The Israeli Army Goes Comic
Miriam Libicki shows a whole other side of life in the army through her autobiographical comic series.
Miriam Libicki is the creator of the autobiographical comic series, jobnik!, which has run from 2005 to the present, and recounts her service in the Israeli army during the second Intifada, 2000 to 2002. She has also created several drawn essays, including Towards a Hot Jew (2005), ceasefire (2006), fierce ease (2008), and Jewish Memoir Goes Pow! Zap! Oy! (published in The Jewish Graphic Novel: Critical Approaches). Libicki told us she often uses her comics as a public outlet for her Jewish identity, and she also believes her comic book is filling a void by showing a female Israeli soldier who is “not some sexy badass.”
How does your Jewish identity affect your writing (other than the obvious way, that you’re writing about a Jewish girl in the Israeli army)?
I have become aware, through getting to talk to a lot of readers on the convention circuit, that I’m writing to both non-Jews and Jews (even a handful of Israelis) about Jewish/Israeli stuff. In a way, the comics are my most public outlet for my Jewish identity/sensibility, and so my Jewish identity is like my comics: irreverent, accessible, but with a few extra in-jokes for people who share my background.
What inspired you to start creating comics?
I attended art school about a year after I was discharged from the army and moved back to North America. I’d kind of always wanted to make comics, because I draw and I’d always been a fan of comics. I suddenly found myself with both the means (being in art school, taking classes I could submit comics for) and the motive (having this extreme experience of serving in the army that seemed too big to talk about). I kept doing it because the people I showed the comics to asked for more, and I found out it really worked for me as a means of communication.
You’ve been writing and drawing jobnik! for over 10 years. How has the comic changed as you’ve grown/changed?
It’s gotten better drawn and also a lot slower to do. I consider my official debut to be 2005, when I took all the army stories I had made in art school up to that point and packaged them into issues to sell at the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco. I applied to San Diego Comic-Con the next weekend, and by the time we flew out, three months later, I had completed another 24-page issue from start to finish. From 2009 to 2012, I finished one jobnik! issue a year, and zero came out in 2013. I just couldn’t carve out the time. I’ve officially been working on one drawn essay for the past two-and-a-half years, and I don’t know if I’d call it half done. Partly, it’s me getting more ambitious and perfectionistic, but mostly it’s more outside-of-cartooning responsibilities.
Your main character in jobnik! is an American girl who enlists in the Israeli army and ends up a low-level file clerk. Do you think Americans glamorize the Israeli army experience? What motivated you to write about this theme?
I do think Israeli soldiers get glamorized (and sometimes simultaneously demonized). The popularity of Krav Maga can give you a glimpse of that, as well as pop-culture figures like Alter from the hit comic series “Y: the Last Man.” There are also several (non-comics) memoirs of American Jews enlisting in the IDF, but they all tend to be men, going into combat units. I did consider my series filling a void, showing a female Israeli soldier who was not some sexy badass.
You were in the Israeli army, I believe. Do the storylines come from your direct experiences, or are they fictional/fantasies?
It’s fairly true. I move some events around, and amalgamate some characters, but I would say upwards of 90 percent of jobnik! is nonfiction.
You have said in a past interview that you have “definitely become a magnet for everyone’s feelings about Israel and Judaism. How so?
I do a lot of conventions (as I mentioned above), so I’m very aware of my table setup as a public face. I have a lot of visibly Jewish content on my table, on both my comics and T-shirt designs. People approaching will often joke about it, and so do I. (I have used such lines as “this is the Jewiest table at comic-con,” and “one-stop Hanukkah shopping!”) Some people, upon seeing or hearing about my set-up, immediately share everything they think about Israel, current Middle East geopolitics, and sometimes, Jews as people. One guy shared with me, cheerfully, that he wasn’t prejudiced, but all the Jews he knew were actually swindlers.
Do you feel female comic book writers are finally getting the credit they deserve? If so, how and why? If not, what remains to be done?
Comic books, of course, are a medium, not a genre. There are several genres and publishing models inside comics. In what North America calls “mainstream comics” – i.e. superheroes – there’s discrimination against women at every level (though many are now fighting it). There are vanishingly few monthly titles starring a solo female hero (and mixed-gender teams are rarely 50/50), and superhero covers with women rely on cheesecake poses, which tell girls that they’re not the intended audience. Women are often dismissed and marginalized in comic book shops, online comics forums, and conventions, which makes more girl fans drop out, and others not put forward their own art or writing (conventions are important for networking, and with publishers holding open portfolio reviews or pitch sessions, often lead directly to jobs). Superhero publishers also have a documented history of sexual harassment and discrimination, which discourages female applicants, even if the bad times are totally in the past (which they apparently aren’t). All these factors together mean that female creators, especially in the most visible/prestigious positions of penciller and writer, are closer to 1/50 than 1/2 at DC and Marvel.
Man! What’s the good news here?
Opposition to this status quo is becoming a lot more vocal recently, though, and there are lots of shops, cons, and forums now that make a point of being welcoming. And since the manga and media booms in the science-fiction/fantasy fields generally, female fans of the current generation are a lot more visible. In Japanese manga and its English-language offshoots, women have been used to getting equitable credit and publication rates to men. In literary comics, it’s not quite 50/50, but women are getting more and more prominent over the past ten years. And in “indie” and webcomics, where there are lower barriers to entry and cartoonists are younger, it feels like it may be 50/50. It’s been awesome to see and be part of. Among my fellow indie/literary types, I’ve never felt dismissed. But that doesn’t mean female cartoonists aren’t facing unique pressures.
So what’s the biggest challenge for indie types?
Indie and literary (non-webcomic) cartoonists don’t draw regular paychecks from their work. They have to invest usually years of time to get the book to publication and only reap the money (if any) afterwards. For both male and female cartoonists, this usually means working a day job and then coming home every night and continuing to work 2 to 8 hours. This setup is harder on a) people past their twenties, and b) women. Women still do the overwhelming amount of housework and childcare when they get home from work, and I believe it’s also less acceptable for women to have antisocial hobbies, where they shut themselves away and can’t be interrupted (cartooning is very solitary, and requires a deeper, sustained focus than, say, knitting), especially if there are kids. I don’t have stats on this, but I’ve observed a lot of female cartoonists, even highly acclaimed ones, quietly retire in their prime.
Grants are the biggest tool to combat this attrition. A grant – like the one I received from HBI – can give an artist money to live on and maybe quit the day job for a while, so she has the time outside of family upkeep to do comics. The honor of getting a grant also gives badly needed legitimacy, to keep someone going in a field that has increasing cultural importance but not increasing moneymaking prospects. It tells an artist that her work is important, and she and her family can (should) prioritize it.
About the Author
Miriam Libicki was born in Columbus, Ohio. After living in Jerusalem and Seattle, Washington, she is now based in Vancouver, British Columbia. She completed her BFA from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in 2006, where she currently teaches classes on graphic memoir and comics history. Libicki is currently studying for her MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia, and is also drawing an essay about the Ethiopian immigration into Israel and the history of Black-Jewish relations in the United States.