Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel by Eli Valley, OR Books (2017)
The first thing comics artist Eli Valley describes in the introduction to Diaspora Boy is a statue in Warsaw, built to commemorate the Jews who died in the ghetto and erected less than one month before the declaration of the state of Israel, founded on the ethnically cleansed Palestinian homeland, in 1948.
One side of the memorial is a monumental display of strong, bold figures “bursting from the granite blocks.” The other side, however, features a small bas-relief showing a procession in which “the horrors that had devastated the largest Jewish community in Europe were suggested, but only as a footnote.”
Valley asks: “How could they bifurcate heroism into victimhood? Isn’t that a grotesque oversimplification, not to mention an obscene insult to those who were murdered?”
These questions and observations set the tone of this collection of comics originally published between 2007 and 2016. All are deeply critical of Israeli policy, politicians and the construct of the “real” Jew as a domineering force vengefully taking hold of the “Jewish homeland.”
Most of the venues that published Valley’s work over the years, such as Jewcy, The Forward and +972 Magazine, are geared toward a Jewish audience.
Valley, an American who during childhood lived between his father’s rabbinical household and his mother’s liberal, secular home, displays a deep understanding of conservative Judaism while often disagreeing with it. He uses this adroitly to speak to a demographic that might otherwise discount his work.
Israel Man and Diaspora Boy
The title of the collection is based on a comic within titled “Israel Man and Diaspora Boy.”
Israel Man, in an evocation of American superheroes, dons spandex and a cape and is exaggeratedly muscular with chiseled, square features. He is described as having “skin sun-bronzed from fields of farming and battle,” a “spine straightened with pride and self-confidence” and “feces used as currency in developing nations,” among other traits.
Diaspora Boy, however, is “physically, psychologically and spiritually blind,” “suffers from eczema, ringworm, shingles, boils, leprosy and acne,” his “spine crushed from centuries of servility and self-hatred.”
Here Valley is lampooning the idea that the “best” of Jews live in – or will move to – Israel, while the dregs will choose to live outside of the country to intermingle with non-Jews, diluting the bloodline to the point of extinction.
Valley’s high-contrast pen-and-ink artwork is reminiscent of pulp illustrations and early Mad magazine (he credits both as inspirations). Each comic is absolutely packed with panels, drawings, pen hatching and text, creating beautifully drawn but chaotically compact worlds.
The book, at 12 by 14 inches, is a massive tome. A smaller format, however, would render the comics illegible.
In a nod to Mad and contemporary satirical comics, Valley creates work that is brazenly and absurdly rude, pushing satire to an extreme to make a point.
A notable example is the 2012 comic titled “Hater in the Sky,” in which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enlists the help of then-US President Barack Obama to build “an intergalactic robot ray gun to protect the city of Ariel from possible meteor showers.”
Obama, wanting to “affirm the good will between our countries,” agrees to fly into outer space with Netanyahu to build the weapon to defend the Israeli settlement.
While in space, Netanyahu insists on devouring Obama’s limbs for sustenance, even though “we have enough rations to last years,” and then proceeds to proposition Obama for sexual favors. Obama complies so as not to “jeopardize our special relationship.”
The comic ends with the question: Does Obama “really, really love Israel?”
Pro-Israel American Jewish Hulk
Valley also caricatures people he calls “liberal, socially conscious Jews.”
In a comic that parodies The Incredible Hulk, he portrays an otherwise progressive Jewish man watching a news segment that “could possibly be construed as mildly critical of Israel.”
The man transforms into a character akin to the Hulk – the Marvel superhero who, when angry, transmutes from a man into an avenging green giant – and proceeds in clipped Hulk voice to “launch email campaign to cut funding for PBS,” “start Facebook group called ‘Palestinians already have a state – Jordan’” and “listen to right-wing radio and not feel dirty.”
Valley’s targets include Jews who are strongly opposed to living alongside (and possibly eventually marrying) non-Jews; corrupt American and Israeli politicians alike; those who sugarcoat Jewish history to fit an ideal that doesn’t match the reality; and Israeli policies pertaining to the Palestinians and the state’s relations with the US.
In a 2013 comic meant as a jab at the ongoing “peace” process under Israeli occupation, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas meets with Netanyahu alongside Israel’s justice minister and the US secretary of state.
Along with a number of absurd demands, including moving the Palestinian capital to Damascus and resettling refugees in Cambodia, Netanyahu demands that Palestinians replace their blood with SodaStream seltzer because “the reddish hue of the blood from your demonstrators is shockingly reminiscent of centuries of anti-Semitic propaganda.”
SodaStream is the fizzy drinks machine manufacturer that built a plant in a West Bank settlement – since moved to inside Israel – and has been a high-profile target of a consumer boycott campaign.
The Palestinians, who are now called “Seltzerstinians,” begin to float due to the carbonation in their bloodstreams and are considered a security threat as they “seek to circumvent agreements through flotation.”
This comic is one of a few in the book that directly addresses the harm Israel’s military occupation has on Palestinians, in addition to others drawn as a cluster around the time of the 2014 Israeli onslaught in Gaza.
The occupation is generally treated indirectly, as a byproduct of Israeli zealotry.
Zionism is addressed quite often. Theodor Herzl, the founder of Israel’s state ideology, figures prominently in a number of comics.
Jewish Israelis almost constantly squabble over West Bank settlements and “national security.” But there is little representation of Palestinians – in politics or otherwise – to show how the occupation affects them.
Those seeking a Palestinian narrative will need to look elsewhere; Valley is chiefly concerned with skewering the moral corruption of all institutions that uphold Zionism.
A number of the comics in Diaspora Boy include detailed notes on the political and social events spurring the creation of the piece, disagreements with editors regarding content and particularly vitriolic responses from readers. Through these notes, the laborious editorial process behind this polemical work becomes evident.
While describing an encounter with an editor-in-chief, to whom Valley explains that the comics he draws are meant to stretch the truth, he writes: “This was the core of many disagreements that would follow – not so much the level of distastefulness but the inherently unbalanced nature of satirical art.”
Without question, Valley intends to provoke. His work has had him labeled a kapo – a Jewish collaborator with Nazis. Even those who align with his politics might be put off by his abrasive and macabre humor.
But Valley’s unsparing critique of Israel and American Jews’ relationship to it is worth the reader’s engagement, however challenging they might find it.
Marguerite Dabaie is a Palestinian-American illustrator and cartoonist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work can be found at www.mdabaie.com.