Jewish Lights, a Vermont publisher specializing in books on Jewish traditions and culture, doesn’t publish a lot of graphic novels, but the two released by the house have managed to exceed all reasonable expectations.
First published in 2006, Steve Sheinkin’s award-winning Rabbi Harvey graphic novel series, eccentric tales about a funny and very wise Rabbi in the old West, has sold more than 50,000 copies across its three volumes. And in 2001, the house acquired rights to former Village Voice cartoonist Stan Mack’s out-of-print work, The Story of the Jews: A 4,000-Year Adventure, a graphic history of the Jewish people originally published by Villard, which has gone on to sell more than 20,000 copies in the Jewish Lights edition.
According to Stuart M. Matlins, publisher and editor-in-chief at Jewish Lights, a book appealing to the niche Jewish market can be considered a success if it sells 5,000 copies. The Rabbi Harvey graphic novels (three books between 2006 and 2010), have been in print for nearly 10 years and sold tens of thousands of copies in the U.S. and international markets combined.
That’s a lot of sales for a book Matlins almost didn’t publish. He rejected the manuscript after he read it the first time. Undaunted, two years later Sheinkin resubmitted the book to Jewish Lights; this time Matlins passed the manuscript on to his staff. To his amazement, everyone loved it and Matlin agreed to publish.
The appeal of the Rabbi Harvey graphic novels lay in Sheinkin’s hilarious (and educational) combination of classic Jewish folktales with the tropes of the Hollywood western. The books offer a comic version of Talmudic wisdom applied to a succession of crazy problems and riddles brought to the good Rabbi by neighbors looking for advice. Add Sheinkins’ wacky stick-figure drawing style and the result is a series of charming Jewish “Westerns” starring the clever rabbi.
Matlin said the Jewish Lights is dedicated to finding books that help people, “find meaning in their lives," and the Rabbi Harvey titles seem to do just that. And while the books are popular with children, Matlins said, Sheinkin’s comics appeal to ministers, priests, rabbis, indeed, the whole family. The series has also been translated into French and Portuguese. Matlins suggested that because the Jewish communities are smaller in those countries, the books are finding success by attracting readers from other communities.
It’s a different story for Stan Mack’s smart and funny history of the Jews. Matlin said he loved the book when it was first published by Villard in 1998. “I wished we had published it. It’s inordinately brilliant, clever, and absolutely historically accurate,” he said. When he found out the book was out of print, “It took only seconds for me to accept and we published it in paperback.”
While these two graphic novels have found success, Matlins said the bigger problem is finding more comics content that is appropriate for Jewish Lights.
These days Steve Sheinkin is writing history-related books and has put the Rabbi Harvey series on hold since 2010. But Jewish Lights is excited to be working with two new graphic novelists on original work. Matlins declined to provide more information about the two artists at this time, but said the house has worked for two years with one of the authors, who has been inspired by the Rabbi Harvey series. He expects to publish one of the authors in 2016 and the other in 2017.
Looking back, Matlins described both Sheinkin and Mack’s works as unique, noting that he’d never seen comics like this before. Comics, once a niche market, have found a much bigger audience by offering broader, more diverse content. Besides, he said, “any time you do anything new or different, not everyone will like it, but those who do like it will really like it.”