & only got my hands on a copy once i met the artist.

the artist, by the way, & i are sharing a table at mocca art fest next month. tell all your friends!

Unknown said...

Wow, that's a great page. I had never seen, or even heard of, this book before reading your post. We should try to get the word out about this guy.

Good analysis as always. I especially like the drawing of Esther doing her hair in the 6th(?) panel. It just looks really nice. You mention that she is drawn attractively, yet realistically, and the panel of her being comforted (the 5th?) is a great example of that; you can see the bulge of flesh underneath her clothes. Nice drawing, that. I'm not so good at recognizing the "Jewishness" that you describe, but I think I see what you mean. I really need to try to read this book.

By the way, congratulations on being linked by Journalista!; your stuff is quite deserving of wider recognition. Keep up the good work!

Stephen said...

Thanks for the comments, Miriam & Matt!

Matt: it's definitely worth tracking down. The "Jewishness" is actually more noticeable on other pages, I think. (Unless it's all in my head.) I wanted to mention it, but it's hard to see here.


Unknown said...

stephen, thanks so much for this, I'm really enjoying following your analysis.

One question: where do you stand (as someone who clearly actually thinks about comics rather than just enjoying them) on Scott Mccloud's framing of comics discourse? I've noticed that you reference some of his terms from time to time, but not always.

My feeling is that is some ways Mccloud's books, while useful, have had a bit of a stifling effect, not so much amongst actual comic heads, but with academics coming in from other disciplines. I recently read a book called the Sandman Papers where all these English masters and phd students used Mccloud as a crutch. He seems to have become the "safe" way to talk intelligently about the medium.

This, in a way, is why I like your pieces so much, particularly when you talk about something I've actually read. Your comments stand alone.

Stephen said...


Thanks for reading!

I'm quite a fan of McCloud, actually. I haven't read enough academic paper on comic to notice the phenomenon that you mention although as described I would (of course, given the description) be put off by it. I find McCloud's terms useful and, rather than stifling, liberating -- but of course when "useful" is the criteria (as it should be) context and purpose matters above all.

I'm also wondering which terms you mean. I've seen the most resistance to McCloud's definition of comics; three articulate oppositions to this come from Samuel R. Delany (in an essay collected, IIRC, in his book Shorter Views), from Dylan Horrocks (in an on-line essay, click that link), and in various places by Eddie Campbell. (Incidentally, Eddie Campbell came by the comments of the Codex Seraphinianus entry in this series and we hashed this out a bit; you might be interested in taking a look.) The one thing I'd add to this discussion -- which I think moots a lot of the criticism that Delany, Horrocks & Campbell have -- is that if you reread the first chapter of Understanding Comics, McCloud very clearly describes his definition as provisional. Granted, in other contexts he seems to take it as True; but I think he would personally admit to the pragmatic nature of the decision. And certainly that's how I see it: McCloud's definition opens up possibilities, and is therefore a good thing; if you see it as closing off possibilities, well, then, set it aside. (I have the same reaction to the "words and pictures" definition which is the other common one you see -- which I associate with Harvey Pekar & R. C. Harvey).

But I've seen less resistance to his other terms -- closure, the various types of panel-to-panel transitions, etc. I'm curious which terms you're thinking of. I'd have said I use McCloud's terms when they, well, come up; for a lot of the analysis that I'm trying to do they're simply not applicable.

If you say more, I'll try to follow up and say more too.

But for myself -- especially the definition -- yeah, liberating: one of the forces helping draw me back into serious comics readings seven or eight years ago was the (ongoing) impact of McCloud's work, the sense of being lead out of a dark and stifling basement to breath clean, bright air about what comics could be. So I tend to be a big McCloud booster.

Thanks for your comment,