"I did not set out to make a Holocaust book,” Leela Corman says, adding that too often, portrayals of the Holocaust are “neatened up as a case of powerless camp prisoners and the big heroic Americans.” She’s speaking to PW via video call from her drawing studio at her home in Providence, R.I., and is dressed all in black and wearing her trademark thick dark eyeliner. The look is not goth—she’s precise on this point—but art school punk or death rock.
It was actually a photo of a woman working in an American munitions factory during WWII that inspired Corman’s latest graphic novel, Victory Parade (Schocken, Apr.). That image led her to oral histories of the period, predominantly those in Studs Terkel’s The Good War, with its testimonies about the liberation of concentration camps. Corman, 51, says her intention with Victory Parade was to convey “the personal experience of collective trauma—what’s happening with people day-to-day in their interior lives when there’s a gigantic historical trauma ongoing.”
Victory Parade is structured in alternating episodes: in 1943 in a Jewish immigrant enclave of Brooklyn; at the grim liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp; and on the astral plane, which characters cross in dreams and when, as Corman puts it, “the world of the dead and the world of the living meet.” The book’s protagonist, Rose Arensberg—only accidentally, Corman claims, named after the riveter—works as a welder at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and is estranged from her husband, Sam, who is fighting in Europe. In his absence, Rose has an affair with a veteran with an amputated leg and cares for her daughter and an orphaned German Jewish refugee named Ruth. As Ruth struggles with the trauma of having escaped Nazi Germany, she finds herself drawn into the world of female professional wrestling, where she becomes known as Ruthless Ruby the Killer Kraut.
Ruth cathartically slams her opponents to the mat, haunted by visions, then whispers with a grimace: “I hate the sound of my own heart beating.”
“This is what we Jews specialize in—black humor,” says Corman, who cites as influences Primo Levi (“Morally, ethically, he’s my touchstone”), Johannes Itten’s color theory, “confrontational music,” and directors Pedro Almodóvar, Fatih Akin, and Lina Wertmüller. As a Jewish cartoonist who remixes historical trauma with cartoony elements, Corman is inevitably compared to Art Spiegelman. But Victory Parade makes more direct visual references to the paintings of Otto Dix—and Corman tips her brush to the new objectivity, an early-20th-century German art movement “more corrosive than what gets lumped in as German expressionism.”
“I’ve always made intense, bloody figurative art,” she adds. And the luminously painted scenes of Victory Parade, according to Publishers Weekly’s starred review, “blend historical realism with fairy tale themes and pregnant imagery.” Floating, dismembered body parts are a repeat theme; though Corman also took joy, she says, drawing “muscular, sweaty bodies in motion” in the wrestling ring. (She also drew the cover for the Mountain Goats’ pro-wrestling-inspired 2015 album Beat the Champ.)
New York City is, as the cliché goes, a character in Corman’s books. And she knows it in her bones. Though she was born in Stoneham, Mass., she grew up in Manhattan and attended N.Y.C.’s LaGuardia and City-as-School high schools. “My mother was a real Bronx girl,” she says, describing her formative years as a “very 1980s New York City adolescence”: “I would ride the subway to school and see Keith Haring’s drawings on the wall as the train sped through the station, and use my N.Y.C. Board of Education bus pass to go to CBGBs.”
Corman came of age at the height of the Cold War, and her work reflects the trauma of that era—what she calls “the terror that our leaders were all going to kill us in a nuclear holocaust,” and the fear “we were going to die of AIDS.” But more profoundly, she draws on her family’s trauma: her maternal grandparents fled Poland during WWII; her paternal grandparents immigrated before the war.
That generation was “tight lipped and stoic,” Corman says. “My grandfather, like a rock in a chair. But I understand now, trauma is exhausting. There’s a gulf between you and everybody else. But the result is those stories don’t get told. They don’t owe anybody else their trauma. But I feel a responsibility to talk about it.”
Corman also considers Victory Parade to be a form of “anti-fascist activism,” and was drawing the book during the 2016 election cycle. She calls Donald Trump a “horrifying demagogue...using the same dehumanizing language about people seeking asylum as was used against Jews in the 1930s.” Then, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the project became her refuge. It was “more comforting to retreat into drawing WWII,” she recalls, “than to engage with current events.”
Corman came up in comics during the ’90s DIY indie scene. In 1999, she self-published Queen’s Day under a Xeric grant. Her major trade debut was Unterzakhn (Schocken, 2012), about Russian Jewish immigrant sisters in Lower East Side tenements in the early 20th century; one helps poor families get contraceptives, the other becomes a sex worker and showgirl. It was shortlisted for an Eisner Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a surprise winner of a 2023 MoCCA Arts Festival Award of Excellence.
In between Unterzakhn and Victory Parade, Corman returned to the small press community to publish We All Wish for Deadly Force (Retrofit, 2016) and You Are Not a Guest (Fieldmouse, 2023), which both collect comics essays and poetic short fiction on familiar themes—music, Jewish history, inherited trauma—that first ran in the Nib, the Believer, Nautilus, and other publications.
Corman also works as an instructor at the Rhode Island School of Design and Sequential Artists Workshop, a cartooning academy run by her husband, Tom Hart. Hart is best known for the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning, which tells the story of the couple’s first daughter, Rosalie, who died suddenly in 2011, before her second birthday.
Grief is ever-present in Corman’s work. But she doesn’t draw directly from Rosalie’s death—“I don’t want to put myself there.” Nor are her imaginings a simple equation of sublimated trauma. Still, she unpacks PTSD in her short nonfiction comics, and the lived reality of sudden tragedy permeates her fiction. “It’s always there, enveloping,” she says. “It’s such a part of the fabric of my life, there’s no way it doesn’t come into my work.”
Corman is the sole graphic novelist published by Schocken, a Knopf Doubleday imprint dedicated to Judaica, which publishes the likes of Franz Kafka, Harold S. Kushner, and Elie Wiesel. Schocken editorial director Altie Karper acquired Unterzakhn on exclusive from Corman’s agent, Elizabeth Wales, after happening upon the artist’s comics in Lilith magazine.
“It was Persepolis, but with Jewish girls on the Lower East Side,” Karper says. Victory Parade was later picked up as the option book to that first deal, and Karper was delighted to reunite with Corman, whom she calls “smart, passionate, and funny, with important things to say about the Jewish existence, Jewish history, Jewish current affairs.”
Victory Parade and Unterzakhn are the first two parts of what Corman calls her “New York triptych.” Though only one character—scammy loudmouth wrestling promoter Meyer Birnbaum—appears in both, bringing levity to two dark story lines.
If the first two releases in her trilogy address trauma through sex and death, what should readers expect next? Is Corman planning to dream up a graphic novel about money?
“God no,” she laughs. “That’s beyond my skill to write about.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Corman grew up in the Bronx; she grew up in Manhattan. This piece has also been updated for clarity.