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Klezmer Book One: Tales Of The Wild East
posted October 26, 2006


Creator: Joann Sfar
Publishing Information: First Second, Hardback/Paperback, 115 pages, September 2006, $25/$16.95
Ordering Numbers: 1596432101 (HC); 1596431989 (SC)

It's too bad that we're so caught up in the harm that seeing depictions of nudity supposedly cause anyone young than 18, because in a very real sense the first book in Joann Sfar's Klezmer series functions like great childrens' literature. There are vibrant characters, thrilling travelogue elements, bold declarations of identity, exquisite moments of back-and-forth humor, and an underlying feel of sex and death that is potent without being lurid. An exploration of the culture of and difficulties faced by traveling musicians serving Jewish communities before World War II -- a world Sfar's connected to on his mother's side and through his own experiences with the music of that period -- Klezmer's first volume assembles a disparate group of musicians, all of whom have their reasons to pursue this particular, difficult life's path. Sfar builds a inescapable tension from how close the characters come to being in harm's way, a characterization -- less a sign of their position in life but an acknowledgement of what life must have been like at that time, for those people.

If you haven't experienced Sfar's expressive line work and daring employment of color, this is not Sfar's most impressive or even most inviting work; it's still a fine place to start. The only downside I can see to Sfar's approach is that through it the author sometimes can't help but intrude on the narrative -- with such a sense of picture-making on display there's a very real, albeit occasional sense that you are having a story told to you, which is different than the kind of continuity and fealty to rigid continuity that helps many a modern reader lose themselves in a work, even those half as lovely as this one. Luckily, Sfar rarely abuses this intimacy or moves in too close, and if the world he's beginning to assemble ends up as deeply realized as it is obviously colorful, the remaining books should join this one as necessary additions to a modern comics library.