From Webcomic Musings:
Just to show you how conscientious I am as a reviewer, I first got a request to review the following comic in March. I finally sent a reply to ask for the address to said comic a month ago. And then I checked my GMail account again last night to find that he replied a month ago. I probably should’ve asked him to reply to the address I check more regularly, but where’s the fun in that? (Hint: not much.)
So by singular demand, I present to you Hereville by Barry Deutsch. Hereville proudly follows the tradition first seen in such books as Wuthering Heights, and later carried on in the writings of Flannery O’Connor and the like, by presenting us with characters who are very obviously from one place and speak their local dialect unashamedly. Unlike the aforementioned writers, though, Deutsch is polite enough to provide translations for the abundant Yiddish in his comics. And believe me, in a comic about Orthodox Jews in modern times, the Yiddish flows like a person’s tears after eating the horseradish at a seder. (Yes, let’s all watch Luprand pretend like he knows anything about Jewish culture.)
The art is generally quite appealing. For the most part, it’s a pleasant cartoony form that handily avoids the “I wish I could draw like my favorite manga-ka or anime-kun” style that I still have yet to escape. Occasionally he throws in a panel of startling realism or two.
About the only thing that bothers me is the Muppet mouth syndrome that seems to strike his characters. It’s not exactly For Better or For Worse-level, but in the second row of this page, I thought the top of Mirka’s head was slowly severing itself from her body and would start flying around and firing laser beams. That would have been so cool.
The plot looks like it will be an interesting one; it’s the first I’ve heard of a Jewish dragon-slayer, much less one who looks to be about twelve or so (unless I’m mistaken, which I often am). The upshot of this is a unique viewpoint for the main character and a really novel setting and personality for people. The downside of this is that right as the Marilyn Manson impersonator reveals how Mirka can get started on the path toward dragonslayerhood, the plot gets interrupted for The Great Muppet Shabbat.
(A side note: challah is delicious bread, and I wish I lived closer to a Great Harvest store so I could buy it more often, but after seeing this page, I will spend the rest of my life checking my loaves of bread for ethereal possession or possible interment of small young girls.)
The downside of any comic that cuts the action in order to present a tidbit of information in earnest (as opposed to Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams novels, which play such up for laughs) is that the reader generally feels cheated. It may be interesting, it may be essential, but it’s not what the reader came for. It’s like when I went to Subway recently and they mixed my order up with another person’s, so I ended up with roast beef and mustard instead of peppered turkey and mayonnaise. Sure, it was still a good sandwich, but it’s the principle of the thing.
Still, Muppet mouths, educational interruptions, and truly horrifying visages aside, Hereville shows a good deal of promise. I’m particularly fond of the latest page, which depicts Mirka’s roiling thoughts as she sets out to slay a troll. I’m curious to see how it turns out.
* * *
Hereville, Thereville and Everywhereville, by Elayne Riggs
It’s All Good #66
Oregon has become the latest state to garner the national spotlight in this Democratic Presidential campaign “silly season.” Just about every liberal blog I read had effusive reports of the huge turnout at last weekend’s rally for Barack Obama in Portland’s Waterfront Park. Now me, I can’t think of Oregon without thinking of two things: the annual Stumptown Comics Festival, which I’ve never attended but which sounds pretty neat; and the person who first introduced me to the idea of Stumptown, my friend of many years, Barry Deutsch.
Barry and I go back so long that, like ComicMix commenter Vinnie Bartilucci, he knew me before my first marriage. As I recall, he visited me a few times back when I worked in the East Village, we probably even shopped at St. Mark’s Comics together, and he was an utter delight to be around. He still is, whenever he comes back east to visit. But he currently makes his home in the wilds of Oregon, so I pretty much see him around MoCCA time and that’s it. Fortunately, I get to see his art whenever I want to.
Barry’s been sketching and doing comic strips for awhile now. His political work reminds me a lot of Matt Wuerker’s style, the way it relies on gentle caricature and well-thought-out illustration to get his points across easily and without straining the reader’s credulity. He’d been bending my ear for awhile about a special long-form project of his, and that project has finally come out. It’s called Hereville. You’ve probably seen lots of reviews about it online already. Here’s another one.
Pen-Elayne For Your Thoughts – Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword
Writer/Artist: Barry Deutsch
Here’s what I thought…
Warning: May Be Spoilers Ahead
The main thing that struck me in this tale was that I couldn’t really put my finger on a sense of place and time. I suspect this may possibly be a function of living in Oregon, which I imagine can seem very remote and very modern at the same time. When does this story take place? I kept wondering, probably to distraction. The presence of electricity, indoor plumbing and somewhat modern clothing led me to believe it could be a fictionalized town existing contemporaneously with my own life, either the way I remember things being in yeshiva in the ’70s or the way they are now in my heavily-Jewish neighborhood of Riverdale (the non-Archie one). And Barry confirms in a comment section of his Hereville blog that “Aherville (the town where Hereville takes place) isn’t a shtetl, in that the people are modern and they’re mostly pretty well-off. However, it is very isolated from the larger culture, which I think gives it a bit of that feel. Additionally, the point of view character for this storyline is an 11 year old girl; the grown-ups have much more awareness than Mirka does of Aherville as a town that’s located in a wider world.”
This renders the story more like magical realism than fantasy, as matter-of-factly as the fairy tale elements are inserted into the narrative, but who’s to say an 11-year-old’s POV isn’t a fairy tale one to begin with? Mine probably was.
But you know, that’s all minor pigeonholing anyway. I don’t think we’re meant to derive a specific setting as much as a general feeling, and on that count Hereville succeeds marvelously. We become privy to a whole culture — one with which, given my upbringing, I could pretty easily identify — and family interrelationships, as well as universal experiences like bravery, ambition, cleverness and dreaming big.
Our protagonist, Mirka Herschberg, doesn’t seem to crave too much of the outside world anyway. We know she wants to vanquish evil in the way of the knights of eld — first she decides she wants to slay dragons, and then later her aim is to battle a troll — but what she doesn’t want to do seems ambiguous. She dislikes the “womanly arts” her stepmother (not an evil stepmother, by the way, a very welcome change from the usual in these sorts of stories) attempts to teach her, skills which, naturally, she will grow to need as the narrative reaches its climax. On the other hand, she accepts unquestioningly the bigger picture, that of the severe gender separation within the Jewish culture as a whole.
And I think back to when I was an 11-year-old tomboy, and I think, “So did I.” Sure, I wanted to play baseball and have lawn-mowing as one of my chores instead of doing the dishes or vacuuming, but I hadn’t yet arrived at the point where I’d find myself in a couple of years, finally questioning the morning prayer where men thanked God for not making them female and women substituted that prayer with one which thanked God for “making me as I am” (i.e., dutifully and even joyfully accepting second-class citizenship). Mirka’s not meant to be a bigger-picture “why don’t we have a feminist haggadah” and “heck with it, women should be on the bima and maybe, just maybe, God isn’t actually male” revolutionary yet. She’s still navigating the treacherous waters of pre-adolescent adventure.
At the same time, she’s able to participate in and marvel at what she considers to be a pretty comforting lifestyle from her point of view. Sure, she may not wish to sew or cook, and she cleans the house and polishes the candlesticks somewhat grudgingly, but she absolutely delights in observing the Sabbath with relatives and friends. She enjoys the community it brings her, the intellectual opportunities, the specialness. There’s a lot of the 11-year-old me there, except Mirka doesn’t seem to fall asleep in the pews at the Shabbos service the way I always did.
Of course, unlike me, Mirka is the troublemaker in the family, to the eternal frustration of her little brother Zindel. And while her insistence on adventure, whether it’s defending a helpless older woman from neighborhood bullies or stealing out at night in search of monsters, is enough to wear out the lad, his loyalty to his big sister is constant and touching.
Barry has developed a number of great visual storytelling methods to keep us emotionally involved with Mirka during her journey. His facility at facial expressions is superb, he effectively uses her full-size figure to break across panel borders during scenes where, for instance, she’s facing inner conflict. I think my favorite panel is one where Mirka’s describing the smell of challah baking, and Barry draws her outline within the loaf as if she’s ecstatically buried herself in the smell. But he doesn’t overdo the artistic tricks, saving them for high moments in the story; the two 2-page spreads near the end, as Mirka frantically contests the troll in his chosen contest of skill, are particularly rewarding.
Every character is clearly delineated, with differing facial features and heights and body types (that’s the caricature skill at work). And Barry’s palette choice (“henna tones” as one reviewer describes it) also works quite well, all pinks and browns and maroons. I found the brown-black of night particularly nice, punctuated by the occasional whites of Mirka’s determined eyes. And the plot is very satisfying, in that — as with many young adventurers — Mirka manages to achieve her goal in her own eyes, even if that goal isn’t immediately apparent to the adults around her.
This is a book I’d unreservedly recommend to pretty much anyone, especially if they come from a Jewish background (although Barry translates all the Yiddish expressions). I’d take this one home to mother. In fact, I did! She read it on Mother’s Day and pronounced it “quirky,” which I’m pretty sure is a good thing. And, come to think of it, sums up Barry himself pretty nicely. He took it as quite the compliment. If you want a taste of what the book’s about, Barry’s currently serializing it online, and he’ll have lots of copies with him next month at MoCCA.
So, what did y’all think?
Elayne Riggs blogs here, is working on a Bible story comic that is in fact a “bigger picture” feminist kinda thing, and is also a sucker for the smell of challah baking.
* * *
From “Blogger News Network”:
Hereville: The Best Comic Book About Troll-Fighting Jewish Girls You’ll Read This Year
“Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword”, written and drawn by Barry Deutsch, is an independently-produced 57-page comic book that tells the story of Mirka, an 11-year old girl living in the fictional ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Aherville. (”Hereville”, to the goyim.)
This is not a Marvel comic book filled with iron-jawed superheroes, though Mirka yearns for heroics – dreaming of dragonslaying as she tends her younger brother, knits with her stepmother, and prepares the Shabbat meal with her family. “Hereville” explores themes more adult than its protagonist might wish for in a comic book – primarily, coming of age, the role of women in traditional societies, a subtle exploration of how communities on the margins of a larger society nonetheless view themselves as the center, with their own set of outcasts and marginal figures, and the struggle faced by an independent, somewhat nonconformist young girl faced with a social role not of her choice or to her liking.
The story of Mirka begins with a friendly argument, and climaxes in a debate whose outcome could mean death to Mirka – or could, if we didn’t presume from the title that our heroine would prevail in the end. In between, Mirka saves an outcast woman (a “witch”, according to the local boys) from a beating, and is offered a reward for her service – a reward that takes the form of a quest to retrieve a sword from the local troll. But before Mirka can battle the troll, she must keep her brother from ratting out her plans to their ever-protective parents, celebrate the Shabbat, and find a way to get out of the house at night without being detected. These obstacles and travails are drawn with wit and warmth, and the reader is drawn into the oddball world of “Hereville” without a backwards glance. (A world of trolls, witches, electric lights and vacuum cleaners? Don’t ask questions – just enjoy it!)
“Hereville” is in some ways an experimental work. Deutsch attempted an ambitious method of displaying night-time scenes, using a dark palette and brown/black backgrounds to distinguish the approximately 1/3 of the book that takes place outdoors at night. This choice makes the night-time scenes quite distinct and recognizably “night”, but at the cost of washing out much of Deutsch’s distinctive linework style. The occasional frames with starlight and moonlight, or with a character’s eyes shining, make a dramatic contrast and are really very lovely.
“Really very lovely,” in fact, is a fair descriptor for most of the artwork of “Hereville”. Other reviewers have noted that the artwork improves through the course of the book’s 57 pages; I would not characterize it as an improvement, but as an evolution of the stylistic choices Deutsch made. “Hereville” began life as an online serial comic, with one or two pages appearing over the course of a week, and some stylistic modifications are to be expected. In the beginning of the book, the artist uses a lot of lined backgrounds, but by the end of the work he seems more confident in the foreground’s ability to carry the frame. Some of the individual frames and composite frames are absolutely beautiful; the four-page scene depicting Mirka’s struggle in the final conflict of the story is simply brilliant work, as are many of the individual frames preceding it. (Indeed, much of my complaint with the night-time scenes is a lament that I’m being deprived of the full enjoyment of the linework.) All of the artwork throughout the book is attractive and works well as settings for the story.
And “Hereville”, despite the beauty of the artwork, is primarily a story. Unlike some independent comic book authors who seem to feel the need to add thirteen layers of ironic detachment to their work, Deutsch is presenting a tale. It is a tale with context and subtext, and the reader will add much of their own worldview to the reading (this reviewer had assumed that the residents of Aherville were speaking a mixture of English and Yiddish, and was brought up short towards the end when the context abruptly shifted and it became clear that all of the previous dialog had actually been pure Yiddish, rendered in English simply for the benefit of the reader) – but Deutsch is content to let his characters tell their own story, without heavy-handed editorializing. Deutsch is a better artist than he is a writer – many authors with that balance of skills would provide us with gorgeous visuals illustrating vacuity. Instead we have a good story made brilliant by its artistic sensibility.
The book is not without its flaws. The troll, when he makes his eventual appearance as the story’s ultimate villain, is not particularly impressive or frightening, despite his very real power. Mirka is not always drawn with perfect consistency, particularly her nose, the changes to which would seem to require Aherville to employ its own full-time cosmetic surgeon. Plot-wise, the denouement could have been handled better; Mirka’s eventual victory feels somewhat contrived. Artistically, the beginning and middle of the book feel more lovingly handled than the end, which despite the power of many of its constituent panels, feels somehow rushed.
But these are minor critiques for the most part, akin to noting that a fantastic rose has a thorn on the stem or that a gorgeous dimpled infant’s hair is tousled. “Hereville” is a gem of a book, one that whets the appetite for more – and more is promised, for Deutsch has announced that the second chapter in Aherville’s saga will commence in January of 2009. Readers everywhere should delight in this news, set their bookmarks, and wait hungrily for the next pages of this ongoing work. It will be a long year – but in the meantime, we have “Hereville” to read and re-read.
* * *
From “Kleefeld on Comics”
I received in the mail last night my pulped wood copy of Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword. Creator Barry Deutsch began posting the story online at the end of 2007 and has, as of this writing, gotten 24 pages on his site. Thanks to some promos surrounding the recent Stumptown Festival, though, I ordered myself a copy. Why? Primarily because of the tag line: “Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl.”
It should come as no surprise to anyone that the story is about an 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl named Mirka, and how she has to fight a troll to get her sword. Mirka, it seems, wants to slay dragons against her step-mother’s intentions so, after rescuing a witch from two teen-age thugs, she’s directed towards a troll who owns the finest sword (the required tool of dragon-slayers) in the town of Aherville. Mirka, as the title suggests, is able to defeat the troll and obtain the sword, but the victory is somewhat Pyhrric.
The story is very well crafted. The seeds of Mirka’s final victory are planted in the first few pages of the tale, but not in a manner that’s immediately obvious. Indeed, even after Mirka’s competition with the troll begins, her foregone victory (it’s in the title, after all) comes about in a surprising manner. There’s a clear lesson here: that your guardians teach you things that will be useful whether or not you can recognize that at the time. But further, that what you learn from them isn’t always what you might obviously think you learn from them. (That might sound a little confusing but, trust me, it makes sense in the context of this story. If I were much more elaborate, I’d risk giving away some of the more subtle, nuanced portions of the story which are best experienced, I think, for oneself.) Hereville, like any good story, is able to connect with itself on many points and there’s no real wasted efforts.
The storytelling itself is very solid. In fact, there are a couple of particularly nice page and panel layouts. I especially liked Mirka’s leaving the town on page 26, and the start of her victory over the troll on page 51 which nicely echoes/bookends an early page in the story. Interestingly, Deutsch’s linework improves markedly over the course of the yarn. The basic drawings are fairly consistent, but the inking over top of them changes. Not knowing how exactly he worked on the story, it’s hard for me to tell if he switched tools, just got better at using them, or started drawing at a larger size that allowed the artwork to look crisper as it’s reduced. In any event, it’s an interesting development to witness and serendipitously (I believe) mimics the development of Mirka as an individual.
The other aspect of the book I might point out is Jewish-ness of it. Much of the dialogue is peppered with Yiddish (which Deutsch unobtrusively translates for us Gentiles) and there’s a notable sequence early on where Mirka’s family celebrates Shabbat. I’m always impressed by writers who can weave a story together, telling people about their faith, without coming across as proselytizing. While the scene does seem at a bit of a dischord with the rest of the story, it clearly puts Mirka’s character in perspective and, I suspect, will tie in more as Deutsch continues to develop it.
If I were forced to make one complaint about the pulped wood version, it would be that the book is just a tad too thick to comfortably bind with two staples. I’m sure that Deutsch opted for that instead of a square-bound format because of costs but, interestingly, it’s a little too thick because he did NOT skimp on the paper quality itself. The paper itself is at least on par with what you’d find in a marvel or DC book and trying to fold that over 30 times simply makes a book that doesn’t want to stay closed. Although, once I’ve got this bagged and tucked away in a long box, that won’t be an issue at all — it’s only a tad awkward having the cover open on its own while the book is sitting on your desk or coffee table. Like I said, it’s a minor issue, and not at all relevant if you read it online.
All in all, an excellent tale, and I’m looking forward to seeing where Deutsch takes this next.
* * *
From “Wasted Blog”:
OK next up is: HEREVILLE!
The author, Barry, was my across-the-way neighbor at Stumptown. Hereville is “Easily in the top 3 comics about troll-fighting orthodox Jewish girls”. But in all sincerity, the book is awesome. I mean, awesome in such a way that I wanted to read it slowly so that I could spend more time reading it… you know? I was genuinely excited for the plot to advance!
The story is the epitome of a fairy tale… except that at every single place where Barry has the opportunity to do something cliche, he surprises you. The plot is so tight, that it’s really a delight to read.
Hereville is painted in a limited pallete of henna-tones that really comes to life in print. You can read part of it online, but the online hasn’t yet caught up to the full story-arc included in the book (especially the troll, which is the best part!!). Still, you should TOTALLY GO read what is there now, and the book is worth the investment! Looking forward to future episodes, Barry!
* * *
Hereville: A Review
I’ve been working on this review for a while, and it’s been giving me a lot of trouble, because when I try to express my thoughts on Barry Deutsch’s Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, I usually end up bouncing up and down and making enthusiastic noises of inarticulate glee. These are behaviors that are generally frowned upon in critical circles, and they translate poorly to text, so I’m going to try my damnedest to use actual here.
Hereville is good. It’s really good.
It’s the kind of good that makes me want to carry a copy with me at all times, just so that I can look at it every few minutes as a reminder that any world that produces books like this one is probably worth the benefit of the doubt.
Comics that can honestly be described as all-ages are few and far between. Knitting a narrative that appeals to adults and remains accessible to and appropriate for kids is no easy feat. Imbuing that story with layers of rich culture and tradition without overwhelming readers, and doing so while slyly subverting both form and trope take serious skill.
Barry Deutsch is seriously skilled.
In many ways, Hereville is a classic coming-of-age story, the first adventure of a fledgling hero. It’s also a cultural narrative, steeped in the language and traditions of Orthodox Judaism. But at the same time, it’s full of contradictions and quirks that turn heroic convention topsy-turvy. It’s telling that the story begins with a friendly argument, as Mirka (the eleven-year-old heroine) and her stepmother Fruma discuss the theology of knitting.
Fruma herself is perhaps Deutsch’s most visible wink at tradition: as the heroine’s stepmother, a woman with “odd looks” (including “the longest nose of anyone in Aherville”) and a stubborn fondness for argument-for-argument’s-sake, Fruma could easily have turned into a tired misogynist sterotype. But even though—or perhaps because—she forces Mirka to knit and plays devil’s advocate in every argument, Fruma is cast as Mirka’s mentor and ally. She’s challenging rather than vindictive, and we are led to believe that wisdom and experience inform her cheerful antagonism. And role in Mirka’s story is more empowering than authoritative: Fruma’s lessons, both subtle and direct, are what ultimately allow Mirka to defeat a troll and take the first steps toward her destiny as a dragonslayer.
Fruma’s complexity is characteristic of Deutsch’s approach to storytelling: he excels at simultaneously celebrating and questioning the tradition that saturates his narrative. The Orthodox Jewish rituals and traditions are no less warm and beautiful because of the limitations they impose on Mirka, nor does that beauty render her frustration any less acute or her ensnarement in the rigid roles of her culture less unfair. In the world of Hereville, nothing is simple—and its complexity makes it all the more accessible to readers used to the intricate tangles and contradictions of real life.
Deutsch is an experienced editorial cartoonist, but Hereville is (to the best of my knowledge) his first attempt at a full-length comic, and that inexperience shows through a handful of rough spots. Both designs and style develop and refine over the course of the comic, and the difference between the art at the beginning and the end is a bit jarring—a difficulty common to webcomics when they make the transition to print form. And while Deutsch’s sepia-toned palette looks beautiful by day, it becomes a good deal less discernable in nighttime scenes, where muddy coloring comes close to obscuring the art; Deutsch’s narrative (and readers’ eyesight) would be better served by more emphasis on shadow and less on general darkness.
But if there’s any lesson to be learned from Hereville, it’s that the quality of craftwork is determined not by snagged yarn or adherence to patterns, but by innovation, intent, and intricacy—and despite a few dropped stitches, Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword is an exquisite piece of work by any standard.
* * *
This is one of the neater concepts for a webcomic I’ve seen in a while. It follows the adventures of a headstrong girl Mirka, who wants to grow up to be a dragonslayer, and her family. It’s pretty standard fantasy, with a couple of twists that make you unable to put it down.
First, I’ve been unable to nail down the time period and place this is supposed to be set in. We could be talking about an insular community in post-war Europe, or a 1950’s Levitton, or ten years from now. I mean I can nail it down a little bit- they didn’t have electric stoves or lightswitches in the 1400’s. Stuff like that absolutely fascinates me. And as far as we can tell from the kids’ point of view, magic more than exists in the world.
Second, the cast is entirely Orthodox Jewish (with the exception of the possible witch that Mirka and her brother meet, but you’ll have to read it to find out what’s up with that), and the creator Barry Deutsch really brings their family traditions to life. You don’t see too many of that particular faith in comics, and it’s a refreshing change of pace.
Mirka’s relationship with her shrewd stepmother is also something to hold dear in this comic. Mirka will, as most kids do, start arguments to get out of doing chores- but Mirka and Fruma don’t have normal mother-daughter fights. They argue about free will, or good and evil, or the ecology of dragons. And yet, throughout each exchange, you never get the feeling that either one doesn’t genuinely care about the other. I’m really looking forward to seeing this develop.
The magic is real. The art is sepia-toned. And the challah smells delicious, I imagine. I’ve found a new reason to look forward to Wednesdays!
* * *
From “The ZehnKatzen Times”:
Hereville Rocks Me
I like art and literature that doesn’t treat me like I’m a Grisham-reading sheep. Good art and literature should take your imagination out for a spin, make you rise to its level rather than dumb itself down to yours. I like stories I have to take on.
Right now, I’m fighting a battle with Thomas Pynchon’s V. Right now, Pynchon’s winning, but I digress (that’s what you get from graduating from Salem Public Schools. The aversion to classics, I mean, not the digression; that’s probably genetic).
Anyway, after displaying Ampersand’s sketchbook page I noticed a link on Alas! to a place called Hereville, described modestly as maybe the best dragon-fighting Orthodox Jewish 11-year-old girl comic you’ll read all day.
It’s glorious, deep, clever, and intelligent; finally, a take on the hero’s tale which doesn’t look like it was cribbed straight outta G.I. Joseph Campbell. Mirka won me over from the start.
If you’re comic cognosenci, you know about it already. I just have to go on record and say how much I like this work. It’s nifty.
I can’t afford to buy a copy, so I’m following it (it updates every Wednesday). If you can, buy it.
* * *
From Comic Book Thoughts:
Here, Here for Hereville
One of the webcomics that I used to follow is being published on real paper, and since that’s how I prefer it anyway, I will definitely be buying a copy of Barry Deutsch’s Hereville. For those who are not familiar with Barry Deutsch, he hosts a political website called “Alas, A Blog,” which is always interesting and well-considered, even if they all are way to the left of a regular, Middle-of-the-Road Democrat like me.
A review of the Hereville comic by someone who read the whole thing is here. The comic is called “How Mirka Got Her Sword,” and is about a young Orthodox Jewish girl who sets out to slay dragons, which has all the elements that my little Raggirls will love, and looks to be the first comic book to crack our Bedtime Story Ritual since The Courageous Princess.
The first 22 pages are available for free at Hereville.com. The above page is page 11 of the story, and my personal favorite.
* * *
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword
Though born into the traditions of an Orthodox Jewish village, young Mirka longs to be a dragon-slayer! And every hero worth her salt needs a sword…
Strong-willed and independent, Mirka Herschberg lives in the Orthodox Jewish community of Aherville. The customs of her people would have her conform to traditional gender roles but such is not the life that Mirka desires. She dreams of being a great hero, of fighting dragons and trolls in the wide world beyond her village. When she saves the life of a local witch, Mirka finds that she may get her wish. But is it what she truly wants?
At first glance, one can tell that Barry Deutsch’s webcomic, Hereville, is very different from the standard fantasy comic. The story is steeped in Jewish traditions, giving it a distinct flavor and identity that’s a far cry from the Tolkien and Robert E. Howard-derived conventions of many modern fantasy tales. Yiddish expressions pepper the dialogue (with helpful footnotes), Shabbat rituals and other religious customs are observed, and characters are clad in the traditional dress of Orthodox Jewish culture. It all makes for a fascinating and, at turns, educational read.
Hereville also has a distinctly left-of-center approach to fantasy that I found appealing. Mirka’s stepmother Fruma challenges the view of dragons as an evil force, likening their man-eating tendencies to any other predator in nature. When confronted by a troll, Mirka is taken aback by its civil and sophisticated manner of speech. These are nice offbeat touches that contribute to the individualism of this comic and its voice.
The mixture of influences is not always a seamless transition however. The placement of fantasy elements in this setting makes it a bit difficult to pinpoint the rules of the world of Hereville. Electricity and alarm clocks co-exist with monsters out of European legend. Some characters speak of trolls as if they are commonplace, while others have never heard the term and consider them a goisch (gentile) concept of no concern. Do these people and creatures truly co-exist? Is it all in Mirka’s head? Presumably, future Hereville storyarcs will more firmly establish Mirka’s world and how it works.
Deutsch’s style of cartooning bridges the gap between old-fashioned and modern sensibilities. His elongated figures with their exaggerated puppet-like expressions brought to mind the work of E.C. Segar (creator of Popeye), adding a fun and loose sense of charm to the proceedings. The sepia tone coloring lends a timeless feel to the story while the panel layout and storytelling techniques are more contemporary. This combination is an appropriate choice for the subject manner, reflecting the mix of Old World and New in the characters’ culture.
While some aspects seem not fully formed, Hereville is nonetheless an interesting comic with a unique cultural identity. It’s worth a look for fans of fantasy or for anyone who feels there is no new territory to explore in the genre.
* * *
From “A Blog About Comics”:
I was recently approached by Barry Deutsch, aka Ampersand, who draws Hereville, and was very flattered to receive a link to a critics-only preview, as well as a request to write a critique on the comic. However, I’ve been struggling with the fact that, like with What I Drew, I really have nothing negative to say. Is it a critique if I can’t really criticize? On the other hand, the comic is awesome and I wouldn’t mind writing a teaser/advertisement post for it, so here are some of my observations.
Hereville reads more as a graphic novel than a regular webcomic. In fact, it is a graphic novel, also available in book form. This might explain the exceptionally beautiful visuals. The drawings are detailed and seem like a lot of work has gone into getting things right. It’s the confident work of a professional artist. The division of panels is deliciously non-traditional. There is no set amount of panels, nor a set pattern in which they’re laid out on the page. The eye rests in pictures like the above where the important details are laid out in front of us in larger images. The strip is in color, but as it uses color sparingly, it often looks like it’s in black and white. The colors add depth to the images, but also leave a dreamlike effect over the whole strip. (Later, there will be beautiful blue-tinted night strips, but these haven’t been published yet.)
The dialogue caught my interest right away. We’re thrown right in the middle of a philosophical debate in the first few panels. Do we have free will or does God just make our lives difficult? In another early strip, we’re invited to ponder on the ethics of eating animals vs. slaying dragons. I loved this. It feels like the reader is sucked into the story and its ethical considerations without having to use too much exposition. The central characters of Mirka and Fruma grow through their conversation.
Mirka’s fixation with being a dragon-slayer is unexplained, which is interesting. It seems to arise from her personality, not be some fate cast upon her (Lord of the Rings style) nor a burden she has to come to terms with. She wants to be a dragon slayer because it’s who she is. Whether or not she’s meant to slay dragons is interestingly ambiguous. Her hero status is even questioned twice in the story (in future strips). One of these instances is clearly feminist commentary, but the other I’m not sure how to read. Are we to think Mirka is a hero or a rebellious child who gets her sword in a questionable way? Is being a dragon slayer only her private dream or will it come to benefit her village? (I’m guessing the latter, but I like how it’s left ambiguous for now.)
I also really liked that the hero is a young girl. There aren’t that many stories with female heroines. The Golden Compass is one that comes to mind, and Alice in Wonderland could be seen as an example too. As a female reader, I sometimes feel left out with all the male heroes looking for swords and rings. Even if I can identify with male characters, it’s still good to see someone my own sex in the lead.
Mirka is a great, strong heroine. She’s not obedient or quiet, and we often see her angry and even violent. I keep thinking back to Alice in Wonderland, where we see a similarly strong-willed girl in the lead. Alice didn’t respect adults or manners, she was herself and, as such, a much more realistic and empowering female hero than the bland Mary Sues that are so typical of girl literature. Mirka’s stepmother, Fruma, is said to be the smartest woman in the village, and is another strong-willed female character.
Jewish culture is an important feature in Hereville, and the Shabbot strips create a strong sense of community and belonging. They serve to introduce us to Mirka’s family and village and also ground the strip in reality a bit before we delve into full-on fantasy in the later strips.
Ampersand also makes political caricatures, and I noticed that a feature of the satirical sketches has crossed over to Hereville. The human faces are sometimes a bit elongated, big-nosed, or otherwise exaggerated. I found this disturbing in some strips. It works with the mythical beasts and such, but Fruma, Mirka’s stepmother, is drawn as a long-nosed caricature character, even if she has a meaningful role in the story. I was confused about this, because it made me feel like I should be laughing at her. I’m still not really sure. However, her long nose is mentioned in the text itself, so maybe it’s a conscious choice. (It’s my only criticism and I’m not even sure if I should be criticizing it…)
I’ve read the whole preview page, and I enjoyed both the visuals and the somewhat surprising storyline. I was considering posting the picture of a particularly well done two-page foldup, but it hasn’t been published on the main page yet, so I will keep it secret. Suffice it to say, there are good things coming, and I’m also eagerly waiting for the second Hereville story.
* * *
From “The Washington Post,” December 12 2004:
A Shrinking Drawing Board For Cartoonists
by Mary Ellen Slayter
What do you get when you cross “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and Isaac Bashevis Singer?
You get cartoonist Barry Deutsch’s latest project, an online comic book called “Hereville,” about “the magical adventures of a 12-year-old Hasidic girl fighting monsters.”
Deutsch, 36, is best known as the creator of the left-wing political comic strip “Ampersand,” which began in the Portland State University student newspaper in the late 1990s. The weekly strip won two Oregon Newspaper Association awards and the Charles M. Schulz award for college newspaper cartoonists.
While Deutsch, of Portland, got his start with political cartoons, he has mostly moved on to other things, including the “Hereville” contribution to Girlamatic.com, a subscriber-based online comic magazine.
He still draws a regular political cartoon for “Dollars & Sense,” a leftist economics magazine.
Deutsch works eight to 20 hours a week on cartoons, more if you include research. (He also works as a wedding coordinator.)
Deutsch has taken numerous college-level art classes, including a few at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he studied with Will Eisner, “one of the greatest cartoonists of all time.” (Eisner created the venerable “Spirit” comic published in newspapers from 1940 to 1952. World War II veterans may also recognize him as the hand behind cartoons distributed by the government to boost soldiers’ morale.)
The pursuit of a career in comics is arduous, Deutsch said. “Right now, the comics industry is in terrible shape. Many of the most talented cartoonists out there — people like [fellow Girlamatic cartoonist] Jenn Manley Lee . . . have never earned a full-time living as a cartoonist. There’s no longer an infrastructure to support more than a tiny number of up-and-coming cartoonists, which is unfortunate, because the talent base out there is enormous.”
* * *
From “The Webcomics Examiner”:
The Best Webcomics of 2004
Barry Deutsch’s Hereville is the story of Mirka, a young girl living in the orthodox Jewish commune of Aherville. She is a strong-willed girl, who dreams of becoming a dragon slayer, while struggling with the duties imposed by being a female in a community that values traditional gender roles. The story is leisurely and steeped in cultural tradition; even troll killing must wait until after Shabbot rituals. Smart, yet heartwarming, quiet, yet with a genuine sense of adventure.