Much like the deceased rapper Tupac Shakur, the late autobiographical comics writer Harvey Pekar continues to deliver hits years after his death. This month Hill & Wang’s graphic nonfiction line, Novel Graphics, published Pekar’s latest posthumuous work, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, a historical profile and memoir that confronts the modern legacy of the Jewish state and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the book, Illustrated by JT Waldman, approaches this sensitive issue from an impartial and historical perspective, it also remains unpretentiously and undeniably by Pekar and is interspersed with personal anecdotes and subtle human touches that give the book multiple layers of meaning.
Following the release of Pekar’s Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History in 2008, he approached former Hill & Wang publisher Thomas LeBien, founder of H&W’s Novel Graphics line of nonfiction comics, about writing a history of the Middle East. The book was planned as a way that Pekar could wrap his mind around the complex situation in the Middle East and settle, as LeBien described it, “a personal wrestling match" Pekar had been waging with himself over the years about the state of Israel. But Pekar was struggling to fit four-thousand years of history together with an increasingly prominent section on Israel, LeBien said, which included both the nation’s history as well as Pekar’s personal connection to it through his Zionist parents. At that point LeBien suggested Pekar switch the focus of the book to Israel and his religious upbringing, something more manageable for Pekar that also played to his strengths as a memoirist.
Along the path to publication, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me experienced a number of changes, most notably Pekar’s death in July 2010. Up until that point Pekar had finished the script and approved pencils and some early ink work, providing Waldman with the necessary direction to finish the remainder of the book. Pekar’s wife, comics writer and editor Joyce Brabner, has also included a poignant epilogue to the book, a vignette about arranging Harvey’s funeral. And the book also lost LeBien, who left FSG/Hill & Wang for a new job at S&S, replaced by a new editor Amanda Moon who now directs the Novel Graphics imprint.
Moon worked closely with Waldman and the production team on the final stages of the book, using Pekar’s script as a guide and doing their best to honor his intended message. Even the title changed over the course of writing the book, going from “How Israel Failed Me” to its now less grim final title, after Waldman voiced his personal reservations about the original title.
Handpicked by Pekar to do the book’s art, Waldman first came to Pekar’s attention in 2004 when Waldman was promoting his biblical adaptation, Book of Esther, and years later when the two collaborated on the forward to From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books. Waldman’s stylistic versatility fit the book’s shifting timeline perfectly and “made seamless sense,” as LeBien puts it. Waldman’s role became especially important following Pekar’s death, which forced him to interpret aspects of the book’s script, resulting in a “compelling” dynamic between the author and artist that “makes for an absorbing read,” said Moon. As is typical of most Pekar works, Waldman himself is also featured throughout the book having a running conversation with Pekar about Israel and the book itself while doing research in Cleveland.
Waldman’s own time in Cleveland, along with Israel’s history—reaching back into biblical times—and Pekar’s stories about his faith and that of his parents, became the three “tracks” of the book, as Waldman labeled them, which are woven together and make up the book. Separately, each track is not new territory for Pekar. He made his name scripting idiosyncratic memoirs that delve into his everyday life (American Splendor) and/or his childhood (The Quitter), while also cultivating a prolific non-fiction writing career. And while Pekar’s most recent posthumous work, Cleveland, began to combine these elements with interesting results, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me takes it a step further, shifting back and forth between the three tracks with ease, distinguishing itself from his other books and making it one of Pekar’s most complete works. Pekar himself comes off somewhat differently than usual throughout the book, forgoing his usual self-analytical curmudgeonly attitude for a more sober, scholarly voice, one supported by his encyclopedic knowledge on the subject and coupled with his own experiences. “We see the man behind American Splendor in a new light,” Moon said.
Pekar invites readers to follow him through the often obscure (and obscured) history of Israel, acting as a “tour guide through the heavy stuff,” Waldman said, and ultimately emerge with a new understanding of the situation. The book aims to be particularly resonant with the Jewish community, which Pekar criticizes for being unwilling to view the conflict objectively and succumbing to a longstanding partisan outlook that seems to exacerbate the historic situation. Nevertheless, Waldman and the book’s editors applaud Pekar for initiating the conversation and allowing readers to formulate their own opinions on the matter.
Aside from the Pekar faithful and the greater graphic novel community, Moon and Waldman are reaching out to various Jewish organizations and press, eager to connect with those who have an interest in Jewish history and narratives. In July, both will be attending San Diego Comic-Con International, the industry’s biggest stage, to promote the book, and in the meantime Waldman has been making the press rounds, doing interviews and spreading the word.
In Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, Pekar grapples with what it means to be a Jewish person in the modern world and attempts to make sense of a centuries old struggle between two cultures that shows little to no signs of reconciliation. Pekar combines his deep understanding of the issues with his characteristic straight-talk demeanor—an eminent critical voice that Lebien said was silenced much too soon. Waldman also points out that there was much more Pekar had to say, but is grateful for the opportunity to contribute to his legacy.
“My hope is that Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me will spark great debate and discussion about the ideas Harvey raises,” Moon said, “and that it will continue to do so for years to come.”