guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

Sarah Glidden, How to Understand Israel in Sixty Days or Less (2008- ), irregularly published, $3.00.

By Jared Gardner

There are many unanswerable questions a young cartoonist must face, the most immediate being, of course, the Big Why. If you have ever had the opportunity to listen in on cartoonists when they think we mortals are not around, the conversation inevitably turns to the Big Why. To paraphrase: “Why do we spend our lives painstaikingly making comics, arguably the most labor-intensive narrative form on earth and undeniably the least-respected and least-profitable narrative form of all time?” To which, of course, they smile, shake their heads, and rush back to the drawing table. The good thing for the rest of us in having storytellers who must regularly confront such a conundrum is that cartoonists are by daily experience made at home with unanswerable questions and therefore find nothing out of the ordinary in using their skills to tackle other unaswerable questions. It is armed with precisely such talents that Sarah Glidden focuses her sights on the impossible question that has tormented so many American Jews for the past generation. How to Understand Israel in Sixty Days or Less recounts Glidden’s Birthright trip to Israel, a program that defrays the costs for young American-born Jews to visit their “homeland.” As she jokes to her goyisha boyfriend before she leaves, “I’m going to go there and find out the truth behind this whole mess once and for all! It’ll all be crystal clear!,” a joke which thinly disguises her fondest dreams for the trip, to know the answer to the Big Questions: “What went wrong over there? Why aren’t there any answers without bias?” Of course, when it comes to Israel, there are also no questions without bias, and so between her own deep-rooted skepticism about Israel and the mission of Birthright to forge an unshakeable bond with Israel in the hearts of global Jewry the joke of the title becomes immediately clear. I am an American Jew deeply skeptical (my more committed Jewish friends would say “hostile”) about Israeli, and at almost twice Glidden’s age I have been stewing in increasingly bitter questions about the country, its history and its policies for decades. I do not come to Glidden’s comic expecting her to make good on her title. As with the Big Why, in the end we can only shake our heads and keep questioning. But I never had the stomach for a Birthright tour, never could bring myself, as Glidden did, to see it for myself. So I am immensely grateful to Glidden for taking me along with her on this journey in search of whatever truths could be harvested. And truthfully I can think of no one I would rather serve as my guide.

The first two issues of
How to Understand Israel are available from Glidden’s website (the comic is self-published), and I very much hope that once completed it will be picked up by a publisher and distributed in book form. I regularly teach Joe Sacco’s Palestine and as much as my students enjoy that brilliant book and the questions it raises, they often express (especially the Jewish students) frustration that Sacco chose not to spend more time with Israelis hearing their stories. Of course that was not Sacco’s goal: as he rightly points out, the Israeli version of events is the only one most Americans hear thanks to our government’s and media’s policies of supporting Israel unconditionally. But it is Glidden’s goal, and she brings precisely the right blend of skepticism and naive wonder to the project to make every panel resonate with the sense of having been there. This sense of immediacy, of having somehow been there with Glidden, is all the more surprising given her spare, sketchbook style which escews for the most part the kind of photo-reference detail that Sacco brought to Palestine. It works for her because Glidden’s focus is less on the details of the environment and individuals than it is on the intricacies of the questions raised by the experience. In one particularly witty moment, for example, Sarah drifts off during a discussion on the bus of the Wall and holds a fantasy trial in the case of “Birthright is trying to brainwash me” vs. “Birthright is actually quite reasonable.” Before the case can be decided, the bus stops for a bathroom break and the first issue ends with the Israeli landscape unfolding in the distance and a profound sense of how many unanswerable questions must be asked before we can even hope to get to the heart of the matter.

I am along for the full sixty days (or more), or as long as Glidden cares to take us through the looping routes these questions trace. And I am thrilled to having been introduced to her work: she is a fiercely talented creator who combines the directness and honesty of the best of contemporary diary comics with the ambition and fearlessness of some of the most important historical graphic novels. I look forward to following her career for the next sixty years (or more).