A new exhibit at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe takes a page from Jewish graphic novels and comics. Showcasing 12 projects that recount biblical tales, rabbinic writings and personal biographies, the exhibit pairs image and text to spark conversation.
When Ben Schachter and Andrew Julo began work on “People of the Book & the Storyboard” nearly two years ago, neither of the Saint Vincent staffers considered their efforts particularly prescient. Yet, in recent weeks, Jewish graphic novels have gained national attention. Just before Jan. 27 — International Holocaust Remembrance Day — a 10-person school board in McMinn County, Tennessee, voted unanimously to remove Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” from its curriculum, saying the work contained language and imagery unsuitable for students.
Along with depicting Jews as mice and Nazis as cats, “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction book written in the graphic style, describes the author’s relationship with his father, a Holocaust survivor.
As news of the school board’s decision traveled nationwide, the conversation and debate around “Maus” grew. During an on-air discussion about the book’s banning during “The View,” co-host Whoopi Goldberg ignited new controversy by claiming the Holocaust was not about race. Goldberg later apologized but received a two-week suspension from ABC. Meanwhile, the uproar spurred by the Tennessee school board’s decision generated new interest in “Maus” — and sales of the book exploded. “The Complete Maus,” which contains volumes 1 and 2 of Spiegelman’s work, has remained the third-most-sold book on Amazon Charts since the controversy began.
Schachter, an art professor at Saint Vincent, said he never imagined Jewish graphic novels would feature so prominently in national discourse.
It was Schachter’s contribution to the genre that originally prompted the push for an exhibit about Jewish graphic novels, Julo said.
In 2020, Schachter completed “Akhnai Pizza,” a graphic novel that reimagines a Talmudic dispute regarding the ritual purity of an oven. But as opposed to offering readers a black-and-white page of Aramaic language in which rabbis debate Jewish law, Schachter departed from the traditional Talmudic style and set his story in Pittsburgh, with illustrated characters arguing, in English, about which pizza is the city’s best.
With “Akhnai Pizza,” Schachter tapped into a growing trend, according to Julo, director and curator of the Verostko Center for the Arts at Saint Vincent. During the past several decades, authors — including Pittsburgh’s Barbara Burstin, who recently published a 16-page work about America’s response to Hitler and the Holocaust — and illustrators have created a “really interesting subset within graphic arts,” he said. And the new exhibit offers recent examples of “sophisticated ways of telling stories to lots of audiences, regardless of age group.”
Among the 12 items within the exhibit is an illustrated Haggadah, a graphic novel of Pirkei Avot and a visual adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary.
Part of the exhibit’s uniqueness, Schachter said, is that it provides visitors three distinct ways to experience the materials. Attendees can see images displayed in a traditional gallery style, but there’s also space set up like a living room, where people can take any of the 12 works and “sit down and enjoy the books in a casual, natural way.” People can also experience the exhibit virtually by watching and listening to several upcoming lectures on Zoom.
On Feb. 10, at 6:30 p.m., Samantha Baskind, a professor of art history at Cleveland State University and author of several books on Jewish American art and culture, and comic artist JT Waldman will discuss the impact of Jewish illustrators, authors and publishers on 20th-century American sequential art. On Feb. 23, at 3 p.m. Nina Caputo, an associate professor of history at the University of Florida, will discuss her visually-narrated book “Debating Truth: The Barcelona Disputation of 1263, A Graphic History” and the historic exchange between Rabbi Moses ben Nahman and Catholic priest Pablo Christiani.
Rabbi James Gibson, a Saint Vincent professor and rabbi emeritus at Temple Sinai, participated in a Jan. 27 lecture to open the exhibit. Following the talk, Gibson told the Chronicle that he encourages Allegheny County residents to trek eastward to Westmoreland County to see “People of the Book & the Storyboard” — and that those who live in highly-populated Jewish areas should appreciate the exhibit’s regional significance.
“I think the fact that the exhibit is in rural western Pennsylvania, in a Catholic institution, underscores the attempt of Saint Vincent to bring the Jewish experience to people who may have never met Jews, and we should support that effort by our presence and attendance at that exhibit,” Gibson said.
Julo agreed, saying that he hoped the exhibit would serve as a bridge-builder between communities and that the exhibit and recent “Maus”-related controversies highlight the role of graphic novels as critical educational tools, especially when it comes to the Holocaust.
“There’s revisionist history going on right now, and a widening of narratives about World War II, but we need to keep [clear] that this was an attack on Jews first and foremost,”
Julo said. “And as a Catholic school, it is important for us to say that this was an attack on Jews and that an attack on any faith group is unacceptable.”
Although several items within the exhibit — including the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s “Chutz-Pow!” — focus on World War II and the Holocaust, the exhibit functions as a commentary and conversation starter on events and periods apart from those occurring last century, Schacter said.
“The comic book page and graphic novel,” he said, “is a way to engage those difficult topics in a way that is approachable.”
“People of the Book & the Storyboard,” at the Verostko Center for the Arts at Saint Vincent College, runs through March 11. The center is open Wednesdays 1-4 p.m., Thursdays 1-7 p.m., and Fridays 1-4 p.m. Those looking to visit the center outside its normal hours can make an appointment by emailing email@example.com. The exhibit and its programs are free and open to all. Masks are required for in-person events. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.