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Review time! with Mike’s Place

by  in Comic News Comment
Review time! with <i>Mike’s Place</i>

“When people know they have no future, can we blame them if we cannot tame them?”

I got Mike’s Place: A True Story of Love, Blues, and Terror in Tel Aviv partly because it sounded interesting, but mostly because Koren Shadmi is an interesting artist. This book isn’t exactly the best use of his talents, but I’ll get to that!

It’s written by two characters in the book, Jack Baxter and Joshua Faudem, it’s published by First Second, and it costs $22.99.

Mike’s Place is one of those comics that is more important to read than it is a good comic, although it is that, to a degree. I’ve read comics (and books, to be fair) like this over the years, where I’m glad I read them, but it’s clear that the writers aren’t really all that well-versed in writing comics or even writing fiction. Baxter is a documentarian, while Faudem worked at Mike’s Place, a bar in Tel Aviv, and ended up getting the director credit on the documentary Baxter was making about the bar. Neither are writers, and neither definitely are comics writers, and it shows pretty clearly in this book. Baxter was in Israel to cover the trial of Marwan Barghouti in April 2003, but he discovered another documentary crew was already making one. He was planning on returning home when he discovered Mike’s Place, which is on the beach in Tel Aviv (at the time, there was another one in Jerusalem, too, which Baxter visits in this comic), and after he spent some time there, he decided to make a movie about the bar. It welcomed everyone, and Baxter noted that in a war-torn area, it would be nice to focus on a place where anyone could have a drink and listen to live music without worrying about politics or religion. So he hired Faudem, and they began making their movie. Almost at the end of filming, however, a suicide bomber blew himself up right outside the front entrance, killing three people and destroying a good part of it (the attack comes a little bit less than halfway through the book).

So the movie becomes something else – how the “family” of Mike’s Place rebuilds even in the face of tragedy.

It’s a good narrative, and Baxter and Faudem don’t screw it up, but it still feels too “documentarian,” I guess. It’s very straightforward – they simply tell events as they happen, with very little commentary, which is how many documentaries work. This is where movies can be superior to comics – we can see the interviewees in documentaries move and react to what they’re saying, often with micro-expressions that subtly (or, in some cases, not so subtly) convey what they’re really thinking and feeling, and that’s harder to do in a static medium like comics. It can be done, certainly, and Shadmi does some nice work with the body language of the characters, but because these things are often so tiny, it’s harder to catch them in comics than it is on film. Baxter and Faudem are probably good documentarians, but as writers, they leave a bit to be desired. Baxter even tells Faudem at one point in this comic that he needs to be out of the frame, because he’s the Objective Producer, but authorial tone is important in a book, and this doesn’t really have one. So anything we glean about these characters is very opaque and open to more interpretation than usual.

Faudem’s relationship with a young woman falls apart after the bombing, and it’s implied that she’s having trouble because she had seen so much violence during her childhood in the Balkans, but then we remember that they had only been together less than a month before she uprooted her entire life and moved to Israel, so how stable was the relationship, really? Baxter stays in Tel Aviv to make his movie, and while we have no reason to doubt his devotion to his wife (who eventually joins him in Israel after he’s severely injured in the attack), his insistence on staying on after his first idea is trumped feels strange, as if he doesn’t want to go home. The most interesting story in the book is something I kind of have to SPOIL, unfortunately (although this is a true story, so you can easily find out what happened), and it concerns the relationship between Dominique, a waitress at the bar, and Gal, the owner. Gal is in love with Dominique, but she doesn’t feel the same way, and she wants to leave the bar to start her own business but doesn’t want to hurt Gal’s feelings. She never gets to hash it out with him because she dies in the explosion, and the way Gal reacts to her death is fascinating, as he tries to shape her death so that he’s the most important part of it, even though they weren’t a couple when she was alive. He’s not portrayed as a bad guy, just someone who needs to sculpt the past to conform to his feelings rather than reality, and it’s sad, understandable, but a bit pathetic.

I’m not sure if that’s what Baxter and Faudem were going for, but it’s still pretty interesting. They have to invent some things – the fate of the one bomber whose gear either malfunctioned or who panicked at the last second (that his bomb didn’t go off is all we know) is invented, as no one knows how he spent the days after the attack. The fact that this is a “news story” with actual people is why, I assume, that Baxter and Faudem don’t try too hard to delve into the psyches of the characters, but it would be nice if they had. The few glimpses we get of what’s going on inside the characters’ heads are nice, but they still only scratch the surface. Everyone seems a bit too sanguine about the attack (except for Gal, who’s genuinely depressed about Dominique), and while that’s a good attitude to have, it feels like there are more complicated emotions underneath it all. There’s one Palestinian character in the book, for example (he hangs out at the Jerusalem bar), but he remains a minor part of the book and we never find out what he feels about the attack (except in the most general sense). Missed opportunities like this are why the book feels a bit more shallow than it could have been.

In the same way, it doesn’t feel like the writers take advantage of Shadmi. I haven’t seen a ton of Shadmi’s work, but he’s a good artist, with a good, clean line, a slightly cartoonish style, and a very good eye for detail. All of those serve him in good stead on Mike’s Place, which has a lot of characters – most of which Shadmi makes easily identifiable, which is always nice – and takes place in very real places.

The book has a great deal of verisimilitude, which is a good thing in a “documentary” comic, and Shadmi is able to show how the characters react to the bombing usually in a better way than the writers do – many new comics writers don’t trust their artists as much as they should, but Baxter and Faudem do, which is nice. But Shadmi also works in a style that, because of his ability with curving, fluid lines, has a very sensual quality, and he doesn’t get to exhibit that here. I certainly don’t want the book to be weird or creepy, which Shadmi does well, but it feels like it’s more sterile than it could be, as the tone of the book is what Baxter mentions to Faudem – that he should remain aloof – and that bleeds into the artwork. The explosion, obviously, is a visceral moment, and Shadmi does a wonderful job with the immediate aftermath. One of the best pages in the book is where we see Dominique unconscious after the attack, because Shadmi does such a wonderful job drawing her injury (she lost an arm) and the way Gal tries to help her. Whenever he is able to show some emotion on the faces of the character (Sasha, Faudem’s girlfriend, begins breaking down; Gal and Faudem drink more than is healthy; Omar panics like a scared animal), he does a good job, but the restraint shown by the writers means that Shadmi shows too much, as well. Shadmi’s grayscale and gouache work is terrific – he uses it to add texture to the landscape and a dull shine to windows and other reflective surfaces, and it really adds to the nuance of the art, making everything feel more solid and real while adding an extra layer of horror to the violence of the bombing.

The book looks very nice, but like the story, I can’t help but wonder if it would look better had Shadmi been able to experiment a bit more. Or maybe this is exactly what he wanted to do!

I know I’m being kind of weird about Mike’s Place. I liked it, and I think it’s an important comic, and I appreciate that it exists, but I just got the sense that something was missing from it. I felt too disconnected from the material, and I don’t know if that’s my problem, a deliberate effort by the creators, or something that they didn’t want but got anyway. There seems to be something just out of reach with regard to the book, as if there are a lot of things that didn’t get told for whatever reason. It’s hard to explain, but I tried. It’s a fascinating comic because it shows the trauma in Israel/Palestine in a different light, as the people at the bar stay positive and reject the hatred we see so often on the news. It’s worth a read, but it feels like it could have been truly great and fell a little bit short.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

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