Last week, cartoonist Barry Deutsch signed a book deal with Harry N. Abrams to publish his much lauded webcomic, Hereville, as a graphic novel under its young adult imprint, Amulet, making it the latest webcomic to make the transition to print. Despite its traditional feel, Hereville is an imaginative fantasy/adventure tale about 11-year-old Mirka, a Hasidic Jewish girl who yearns to fight dragons and fairytale monsters. And in the pages of Hereville she takes her first steps toward fairytale heroism by battling a troll for a magic sword—in a knitting duel.
The book deal was negotiated by Judy Hansen of the Hansen Literary agency. Nick Harris of Rabineau Wachter Sanford & Harris is handling the film rights for the Hansen Agency. The book will be published in Spring 2010.
“What I look for first is the art,” said Abrams executive editor Charles Kochman, who acquired the book. Kochman said the book should appeal to young readers, a group that the webcomic has not really reached. “I think he’s an amazing talent, I think he brings something fresh and hits a demographic that is very passionate about what they read,” Kochman said. “If he speaks to that demographic, the book should do very well.”
Hansen first saw Hereville at the Stumptown Comics Festival in Portland, Oregon, where Deutsch had a booth next to his friend Scott McCloud, acclaimed comics theory guru and author of Making Comics. “One of the first booths I saw was Barry’s,” she said. “He had this amazing banner, and he showed me his comic, and I thought it was delightful, but I don't take new clients except by referral,” she explained. The next day she saw Scott McCloud, who is one of her clients. “The next day I went to see Scott McCloud,” Hansen says, “and he walked me to Barry’s table and said ‘You really should think about representing him.’”
After reading the comic, Hansen quickly agreed to represent Deutsch, but she told him the book needed to be filled out. Deutsch agreed, and the Amulet edition will be 130 pages long as opposed to the original 57-page story. The new edition will fill in the details of Mirka’s family and introduce some new characters, but it will end in the same place as the webcomic.
Deutsch, who was raised as a Reform Jew, says all his knowledge of the Hasidic lifestyle comes from books. “It’s not always easy to research, because there is not a lot of material available about the lives of Hasidic girls,” he said, emphasizing that the details of life in an orthodox Jewish community are key to the story. “It’s not ‘take an adventure comic, add Jews, and stir,’” he said. “The Jewishness is an essential part of the community and Mirka’s character. It’s a part of her life that couldn’t be left out of the comic.”
Because of her traditional lifestyle, Mirka seldom sees boys her own age. “Basically, she lives in an all-girl culture, and it isn’t till she gets to an age where she thinks about getting married that that’s going to change,” Deutsch said. “In some ways that provides her with a lot of freedoms compared to girls being raised in our culture, in that she is going to get extra years of not being concerned with what boys think of her and not having to model herself to be the way girls think they need to be to attract boys.” When she does reach maturity, Mirka may clash with the expectations of her culture, Deutsch said.
Readers of the online version of Hereville have helped out by pointing out his mistakes, such as having the nine-year-old Zindel dress like an older boy. “And when his hat gets knocked off in the book, he has a bare head underneath,” Deutsch said. “He should have a yarmulke.” That will be corrected in the revised version. Zindel’s outfit will stay, but Deutsch will treat it as an odd affectation, not the normal garb of little boys.
Hereville is also notable for Deutsch’s imaginative page layouts; he often shows several actions happening at once by superimposing figures and panels on one another. The warm, reddish color scheme he chose for the comic gives it an old-fashioned feel.
Deutsch, who studied under Will Eisner at the School of Visual Arts, is also a political cartoonist. He started working on Hereville simply because he wanted the challenge of a more complex comic. “I wanted to do something where there was room for extended characterization. A political cartoon has to be hyper-efficient,” Deutsch explains, “You have to have very plain layouts and a very plain approach to storytelling, because anything else would be a distraction.” But Hereville allows Deutsch, “to be more creative and do more with form and layout. I have always been attracted to Dave Sim’s approach to cartooning, where the page is the unit of composition.”
Deutsch started developing two comics, a semi-autobiographical comic about summer camp and the story of the girl who fights dragons. When Portland artist Jen Manley Lee told him that the webcomics site Girlamatic.com was looking for submissions, he decided to go with the comic that featured a girl. He later moved Hereville over to its own website, and he also self-published a print edition.
Although he signed a one-book contract with Abrams, the publisher has the option on future volumes, and Deutsch definitely sees Hereville as the first in a series. “I don’t know how many volumes there will be,” he said. “There may be comics focusing on characters other than Mirka who live in that community but I do know there will be several more Mirka stories, ” Deutsch says.
Deutsch also says to expect for Mirka to grow-up as the series progresses. “We are going to get to see Mirka and Zindel get to be teenagers. I know what the next volume is going to be, and I know where it is going to end up.”