Arts & Culture

Sammy Harkham: Genius

It was after thirty years of thinking of myself a semi-scholarly critic of Jewish American comic art, and fifty-plus years since I discovered Mad Comics to be the soul of my childish literary pleasures, that I came across the work … Read More

By / August 19, 2008

It was after thirty years of thinking of myself a semi-scholarly critic of Jewish American comic art, and fifty-plus years since I discovered Mad Comics to be the soul of my childish literary pleasures, that I came across the work and world of Sammy Harkham. There's a good reason for this late discovery: he is so young! Not yet pushing thirty, Harkham already has launched Kramer's Ergot, a premier comics anthology. Kramer's Ergot is "only" an annual, but an extravagant annual with no compromises of any kind to the history of comic art or any other art, nor to politics, nor (and this may be an important point for a former yeshiva bokher still interested in the Torah) to anyone's interpretation of Jewishness. His drawing fills a small minority of the pages because, obviously, he wants to offer as much variety as he can. He is thus building comic art in his own fashion. Looking back-though not so far back as the original Mad–I see only Arcade (1975-77), edited by Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith, and Raw (1980-91), edited by Spiegelman with Francois Mouly, as occupying such a high creative space. This is not to demean Zap, Weirdo (mostly Robert Crumb's Nineties mag), Comix Book, Blab or another zine that Harkham edits occasionally, Drawn & Quarterly Showcase. Or the Best American Comics series with two annual numbers so far, edited by Anne Elizabeth Moore. Each has an honorable and proudly weird place of its own.

Still. I'm not the only one who thinks Kramer's Ergot is special-special. Spiegelman has stated that it is, in an experimental sense, a successor to Raw, and a collection particular suited to the new century, when art comics become increasingly detached from anything like a narrative, and approach the old Abstract Expressionist Art-for-Its-Own-Sake. I concur with Spiegelman even if I don't happen to enjoy reading Ergot all that much, page per page. Readers my age, rooted in the comics of the 1940s-50s, our devotion revived by the Undergrounds, are likely to feel that way and not change our tastes much. We can still appreciate. Among the things to appreciate is that Harkham is so determined to make his own way and bring out the same impulse in other artists. He is not much interested in artists determined to create in such a way that bookstores or art galleries with a bookstore section (or, I would guess, Jewish Community Centers and museums with a book rack in the "gifts" room) will carry the work. He's drawn to those who are drawn to their own genius. This is, of course, Harkham the editor/anthologizer also talking about his own work. To my way of thinking, he is very patient with that work. (To make the contrast: as a hard-working editor on Radical America and then on a Seventies zine, Cultural Correspondence, devoted to popular culture with lots of comics material, I was mostly ducking behind my contributors, not writing.) His output is astounding in its clarity. Poor Sailor, first published in Ergot and then separately bound, is an adaptation of a du Maupassant story, the nineteenth century wayfarer who can't stand the domestic life ashore and so ventures out, risking everything and suffering just about everything, above all a loneliness with the sea. Shorter works of Harkham's are, for the most part, peopled by very ordinary looking, mostly young people that he must know, and they may be, at least in part, earlier versions of himself and his friends, lovers and so on. A great deal of emphasis goes into the look, with considerable variety of day and night times, assorted (mostly urban) scenes and so on. Language is rarely central but neither is it casual. The same can be said about sex, friendship and so on. The narrative moves so slowly that an anxious reader can feel restless (as youngsters, many of us would flip ahead to the end of a comic story, then return, and enjoy reading any story by a good artist several times this way) and then get past the restlessness by sinking into the panels, almost one by one. The story that means the most to me, as a historian of Yiddishkeit, is undoubtedly "Ukraine, 1876." The protagonist is an artist of the day, a mezuzah-maker in the shtetl. He has a high and holy task, in one sense, but he's also underpaid, a nervous mate to his none-too-patient wife several years since marriage (and with no children yet), a nervous artist. Sounds like it could be Sammy's great great grandfather, if art runs through the family line. The portrayal of the wife is especially attractive because so attentive: the gestures of frustration are familiar even now, issues of in-laws, issues of couples growing used to each other and not feeling the old physical and psychic fire of courting days, and so on.
Again, the art is very straightforward, so much so that it looks effortless, although it hardly can be that. It achieves its purpose: a real glimpse into shtetl life long gone, without harping on the Holocaust that will come in a couple generations, or how emigrants to the United States will escape that fate with their descendents, in short all the heavy weight that artists of every kind have loaded upon the shtetl especially since Fiddler on the Roof and Shoah (but also long before). "Genius" is a word that I've chosen carefully to describe Harkham. I am no professional art critic with intent to hail some new Chagall, although in drawing parallels within the world of comic art, Harkham is the one that comes to my mind. He is certainly a less joyous Chagall, if the parallel makes sense, but not necessarily less lyrical. A couple years shy of thirty, Sammy Harkham is still discovering himself. It is a process to which we can look forward with a great degree of interest and no little enthusiasm.