Graphic Lit: Two by Joann Sfar
Yesterday I looked at two new books by French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim and remarked on the artist's prodigious output in a remarkably short time.
The only artist who could handily match that kind of track record would be Joann Sfar. Since his debut in 1994, he's produced more than 100 works, either by himself or in collaboration with a variety of artists like Trondheim (the pair are responsible for the fantasy "Dungeon" series, for instance).
Sfar has two new books out in America right now, "The Rabbi's Cat Vol. 2" and "Little Vampire." As with Trondheim's recent releases, they're aimed at both adult and young adult audiences, respectively.
The first "Rabbi's Cat" book followed the adventures of a talking feline (he gained the ability after eating a parrot) living in 1930s Algeria and constantly squabbling with his rabbinical owner and daughter.
The second volume is divided into two sections. The first, "Heaven on Earth," finds the cat tagging along with the rabbi's cousin, an enigmatic desert wanderer called Malka of the Lions.
Poor Malka and his pet lion are getting older and less admired by the surrounding populace. It isn't until Malka unthinkingly stands up to bigotry that he finds the respect he had been seeking so desperately.
The second half of the book introduces us to a misplaced Russian Jewish painter who is searching for a hidden Jerusalem in the bowels of Africa and ends up dragging everyone along with him on his hazardous quest.
As you might have guessed by this point, the book isn't really about the cat. He's more of an observer and narrator of the proceedings.
What's remarkable about Sfar's work here is not so much the unusual characters or plot but the way in which the author is able to discuss issues like ethnicity, spirituality and identity in such a gentle and graceful manner.
Few cartoonists even attempt to tackle such subjects, let alone handle them with the sophistication and warmth that Sfar does here. This is a smart, charming gem of a book.
Sfar's "Little Vampire" series deals with similar themes of family and identity, though in a more whimsical fashion.
This new book from First Second collects three adventures concerning a wistful young vampire boy who, despite being surrounded by monsters and a pet phantom dog, is lonely for a friend. He finds one in Michael, an orphaned boy who's clearly a stand-in for Sfar.
Despite some of the silliness on display here, there's a wistfulness to the book that's haunting beyond the supernatural scenario. At one point, for example, Michael says he doesn't feel he owes God anything, since his parents are deceased.
It's that refusal to shy away from honest emotions and tough topics, even in a children's book, that makes Sfar's work so wonderful. Buy it for the lonely little boy in your neighborhood.
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008