- Sfar So Far: Identity, History, Fantasy and Mimesis in Joann Sfar’s Graphic Novels by Fabrice Leroy
Fabrice Leroy’s book provides a powerful analysis of key comics by the important contemporary French cartoonist Joann Sfar, who is widely renowned today for his best-selling series Le chat du rabbin, translated as The Rabbi’s Cat (Pantheon, 2005). As Leroy argues, with some twenty years of experience as a professional cartoonist and an output of over 150 published albums, Sfar is at the top of his form, so it makes excellent sense to take stock of his monumental body of comics published up until now, while looking forward to future cartooning by the artist. Leroy works out important artistic, ethical and ethnographic themes through “some of the main series that Sfar wrote and drew as an individual author: in chronological order Professeur Bell (1999–2006), Pascin (2000–2001), Grand vampire (2001–2005, republished as Le Bestiaire Amoureux, 2007), Le Chat du Rabbin (2002–2006), Klezmer (2005–2012), Chagall en Russie (2010–2011), and Les Lumières de la France (2011)” (14). Setting aside Sfar’s collaborative publications and most of his work in film and prose fiction, Leroy favors an auteur approach to Sfar’s comics, which helps him convincingly demonstrate the value of this artistic form and Sfar’s specific contribution to it. As Leroy reminds us, several of Leroy’s own previous essays analyze meta-representation and its artistic stakes. He argues that a tendency towards self-referentiality and meta-representation recurs in comics and other types of works sometimes deemed paraliterary. However, an analysis of such rhetorical and artistic devices can also help prove that a creative form is valuable, expressive and artistic, as Leroy masterfully shows. He does so in part here by referring to Sfar’s master’s thesis in philosophy on Le complexe du Golem (1993), in which the budding cartoonist explores the relationship between painterly practice and Jewish religion and ethnicity among painters belonging to the School of Paris, notably Marc Chagall, Jules Pascin and Chaïm Soutine. The fact that Sfar went on to represent these artists and their artistic approach in several comics provides Leroy with the perfect opportunity to examine how the cartoonist has reflected profoundly on comics and art in general.
Leroy’s study opens with a very clear introduction outlining his method and the stakes of studying Sfar’s comics. His aim is “to identify the singularity of Sfar’s vision and artistic approach” (14). In the following four [End Page 169] chapters and conclusion, he investigates key representative strategies that Sfar uses to reflect on ethnic belonging, history and art.
In chapter One, Leroy analyzes how Sfar “[r]ewrit[es] Jewishness” through a focus on “counter-violence, sexuality, and humor in Pascin and Klezmer” (25). Leroy begins with an incisive analysis of antisemitism in France, including that of Céline, Alain Soral and Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala. He then describes the position of Alain Finkielkraut, who has identified contemporary antisemitism in France with postcolonial minorities. Leroy then opposes these positions of radical rejection to the nuanced perspective of Sfar, who “has often opted for the position of mediator between postcolonial communities” (32), especially from North Africa, including those of Muslim or Sephardic Jewish heritage. Leroy goes on to describe “a new Sephardic consciousness” and humor in France, expressed by Sfar in comics. This informs his subsequent, careful analysis of how Sfar explores artistic responses to Jewish aniconism and to antisemitic attacks through the figures of Pascin, Chagall and Soutine in Pascin. He finds there “two early prototypes of Sfar’s discourse on Jewishness”: “a reparation narrative, by which the author operates a carnivalesque reversal of the victimization of Jews” and “the childhood bio-narrative, often employed to channel an irreverent take on theology” (41). The second half of this chapter is dedicated to an analysis of “representation, historical memory, and trans-generational [ethnic or cultural] transmission” in Klezmer (54).
In the first...