French writer/artist/director Joann Sfar takes readers on a musical adventure through the Wild East of Pre-WWII Eastern Europe. Several disparate individuals bereft of friends or purpose join forces to create Eastern Europe’s most awesome Klezmer band. All to the sounds of Yiddish and Gypsy folk music. Or at least it would, if KLEZMER BOOK ONE: TALES OF THE WILD EAST were a film and not a comic book. In spite of this, how well does the story hold up?
Joann Sfar is a notable French comic artist and creator, as well as a budding film director. His comic works are rather extensive – though most of them were only released in France – but the most notable would have to be The Rabbi’s Cat. This also being a comic adapted by Sfar into film.
His parentage has a significant impact on Sfar’s work. His father hailed from Algeria, while his mother had Ashkenazi roots. The former lent itself to The Rabbi’s Cat, whereas the latter provides the backbone to KLEZMER.
KLEZMER BOOK ONE: TALES OF THE WILD EAST takes place somewhere in Eastern Europe, and introduces us to two main groups that eventually coalesce into one group. The first is led by Noah Davidovich, the last survivor of a Klezmer band. The rest of his old band were killed by a rival Klezmer band who didn’t like the competition for work. In fact, it was Noah saying the wrong thing at the wrong time that caused the rivals to open fire, meaning Noah himself carries the responsibility for their lives.
As he attempts to pick up the pieces of his nomadic life, he’s joined by Chava, a young woman desiring to leave her isolated village. It’s clear that she’s very naïve, but insists on becoming a singer to accompany Davidovich.
The second group is headed by Yaacov, a favored rabbinical student banished from his yeshiva – think religious convent but Jewish – for stealing the Rabbi’s coat. His tendency towards deceit and minor larceny – including stealing instruments off the corpses of fallen musicians – is compounded by his general trend towards agnosticism. But he’s an upbeat young man, and seeks to use his new place in the world for all its worth.
As he travels, he meets and recruits two men. The first is Vincenzo, an Italian with a penchant for the fiddle and a similar past. He too was cast from his yeshiva, but unlike Yaacov it’s clear he was receiving unfair treatment and was banished for his yeshiva’s convenience. He’s a worrying man with a need for rules and a touch of hypochondria. The second man met is a Gypsy guitar player named Tshokola, whom the other two save from being lynched by Cossacks. Tshokola bears a massive grudge against the Cossacks for killing his family, and carries a gun wherever he goes. He joins with his fellow wanderers, attempting to learn their Jewish songs while providing his own Gypsy fare.
The series mixes cynical and goofy humor, and throws in plenty of allusions to the culture of the time. Ethnic politics dominates the story, and the characters frequently use it as the subject of jokes. Such as Yaacov telling Tshokola that a standard Jewish parable would end, not with the local king giving the hero his daughter’s hand in marriage, but rather with the Czar deciding to stop anti-Jewish pogroms for a few weeks. And that they can’t embellish these stories too heavily in their heroes’ favors, since making a Jewish hero into the next king would be too unrealistic.
Yes, KLEZMER is that kind of comic. Also not for children, because of the subject matter and mild nudity.
One of the biggest motifs is characters stopping to do a musical number. This would be more informative and impressive if comics were an auditory medium. As it is, the singing comes off as nonsense to non-Yiddish speakers, among other such languages. I’m probably certain even in the original French this comic was no more readable to someone not familiar with the languages presented than it is translated into English. While we’re on the subject, comics being a purely visual medium is the main hindrance to any comic that seeks to utilize music as a motif. See also Batman: Fortunate Son for an example of supposedly good music coming off as terrible poetry.
KLEZMER at least has the excuse of being foreign. Unfortunately, Klezmer music is entirely unknown to me, an ignorant American of Anglo-Saxon descent, and thus I personally lose a significant portion of the appeal. Can’t even imagine what music is being played.
From an artistic standpoint, Joann Sfar uses ink over watercolor. Kind of like what Ben Templesmith uses, except rounder edged and significantly less dirty looking. The level of detail tends to vary from page to page, sometimes being rough and splotchy, and sometimes being well-constructed. The color palette spans wide, making use of different, vibrant color schemes depending on the scene. From heavy warm colors to entirely blue or yellow ones, to green or gray, and even several with predominantly white spots. These last kinds making sense given that much of the story takes place in the dead of winter. Taking all these together, panels are sometimes difficult to figure out, but color helps identify characters somewhat. Like how Yaacov wears the same blue-gray as Vincenzo, but also has red hair peeking from under his hat.
In fact, while the art style is very rough, characters are stylized enough that they can usually be told apart.
KLEZMER BOOK ONE: TALES OF THE WILD EAST certainly distinguishes itself from other works, but often this can be its greatest downfall. Just from the synopsis it’s a hard sell to anyone without a knack for world culture or history. It’s both a character based and mood based work. Combined with the alienating premise of a story surrounded by music one can’t hear or even understand without a frame of reference, KLEZMER is not bound to sell well in the states. And it didn’t, having released to the US in 2006, and neither of its succeeding volumes (Book Two: Bon Anniversaire Scylla and Book Three: Tous Des Voleurs!) being localized. I bought my copy for five dollars at a discount book store nestled in a strip mall, where an entire stack of them could and can still be found. My guess is that said store bought the volumes in bulk after no one else could sell them.
Which is a shame, because I have a mild desire to read the rest of the story. But of course I can’t, and the desire being mild in me is evidence of why the book in general didn’t succeed, and was never followed up on outside its original French language. Such is life I suppose. It’s hard enough getting comic volumes to sell in their own language, let alone translated to other countries.
If anything stated here appeals to you and you have a couple bucks to spare, and you can even find it, I suggest picking up KLEZMER: TALES OF THE WILD EAST. It will likely be easy to find a copy. If nothing else, it can act as an introduction to the works of Joann Sfar.