One of the most difficult things to achieve in comic books is the depiction of music. Sure, you can write clever lyrics to the tune of famous songs, but the actual expression of music with art? It is both incredibly difficult to pull off, and very satisfying when done well. Joann Sfar does it well with his new English release from First Second Books, Klezmer Book One: Tales of the Wild East. He manages to, in my opinion, fully embody the the musical tradition of klezmer with his art, and with his story, tell an entertaining tale of how a ragtag group of people became a klezmer band, back before these types of bands were even REFERRED to as klezmer bands!
To understand how Sfar achieves the feat of matching his art to the music, one must know more about klezmer music.
Klezmer music is a Jewish style of music most popular in Eastern Europe. It is usually instrumental music, and mostly performed for weddings. It is marked by its expressive melodies, almost like someone is talking THROUGH the music, and constantly changing tempos and keys. The changes are to facilitate the position of the song, for wedding celebrations generally required music for days, so different moods required different keys and tempos.
This is achieved beautifully by Sfar’s watercolor artwork, as he does not hold to a specific look for any ten page period, mixing and matching depending on the scene and what was happening in the scene. It is really rare to see so many vastly different looks from a single artist in one book, but Sfar makes it work as not simply a gimmick, but as a legitimate means of telling the story. The biggest way of doing so is with his colors – certain pages he will go nuts with colors, while others he will pull back and have the character drawings stand out. It’s very nice to watch unfold in front of your eyes.
Sfar’s story, meanwhile, is a fun one. A musician loses his band to the deadly machinations of a rival band, and (after gaining his revenge) sets off on his own, but gains a partner (against his wishes).
Meanwhile, two former Yeshiva students team-up with a gypsy and form a band.
By the end of the story, the two groups are thrust together – but will they maintain unity as a band? That we don’t see, as that is the end of Book One, but there is enough interesting characterizations and dialogue in Book One to sate our thirst until next time.
My favorite character is Yaacov, who is the closest this book comes to a lead character. He is a masterful Yeshiva student who leaves under strange circumstances (he is caught stealing his master’s coat), but has a real edge to him that makes him easily adaptable to any new circumstance. His expressive manner is a real treat for the reader, as we see him take on every new situation with the mind of a con artist, almost. Meanwhile, his manner of speaking is so frank that he often says things that others would keep in their mind – it makes for some amusing scenes.
The other Yeshiva student, Vincenzo, is an odd duck – he plays the violin in his sleep! Their gypsy comrade, Tshokola, has a nasty side that he keeps barely hidden.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the book, the eventual leader of the group, Noah Davidovich, known as “The Baron of my Backside,” has a very interesting relationship with young Chava, a woman who does not want to live the smalltown life she was born into, so he trains her as a singer, while warding off her romantic impulses. The Baron has a poetic side hidden under a pile of gruff exterior. It makes for fun reading.
All in all, Sfar’s Klezmer is an entertaining comic with art that manages to convey music, which is something we should always be impressed by. Definitely recommended.
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