By Brian Heater
Last year’s Small Press Expo (SPX) in Bethesda, Maryland was something of a comic book coming out party for Sarah Glidden. Sure, she’d been kicking around the self-publishing scene for a couple of years, but this time people were buzzing about her latest mini—a black and white photocopied pamphlet bearing the conspicuously long title, How to Understand Israel in Sixty Days or Less. She’d managed to get her work into the hands of some influential artists, bloggers and a few select magazine editors, like Heeb‘s Jeff Newelt, which landed the artist her first print review in the Hollywood Issue. Just as the issue was hitting stands, Glidden was nominated for, and subsequently won, the Maisie Kukoc Award for Comics Inspiration, a self-publishing award given out yearly at Portland, Oregon’s Stumptown small press convention.
Glidden’s book narrates the experiences of a Birthright-Israel trip, while attempting to paint a picture of the Jewish state’s unquestionably complex conflict with neighboring Palestine, all the while attempting to avoid getting too caught up in the jingoistic discourse of either side. The result is alternately thought-provoking, entertaining, and even, on occasion, funny. We spoke to Glidden recently about Israeli bus tours, mini comics and why it sometimes pays to be an outsider.
You went on the Birthright-Israel trip, which later served as the basis for How to Understand Israel in Sixty Days or Less. Was it your intention at the outset to use the trip as fodder for a comic?
Yes. I had been really interested in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis for a long time, and I would often get into really heated arguments with family and friends about who was right or wrong. But eventually I realized that even though I keep up with the news, I didn’t know enough about the history of the region to be taking such strong stances and that I should maybe read a little more about it and even actually go there. I couldn’t afford to just go on my own, but at that time it was my last year that I could qualify for a Birthright trip (the age range is 18-27), so I figured that it would be a great opportunity to see Israel’s side of the story at least. I thought that maybe documenting that whole process of re-evaluating one’s political point of view in comic form might be interesting, so from the very beginning that was the plan.
Had you attempted to tackle the subject in comics, or any other form, prior to the trip?
Not really. I had been doing mostly journal comics up until that point, and while I did a few of those about my thoughts on the situation, I was kind of afraid to really talk about it in comics or even in blog form or anything like that until I knew a little more about it.
You certainly risk coming off as a bit too one-sided, given the generally filtered nature of information on the subject that we receive in the State–but then there’s a certain degree of bias one has to anticipate on a Birthright trip. Did the trip make it more or less difficult to get at both sides of the issue?
Well, I knew going into it that I wasn’t going to get balanced portions of both sides of the issue. Part of me wanted to see just how one-sided the tour would be and I was ready to report on it in the comic, but I was surprised at how left-wing our guide was. It kind of caught me off guard, actually. We talked a lot about the Palestinian situation, the separation wall and what historical events brought the Zionists and Arabs to that point. In the end, however, we were on a tour of Israel and not a tour of the conflict, so of course it wasn’t balanced, but I didn’t feel like I was being brainwashed at all. I really want to go back and get the Palestinian side of the issue, although I could never come close to what Joe Sacco did with Palestine.
In a lot of ways, Sacco’s book is about the experience of being embedded in warfare—Sacco refers to himself as a “war junkie.” Having experienced the region the way you did certainly filters the situation through a different perspective than what’s present in Palestine. Were there benefits to that filter in terms of storytelling, if only serving to ensure that it wasn’t a carbon copy of Sacco’s book?
I haven’t been to the Occupied Territories, but from what I’ve read and heard, it is like living in a war zone in a way, so Sacco’s book must reflect what he saw there. On the Palestinian side of the wall there’s very limited access to everything from electricity to healthcare. My book is about the Israeli side where the effects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are much more subtle. So yeah, in that way its a very different perspective. In Israel you see the conflict though the security measures that are everywhere; they check your bags when you go into a shopping center and we had an armed guard with us for the tour. It’s strange because if not for those things as reminders, you could easily forget that this country is in the middle of such an intense struggle. On the inside its a pretty quiet place.
Still, one of the things that the book share—as opposed to, say Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds—is that narrators are both strangers in a strange land, presenting the conflict from the point of view of an American for, at least initially, American consumption. How important do you think the presentation of the subject matter from the point of view of the outsider is in terms of painting a story that other outsiders can relate to?
In this case, very important. I gave the book that overly long title because the whole trip, as well as the month and a half of reading before I left, was my attempt at trying to figure this whole thing out. I really thought that I would come back from the trip with some deep understanding of the whole region, and I spent my two weeks there trying really hard to find some clues to bring it all together in my own mind. So when it came to making the comic, I really wanted to being people with me so they could experience the utter confusion involved in facing something you don’t understand. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think a lot of Americans think that we know what’s going on with the rest of the world. We read the newspaper, a wikipedia page and maybe some non-fiction books about other countries and think we’re experts, but when we finally visit that place we realize how little we actually grasp.
Of the countless conflicts in the region—and throughout the world—why does this specific issue have such a resonance with you? How large a role has your being an American Jew played in your connection with Israel?
My family wasn’t really religious but we belonged to a Reform synagogue in our town and my brother and I went to Sunday school at Brandeis University to prep for getting Bar/Bat Mitzvah’ed. Throughout my Jewish education there was a lot of emphasis on Israel. We were encouraged to donate small amounts of money to plant a tree in Israel, to get pen-pals there and generally to feel connected to it. Birthright is part of that. So when I got a bit older and started hearing more about the conflict with the Palestinians, I figured that as a Jew, if I’m connected to Israel then I’m connected to that conflict as well. If I’m a potential citizen of Israel, I can’t pick and choose the things I like about it and ignore the problems. I feel like I have some kind of responsibility to get involved and do whatever I can to make it a better place. It’s either that or disconnect myself from it altogether and I don’t want to do that.
Meanwhile, you’re working on a Web project Mideast Youth Comics that, at least on a surface level, is decidedly less personal, tackling stories other than your own. What was the genesis of the project? Was there some desire to step outside of your own head for awhile?
Yeah, I wanted to have some smaller projects to work on so I wouldn’t be overwhelmed by constantly working on the Israel book, and I’d had this idea for a while of making little journal type comics out of other peoples’ stories. One day I was surfing the internet and I found mideastyouth.com and just loved their site. It’s a multimedia site with contributors who are activists, students and bloggers from all over the world, especially the Middle East. They write and post videos and podcasts about the problems and progress they see in their own societies including women’s rights, free speech and human rights. There’s a lot of that kind of writing out there but I was struck by how respectful the readers and commenters are of each other. Usually when you put an Israeli and a Palestinian together on the same message board the result is a lot of vitriolic shouting. But this was different. I got in touch with the director of the site and after emailing a bit we ended up talking about making collaborative comics for the site. I had been thinking about how Persepolis made me think differently about Iran and helped me separate the country’s people from its government, and I wanted to make small comics that would help readers from all over the world get to know their neighbors. I think comics have a unique power to help people empathize with a character and step into their world. So these are kind of like journal comics, just from someone else’s journal. Its working out really well so far and I’ve received some wonderful stories that have been fun to make into comics. The best part is that I get to learn a lot about what its like to live in Syria or Bahrain, which is much more fun for me than writing more journal comics about my own life. My life is pretty uneventful anyway.