Talking With Amitai Sandy about Israeli Comics and Dimona Comix Group

Historically, American comics readers have tended to stick to product from their own country, not venturing much outside our own country for content. That's changed in recent years as Manga has flourished in the American market and European comics have attempted to make in roads into the American market. The Internet has helped give American fans access to work from overseas they might not otherwise get exposed to and, likewise, foreign publishers have found new means to market their comics to an American audience, once again via the Internet. What American fans have discovered in recent years is that there's a wealth of product out there to discover that's unlike most work published in the States.

Today we travel to the Middle East and direct our attention to the Israeli Dimona Comix Group, a group of five late 20-something comics creators, all from Tel-Aviv, Israel: Ifat Cohen, Meirav Shaul, Michal Baruch (the women, all graduates of the Shenkar Academy of Arts in Tel-Aviv) and Guy Morad and Amitai Sandy (the men, both graduates of the Betzalel Academy of Arts in Jerusalem). Some of their members have branched into other media as well. Meirav Shaul is an art director for commercial TV (video and animation), Ifat Cohen is a set designer for raves, gigs and other public events. There's also Noa Abarbanel, who while not an official Dimona member, writes all the comics drawn by Amitai Sandy. CBR News sat down for a chat with Dimona group member Amita Sandy to learn more about what they're working on, when you'll be able to see their product in the United States and what the comics market is like in Israel.

Dimona began back in 2002 by Jan Feindt, a German illustrator and comics artist who studied at the Shenkar academy with some of the women in the group. "We were all fresh out of the Visual Communications departments of our art schools at the time," Amitai Sandy told CBR News. "The aim was to collect our individual comics stories and publish them together in book form, in the English language, and export them abroad. We all do personal comics stories in a very wide range of styles, and we like to experiment with narratives and artistic representation. Each project for us is an opportunity to try a fresh approach."

For the women in the group, Sandy says they weren't comics fans as kids, having their first encounter with the medium during art school when teachers exposed them to more "alternative" and "artistic" fare from the likes of Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware from the States, as well as Italian creator Lorenzo Mattotti and German creator Anke Feuchtenberger. On the other hand, the men in the group have been comic fans for most of their lives.

"I did read comics from a very early age: both Batman and Asterix were among my earliest influences," said Sandy. "I can remember lying on the floor at around age four or five, filling page after page of endless battles of karate warriors, doing the sound effects simultaneously. Later on, at 17, I became the publisher and editor, together with writer Yaron Nisky, of an alternative comics magazine called 'Penguins' Perversions' (Hebrew). We published the magazine more or less quarterly for over four years, also during our army service."

In addition to his work with Dimona, Sandy also creates political art, comic strips and posters, but most of it is in Hebrew seeing as how his target audience is the Israeli public. One of the reasons why Sandy and his fellow group members began Domona was to share stories about their lives as ordinary young people living in Israel, but to publish them in English and make cultural exchanges with people around the world. "We discovered many people who are interested in our personal stories, and not just in the political situation, which is usually the first thing that comes to mind when Israel comes up," said Sandy. "But anyway, you usually can't miss Israel in most of our stories - the streets, the scenery, the people, even the climate. Many people said this about the cover for 'Dimona1,' that you can see how hot it is in the street behind the girl."

So far Dimoa has published three anthologies and one graphic novel. The first book was appropriately titled "Dimona1," a 96 page, black and white comic sized trade paperback released in 2003 at the Angouleme Comics Festival in France. The book contains five stories by the original group members including Jan Feindt with Sandy providing the cover. "This book is already almost sold out by now," said Sandy. "Jan parted ways with us after the first book, and returned to Germany, where his works now appear in the German comics group 'Moga-Mobo's' books.

"In 'Dimona1,' Ifat told the spiritually inclined story of a shepherd who forgets how to breath, Meirav dealt with the boredom of her day job, and how she would escape that. In Michal's story, her mother tells her that at the late age of 27.5, she has to find a husband already. So Michal goes down to the Groom shops, but finds it hard to decide, so she takes three home to try them out. Jan had this symbolist story about a guy who dreams his girlfriend is a grasshopper, and Guy dives into the harsh Israeli reality of a roadblock."

Their second book, "Dimona2," was a special format book, the size of a vinyl record, and published for the Berlin Comics Festival in the summer of 2003. This time out they upgraded their paper stock and printed it in color, with the only downside being that each contributor could only do a two-page story, but at 12" x 24" the creators were happy to see their work in a large format.

Sandy described the contents of this issue. "This time, it was Ifat who delved into symbolism, with her story of her strangely missing pet fish," explained Sandy. "Guy presented a haunting little anecdote about a lonely guy's visit to his therapist. That story was very bleak and hard to decipher, and many of the readers worked hard on finding the hidden meanings of this story. I admit even I'm not sure what the author's exact intent was…

"In her story for Dimona2, Meirav is awakened by loud nocks on her door. 'O.K., mister burglar - take the TV, take the DVD, just let us sleep!' shouts the terrified Meirav. But her stuffed animals disagree: 'But we just got the DVD!'

"Noa Abarbanel and me tell the true story of a wild party night with our free spirited friend Hemdat. And finally, Michal closes our second book with a dream she shares with most of us: 'Next life, I'm gonna be a rock star, for sure.'"

2005 saw some changes in publication for the Dimona crew. They published a third "Dimona" anthology as well as the original graphic novel "Shirley." As a whole, the group decided to invest more time into the narrative side of their comics, so, with the guidance of Uri Baruchin, the group embarked on a script-writing workshop. "Uri is an independent marketing strategy and new media consultant (we like him in spite of that), but he's also a self-taught expert on the narrative side of comics," explained Sandy. "So, for a period of over a year, once every two weeks, we'd meet to discuss comics story telling and throw around story ideas for our next book."

At this year's Angouleme, Dimona presented both books. "Dimona3" features four stories by Guy Morad, Michal Baruch, Meirav Shau and Ifat Cohen. "…the opening story is by Guy about two alienated brothers, and a terrifying event which might bring them closer together. Guy, like me, also read American mainstream comics growing up, and later gravitated towards the alternative stuff. He states Dan Clowes among his influences.

"Michal tells the story of a frustrated young lady who doesn't get it - she just doesn't know how to smile. She tries different solutions, and like many young Israelies, travels as far as India to find a solution for that problem. I feel that you can see in Michal's latest story the shift towards more traditional comics storytelling, a result of our 'workshop,' but I don't know if this is a lasting change or just a one-time experiment.

"Meirav continues to tell us little stories about herself and her stuffed animal little friends. This time they go to a party, Meirav's ex has a new date, and Meirav meets a ghost from the past.

"Ifat takes us on a wild cab ride with Raju the driver, the reality TV crew that films him, and the various encounters they have in the big city. Ifat is influenced by Indian art & culture, and she deals with unexpected changes in the karma!"

Their other offering is "Shirley," written by Noa Abarbanel and illustrated by Sandy. "Shirley is young, smart, good looking, and has a great sense of humor. So how come her lovers find her humor a bit too extreme for them?

"The story follows Shirley through the usual stages in a life of a typical Israeli girl: high-school, then the mandatory army service at the age of 18, in which Shirley serves as a squad commander in the basic training course. After the army many young Israelis go abroad to 'clean their heads,' but we meet Shirley again in the university. Shirley is a free spirit and meets cute boys wherever she goes, but some stuff doesn't work out very well when they get into bed."

Sandy says that reaction to their books so far has been very positive. "After our first Angouleme appearance, we were invited to contribute stories to several European anthologies and special projects," said Sandy. "Some of us contributed stories to Striburger's War book, and to German projects by Moga Mobo, Jungle World newspaper, and other anthologies. We were invited to the Berlin Comics Festival the same year, where we also participated in a group exhibition of comics artists."

Sandy says that so far the sales of their books have been pretty well divided between the European and Israel comics markets. They've so far been distributed in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, Sweden, Spain and in other countries through small European publishers. "Following the last Angouleme, I also started to import small press books from all over Europe to Israel, with surprising success," added Sandy. "It's real nice that us small independent publishers can help each other out this way and spread our art around."

Aside from a handful of orders via their Web site, so far there hasn't been much interest from America, but that's for one very good reason: no U.S. distribution. That's all about to change. "I can happily announce that Diamond Comics decided to feature 'Shirley' in the June issue of Previews, and I hope 'Dimona3' will be featured in the July issue. So take heed - our invasion of America is about to begin!"

As for what the future holds for Dimona, Sandy says they'll continue to publish their own creators' comic art. "I hope we will all be able to create longer stories, but the format and scale of our next collective project is not set yet," explained Sandy. "Noa and I are already working on the script for a graphic novel that's at least three times as long as 'Shirley,' but we don't know how long it will take us to finish this project. Perhaps we will collaborate with a bigger publisher for this one, either from Europe or the US. We would also love to get invited to North American anthologies and group projects. It would be interesting to try and collaborate from across the globe. Today it's easier than ever.

Finishing up, we asked Sandy to give us some insight and history of what the comics scene is like in Israel, which he kindly detailed for CBR News. We'll hand it over to Sandy for the rest of this article.

"In Israel there are much more 'alternative' comics than there is what you Americans would call mainstream," explained Sandy. "In Israel, comics never got to be as big as in the US or Europe. 'Asterix' and 'Tintin' were translated to Hebrew in the '80s, and we've had some Disney and Italian westerns translated in the '60s, but nothing very major. So the medium never got to be dominated by one genre.

"There is only one mega successful comics artist in Israel, Uri Fink, who does a comics strip called 'Zbeng,' about a group of teenagers and their lives and loves. He became an empire, with many best selling book collections, merchandise, and now his own comics magazine. 'Zbeng' was even adapted into a live action TV series. Fink's success made many kids here learn the language of comics for the first time, and so all of us comics artists who came after him owe him thanks.

"Another Israeli comics giant, Dudu Geva, just passed away in February, aged 54. Geva was not very successful commercially, but he is the godfather and inspiration for all Israeli alternative comics. Starting out in the '70s, he could be described as sort of a combination of Crumb and Spiegelman, if you will. He combined many elements in his comic art - he was both a virtuoso of line work and an avant-garde artist. His stories range the entire spectrum from political satire, slice of life comics, and self parodies. His comics are both hilarious and sad, and all are very Israeli in their spirit.

"In 1995, the Actus group was formed, and they were the first comics group to publish in English and try to make it big out side of Israel. Today, after many books published and also translated into other languages, they are widely known and respected in Europe as very serious and innovative comics artists. All Actus members are also teachers in the art academies, so comic gets a serious academic treatment, equal to illustration and other media of visual communication.

"Following the nation-wide success of 'Zbeng,' and later, for a much smaller crowd, 'Penguins' Perversions,' comics culture in Israel started happening. In 'Penguins' Perversions,' which was basically self published, we encouraged young people to create their own independent media channels, and in the '90s Israel experienced its first waves of the zine revolution. Many self published, xeroxed zines came out, and anarchist zine distros ensued. We at 'Penguins' Perversions' used to set up booths in many rock festivals, book fairs and other events, and we also distributed other zines.

"If you consider the most successful comics in Israel, mainly 'Zbeng,' but also, to a lesser extent, 'Penguins' Perversions,' 'Dudu Geva,' 'Engelmayer' and the like, I think you could say the larger Israeli crowd is interested in comics which deal with our daily lives and our local reality. Not much demand for fantasy in Israeli comics, even though we do take it in every other medium. The main crowd for super hero comics is those people who already read the American ones.

"Today we already have a live and kicking scene, with many alternative comics creators and magazines: 'Plan B' Magazine, 'Engelmayer,' 'Daddy Dubi,' 'Glendon & Isabella' and dozens of others. There are also many web comics and flash animation heroes, among them teenage nonsense kings 'Dorimani' and 'Hubert-Hubert' (all in Hebrew, sorry...)

"In recent years we also see more and more superhero and fantasy publishing efforts. Comicom's 'Arinea' was a Tolkein style fantasy mini-series, and they later followed with the successful one shot self parody 'Deadline,' starring the two creators. Ofer Zanzuri works in amazing speed (considering this isn't his day job), and in the past year has published no less than five issues of his 'Light-Blue Knights,' about a group of Israeli superheroes.

"The Tel-Aviv comics festival is already a tradition, and us alternative creators also set up many small alternative fairs all through the year. In these events, usually happening in 'trendy' indy nightclubs, we have stands of indy music labels, indy book publishers, anarchist distros and the like. Each fair is different: sometimes the afternoon fair is followed in the evening by punk rock shows, sometimes with dub or other electronic music, so we are able to attract different kinds of crowds and mix them together. It's funny to see young Tel-Avivian parents with their newborn babies next to full costumed punks or hardcore hip-hopers, all reading alternative comics or dancing to electro music, or both simultaneously.

"The situation here can take you through bizarre situations, like one weekend I danced till 4 am in a drum & bass rave, then woke up at 7am and went to protest against the occupation in some small village on the west bank, and then in the evening I went to an exhibition opening of comics art in this sickeningly trendy lounge bar in Tel-Aviv.

"It's not always that exciting. Weeks can go by when I almost don't get out of my room. I mean, I still am a comics artist, right?"

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