Pretty much everything I know about Israel I learned from comics. As a Jew who spent a lifetime studiously avoiding the topic — first, in the 1970s, because it was too boring when every adult seemed to have the same zionist catchphrases always at hand, and then, in the 80s and 90s, because it was too depressing after the Intifada made it impossible not to look more closely at all the ways in which, as Harvey Pekar put it in the title of one of his last books, this was "not the Israel my parents promised me." Rather than learn about the issue, I chose instead to stay home and read comics.
Comics have not made it easy for me, to put it mildly. In the last fifteen years, there has been a flotilla of comics devoted to asking hard questions about Israel and Palestine. In addition to Pekar's book, we have seen Joe Sacco's Palestine and his masterwork of historical journalism, Footnotes in Gaza; Sarah Glidden's How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less; and Guy Delisle's recent diary comic, Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City. All of these works have differently raised challenging questions for readers on both sides of the story, and especially for those inclined to proffer Israel an ethical blank check.
Boaz Yakin and Nick Bertozzi's Jerusalem: A Family Portrait, however, is the first major graphic novel focused on the early history of the state of Israel and using the unique affordances of historical fiction to raise different kinds of questions than can be asked by a first-person work of non-fiction. As I said at the outset, everything I know about Israel I have learned from comics, and so this truly was my first introduction to the history of Jerusalem in the years leading up to statehood, where this book begins—during a period that could plausibly be described as a Jewish "intifada" against British colonial rule. In the anger and actions of the novel's young men and women in their search for stability, justice and a future (which each member of the family defines in different terms), it is hard not to see parallels to the anger and actions of young Palestinians during the Intifadas.
But this is far from a doctrinaire book—it is a novel, albeit a very personal one, about the choices we make when faced with violence, with the threats of disinheritance, with the possibilities of peace and brotherhood. It is as much about the cruelties families do to each other as about the inhumanity of the wars we fight in the name of religion or race.
A screenwriter, this is Yakin's second graphic novel for First Second, and it is clear how much he has grown as a comics writer in the short time since his first. And much of the credit for the success of the book belongs to his choice of collaborator: Nick Bertozzi, one of the most gifted visual storytellers of this generation (and a master of historical graphic fiction). Bertozzi's ability to distill with flattening complex action, ideas, and emotions is truly unrivaled and it makes him the ideal partner for such an epic and ambitious historical novel.