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The Queen

Comic rendering of the Book of Esther offers a new entryway into a very old tale

Haman encounters Mordechai.
Esther And Mordecai.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 4/22/2009

Drawing on Tradition: The Book of Esther

Through July 26 at the Jewish Museum of Maryland

The publication of Slate editor David Plotz's irreverent and entertaining The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible was fortuitously timed--a few weeks prior to the major Jewish and Christian holidays of Passover and Easter. Plotz's enterprise--which he started blogging in 2006--gamely advocates in favor of reading the Bible cover to cover, no matter whether you're a Jew or gentile, believer or atheist, lapsed Catholic or born-again Christian, whatever. He argues that knowing Bible stories is integral for basic cultural literacy (his intellectual argument) and, more personally, that reading it has given him insight into the meaning behind the rituals practiced over his life as a self-described "lax, non-Hebrew-speaking Jew."

That the blog/book has sparked more print and online Bible discussion than some of us have come across since CCD classes speaks to what exploring the Bible from the early 21st--or, for that matter, the late 18th--century involves: an act of translation. Simply reading a text that old is, in and of itself, an act of intellectual and cultural translation, an act of understanding something written so very long ago from the vantage point of wherever it is you sit. That's the engaging process displayed in the Jewish Museum of Maryland's Drawing on Tradition: The Book of Esther. It showcases the work of writer/illustrator JT Waldman, who started his comic adaptation of the Book of Esther, 2005's Megillat Esther, in 1998--researching and translating the story in Israel and drawing and inking the illustrations in Barcelona. (This background story comes via the Jewish Museum of Maryland-produced video featurette included in the exhibition.) The Drawing exhibition features 51 panels, a mix of Waldman's original drawings and digital enlargements, laid out in such a way that as you work your way counterclockwise along the gallery walls when you enter, you read through Waldman's vivid, melodramatic version of the Book of Esther.

For those a bit rusty on the Old Testament, the Book of Esther is--and what follows is the reductively terse, "for Dummies" version--about how a young, orphaned Jewish woman, Esther, becomes the queen to the slightly buffoonish Persian King Ahasuerus, who lords over the Jews. Hiding her Jewish background, Esther does some behind the scenes politicking to save not only her cousin Mordecai from execution, but all Jews in the kingdom, since a decree was passed by the king's vizier Haman that called for their eradication. Such decrees can't be overturned, but Ahasuerus issues another permitting Jews to defend themselves, ensuring their survival. This story is the background for the Jewish festival of Purim.

In short, Esther is a bit of a badass, and Waldman appropriately imagines her as a strong, voluptuous woman who cuts a courtly profile and draws her with bold lines and in dramatic poses. It's an envisioning not too far removed from a superheroine, but it fits into the visual language Waldman uses throughout Megillat Esther, easily recognizable to even a casual comics reader. Mordecai defiantly declines to bow to Haman. The king sees a florid, kaleidoscope dream while sleeping. Esther dramatically accuses Haman of plotting to eradicate the Jews. An image of warrior queen Esther and Mordecai establish the Days of Purim.

Waldman favors familiar multiple-panel page layouts for his comic, and his scenes also familiarly follow the medium's visual logic. Wordless panels visually drive the plot along while focusing the eye on certain details, enabling Waldman to rely less heavily on word bubbles. Ditto his editorial choices for the characters and background extras--each major player enters Waldman's pages as a fully formed character with his or her own well of facial expressions, standing or seating postures, clothing, etc. These details are rooted in his research--the clothing and setting certainly look like what history suggests people wore and where they lived in 5th-century Persia, and Waldman easily insinuates their setting into his story's bold black and white comic universe.

But Waldman refreshingly doesn't stick to mere orderly rectangular panels for his page layouts, occasionally using a nebulous large square over three smaller squares on a page or, in some of his most arresting panels, turning to oblique arrangements of tall, elongated quadrilaterals. In fact, Megillat Esther's visual organization changes over the course of the Book of Esther's 10 books, adjusting to the subject matter and tone of each section. It's these subtleties that give Megillat Esther and Drawing on Tradition an element of the personal touch and, in the process, a refreshing engagement: Each of Waldman's images forms a connection between the now informing their creation and the then of their original source, forming the same sort of creative bridge between the present and the past as illuminated manuscripts--those graphic, decorative, and opulent precursors to the graphic novel.

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