- “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs by Tahneer Oksman
Tahneer Oksman’s “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?” fits in a lineage of comics work over roughly the past ten years that has reframed the field, showing a wider scope of participants. Hillary Chute’s Graphic Women (2010) is credited with initiating attention to female artists. By studying the careers of five prominent contemporary female comics artists, Chute pushes back against the stereotype of comics as a male-dominated field. Other works in this vein complement and coincide with Chute’s work, including Nancy Goldstein’s Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist (2008) and Susan Kirtley’s Lynda Barry: Girlhood through the Looking Glass (2012). Together, these works of criticism demonstrate the seriousness of comics and the depth of women’s contributions to this medium.
Newer releases within comics studies usher in an even wider identity range of creators, characters, and readers. Contemporaneous with Deborah Whaley’s Black Women in Sequence (2015), Oksman’s book considers the Jewish female experience in comics. Oksman begins with Aline Kominsky-Crumb, the creator who opens Chute’s study, before examining more contemporary Jewish female creators for the rest of the book: Vanessa Davis, Miss Lasko-Gross, Lauren Weinstein, Sarah Glidden, Miriam Libicki, and Liana Finck. In starting with Kominsky-Crumb, Oskman acknowledges previous scholarship and deepens the field by connecting Kominsky-Crumb to works in different formats and times. She thereby contributes to a growing web of genealogies of diverse creators in hopes that these works will no longer be minimized or ignored.
Wielding an intersectional approach to unravel how these artists examine their Jewish and female identities in their work, Oksman ranges across comics forms and theories in her book. In her introduction, she presents and defines a number of terms—like dis-affiliation and postassimilated—that guide her study of these creators. These terms and others establish Oksman’s interest in analyzing identity formation and understanding “identity as process” (10). Due to this focus, there is a necessarily autobiographical orientation to many of the works that Oksman analyzes, but she is quick to delineate how all of [End Page 401] these forms involve a conscious shaping of the protagonist’s representation. She smartly untangles the unique formal properties of a range of comics forms these women embrace and brings theoretical deftness to those forms that are not always taken seriously in scholarship, like diary comics.
Her formal theorizations will be of broad interest and the insights that emerge, like how to conceptualize time and space in comics without panels, could be further unpacked in future scholarship. In her chapter on Vanessa Davis’ work, for example, Oksman theorizes how the lack of panels “visually compounds the past and present” and thereby “reinforces the notion that impressions of past experiences are always connected to, and somehow based in, previous understandings and reflections” (90). She develops these theorizations not only in conversation with comics scholarship, but also in relationship to feminist and Jewish thought. By bringing these connections into her research, she illuminates topics that have yet to be theorized in comics scholarship and additionally highlights how the comics themselves visually formulate Jewish female identity by linking them to a rich tradition of Jewish literature and previous scholarship about textual works. These connections are evident from the introduction, where Oksman reviews representations of and responses to Jewish women, reading examples from across the twentieth-century (5–9).
To show the sophistication of these creators and their forms, Oksman surveys multiple creators and/or forms together. Through this interplay, Oksman attends to comics that might otherwise be dismissed if they weren’t brought alive in this associational web. A prime example is Oksman’s chapter on Glidden and Libicki, where she analyzes how both authors represent their experiences in Israel and how the forms they choose shape the narratives and our understandings of the characters themselves. She observes how...