Joann Sfar, Klezmer: Tales of the Wild East & Vampire Loves (First Second, 2006). $16.95 each.
By Taylor Nems and Eva Yonas
Joann Sfar’s first installment of Klezmer: Tales of the Wild East tells the story of the adventitious formation of a rag-tag band of musicians devoted to klezmer, a brand of highly expressive, improvisational music developed by Jews in the shtetls of Eastern Europe and Russia. Originally, klezmer referred to the musicians themselves and, indeed, Sfar’s tale centers on five klezmorim: Noah Davidovich (nicknamed the Baron of My Backside), Chava (a beautiful runaway), Yaacov (recently kicked out of his yeshiva), Vincenzo (a sleepwalking violinist), and Tshokola (a gypsy with a questionable past). Klezmer records their unlikely companionship and tracks their development as musicians and maturation as individuals as they make their way towards Odessa.
Klezmer is perhaps more than anything a musical graphic novel. Sfar’s art is loose and spontaneous, but never accidental. He draws as a klezmer musician might play, seeking out a particular tune and playing with its tone, pitch, color, and rhythm to heighten and intensify a mood, a theme, or an emotion. Fluid, abstract backgrounds are balanced with wonderfully precise and evocative renderings of a smile, a slight turn of the head, or an askew glance. At times, he forgoes any hint of background or setting in favor of highly expressive portraits, revealing in the eyes of his characters the depth of emotion behind a scene. And just as a musician might play different variations on a musical theme, Sfar’s color palette shifts as the pacing and mood of the story changes—drab grays and browns running into vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows when the musicians pick up their instruments and begin to play. These visual depictions of klezmer music are true artistic gems, and Sfar’s ability to educe nuanced emotion from simple black lines and diffuse blots of colored ink is masterful. His art sings with a jazzy, relaxed extemporaneity that evokes the expressiveness and vivacity of klezmer music.
Klezmer follows in the wake of The Rabbi’s Cat, Sfar’s other Judaism-inspired graphic novel. At the end of Klezmer, Sfar comments in his notes that Klezmer and The Rabbi’s Cat could be companion pieces, each representing one of the two major traditions of Judaism: Ashkenazi in Eastern Europe and Sephardi in the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa. Both Klezmer and The Rabbi’s Cat are also intensely personal books, dedicated to Sfar’s mother’s and father’s families respectively. The two graphic novels are thus explorations of—as well as tributes to—Sfar’s own dual heritage.
In many ways, Klezmer is an historical piece, capturing some of the culture of Eastern European Jewry. More than that, however, it is dedicated to reanimating the emotions, dreams, joys, and sorrows of a people irrevocably transformed by the 20th century. It is a reincarnation of their forgotten personality. Indeed, Sfar’s book is as much about the culture of klezmer as the unique characters he creates. His dramatic, watercolor style captures the folkloric influences of the Ashkenazi culture, the Yiddish language, and the itinerant musicians who provided the soundtrack to pre-World War II Eastern European Jewish life. Klezmer is a beautiful book and we eagerly await Sfar’s next installment. (As an aside we strongly recommend taking the time to read Sfar’s notes following the story. They offer Sfar’s personal take on the religious and political implications of Klezmer and The Rabbi’s Cat.)
Vampire Loves, Sfar’s most recent release under the First Second imprint, is a collection of short stories chronicling the misadventures in love of a vampire named Ferdinand—skinny, bald, and grey, resembling an alien from The X-Files, but sharply dressed in a three-piece suit (“kind of square and Nosferatu-like,” as one of his potential paramours puts it). Ferdinand’s world, first introduced to us in Sfar’s The Little Vampire series, is inhabited by all manners of characters and creatures (Gothic personalities sprinkled with a pinch of Jewish mysticism): vampires, phantoms, plant people, mummies, werewolves, and a golem. However, while the characters in Vampire Loves are truly otherworldly, their thoughts and feelings—and the sometimes stirring, sometimes awkward situations in which they find themselves—are all too familiar.
Sfar offers us snippets of a world that feels much more expansive than these vignettes suggest. In fact, the varying worlds of Sfar’s texts have begun to intrude on one another, with characters from The Rabbi’s Cat, The Professor’s Daughter, and The Little Vampire series (and more!) popping up throughout Vampire Loves. The stories in this novel give us a glimpse into a universe rich in history, drama, and imagination.
As wonderfully fantastic as Sfar’s characters are, he uses such an economy of words and pictures that the reader is left with little explanation for the reasons behind their actions. While this would be troublesome in almost any other novel, in Vampire Loves these fragments present a fully realized vision of what true love is—or at least what we wish it weren’t.
In the end, Vampire Loves is less about Gothic fantasy than the nature and conventions of love and loving. Vampires flirt while flying, an invisible man seduces a professional mourner on a cruise, a werewolf is cursed to transform at the very sight of a female, and a plant girl cannot help but enchant every man she meets. And through it all, Ferdinand struggles to navigate the many forms that love takes. Sfar wants the reader to believe that everyone (even a chess-playing robot without a mouth) should have someone to love. The reader wants to believe as well.
Both Klezmer and Vampire Loves are playful and easily accessible, making use of Sfar’s signature conversational whimsy. However, as much as we hate to divide comix so predictably into art and story, Klezmer is the more visually stunning of the two texts, while Vampire Loves showcases Sfar’s storytelling capabilities and his ability to immerse himself and the reader in the fictional worlds he creates. Klezmer and Vampire Loves are both strong texts (although Klezmer is the more ambitious of the two), and either is a solid introduction to Sfar’s significant body of work. (Sfar has published over 100 titles in the past 20 or so years, although many have not been translated into English from the original French). For such a prolific author, however, Sfar seems to be underappreciated here in the Midwest. When we went to find a copy of Vampire Loves at our local comic store, none of the clerks had any idea who or what we were talking about. One clerk asked if Sfar was “an indie thing.” Not hardly. In fact, he is one of the comix world’s greatest talents.