Comic Book Siddur: For Shabbat Morning Services
Illustrated by Howard Salmon
144 pgs, $18, http://comicbooksiddur.com/
Howard Salmon first celebrated his bar mitzvah as a 44-year-old. He and six others attended a class at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson, Arizona, and each one prepared one aliyah of the Torah reading. “As I was studying the prayers, I made myself a study guide in the form of a comic book,” he remembers. “Basically, I drew superheroes in action poses in the margins of the prayers.” Salmon stapled the drawings together as a “chapbook,” or small booklet, and showed it to the synagogue’s associate rabbi, Benjamin Sharff, himself a “huge comic book fan.” Sharff so loved the booklet that he suggested publishing a book and offered to serve as editor and write the introduction.
“My fantasy for this book is for a kid to actually use it in his bar mitzvah,” Salmon says, though he knows that is problematic. “Rabbi Sharff has expressed concern about this for obvious reasons,” he says, “since comics have not reached a level of holiness appropriate for the sanctuary. The best I can hope for now is that kids or other interested people can use the comic book siddur as a study aid.”
Salmon drew inspiration from a variety of sources. His siddur, which he says is “my way of sweetening the text with cartoons,” reaches out to Jewish youth and introduces Torah to them through popular culture as Matisyahu does with his reggae music. It also resembles some Artscroll publications that teach children through cartoons, Salmon says. More classically, he cites the biblical subject-filled murals in the third century synagogue, Dura Europos, as another example of illustrations of Jewish narratives.
“If that’s not proof that illustration of biblical subjects is indeed holy, then I don’t know what is,” he says. “Besides, philosophically, art illustrating biblical scenes is a teaching tool, and it shouldn’t be confused with the ‘golden calf,’ which was an idol.”
Of course, there are the Jewish cartoonists, who were also Salmon’s role models: Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Art Spiegelman, Jerry Robinson, William M. Gaines, and Stan Lee. Salmon studied painting and drawing on a graduate level at University of Arizona, and he describes himself as “a lifelong cartoonist and comic book artist,” who “sought spiritual meaning in pop culture (comic books, rock music) but found that to be spiritually hollow.” When a friend from synagogue asked him to join the Jewish rock band Avanim as a drummer, he did and also found himself becoming “much more involved in Judaism and contributing to contemporary Jewish culture.”
Salmon’s cast of characters, which includes Captain Aleph and his sidekick, Marty the Flying Matzoh Ball, evokes Alan Oirich’s Jewish Hero Corps of Menorah Man, Yarmulke Youth, Matzah Woman, Driedel Maidel, Magen David, Minyan Man, and Shabbas Queen. He also employs a move that recalls Archie Rand’s series, “60 Paintings from the Bible,” as it translates biblical conversations into word balloons. “My strategy was to look at the English translations of a variety of siddurs, from Orthodox to Reform, and to create my own translation (or rather, ‘interpretation’) that captured the spirit of the Hebrew, albeit, in snappy comic book-speak.” Salmon adds that translating the Bible’s “holy style of speech” into the “wise-cracking ‘superhero and his sidekick’ style” actually mirrors the sort of prayers that are supposed to occur between people and G-d.
“As Rabbi Sharff pointed out to me, a siddur is a theological statement, and having G-d and Man talk to each other as if they were Batman and Robin (also the creation of a Jew, Bob Kane, I should add) creates an relationship with G-d where G-d is ‘imminent,'” he says. “When a kid reads the Hebrew prayers, he can get a quick summation of the meaning of the text by reading what’s in the word balloons.”
But Salmon’s book is a bit different from Oirich’s and Rand’s works in its unique narrative. Like Superman, Captain Aleph’s parents save him from their planet’s destruction by shipping him off to Earth in a rocket, and he lands on the scene ready for adoption like Moses in the Nile River. Aleph declares himself on the title page to be a hero not so much to fight evil as “to become a man! Gotta study for my bar mitzvah.” The hero − big muscles, talit, tefillin, mask, and all − is then a stand-in for Salmon, or for the reader preparing for his bar mitzvah.
Aleph makes it to his Torah reading despite several obstacles, including a slobbering figure that looks like the brain Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Balaam on his donkey, who tries in vain to curse the Jews. He changes his mind and declares, “I found your G-d quite persuasive! I like you people, yes I do! Bless your temple and your service!” Captain Aleph and his teammates recite all the morning blessings, including the blessing Salmon interprets as “Thank you, G-d, for providing all of my needs!” The words are voiced by a very muscular man with a ponytail, lying on a cloud with an outstretched finder that evokes Michelangelo’s fresco The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Salmon makes some important modifications in his quotation of Michelangelo. In Michelangelo’s fresco, Adam reaches out to touch G-d, personified by a man with a long white-and-gray beard. Salmon modestly moves Adam’s leg and substitutes the Kabbalistic mapping of the Sephirot (like a regular hexagon stretched) for G-d. The shape also becomes the nose of a large female face, perhaps alluding to the Kabbalistic notion of a female god, or at least female aspects to G-d. Not only has Salmon reinterpreted a 16th century masterpiece into the contemporary form of cartooning, but he has also injected it with a specifically Jewish aesthetic − conscious and respectful of the problems surrounding realistic representations that personify G-d.
How Salmon’s works compare with Eisner’s and Kane’s is debatable. In many senses, the comparison is as unfair as weighing a modern artist’s work against Rembrandt’s. But at least in my experience, Salmon’s Siddur is the first I’ve seen to juxtapose the Hebrew text with cartoon illustrations. It is not a cartoon book about the siddur, or asiddur with a few cartoons that happen to sit on its pages. The book truly is a comic book Siddur.
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at email@example.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.