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July 9, 2007

CR Review: The Rabbi’s Cat


Creator: Joann Sfar
Publishing Information: Pantheon, soft cover, 152 pages, June 2007, $16.95
Ordering Numbers: 9780375714641 (ISBN13)

Joann Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat, a collection of three French-language books, has recently been published in a softcover edition after a hardcover release nearly two years ago. This is good news for those waiting for a cheaper but still handsome version of the book and for critics like me who didn't rate the first edition. The great joy in a lot of Sfar being released here (Klezmer, Vampire Loves and The Professor's Daughter are all in the top tier of the nascent First Second catalog) is not just getting to enjoy his art with English-language accompaniment -- and Sfar is a wonderfully idiosyncratic and skilled cartoonist -- but also getting to experience his reserved sense of pacing, the elliptical way many of his stories unfold.

imageThe Rabbi's Cat consists of three stories: "The Bar Mitzvah," "Malka of the Lions," and "Exodus." The general point of view we experience is that of the cat. We see his interactions with his rabbi master, and enjoy his sometimes prickly, sometimes endearing observations of the rabbi, the rabbi's daughter, and the various people close to them. In the first story, probably the funniest and most pleasurable, the cat gains the power of speech by eating a bird and presses the rabbi for a bar mitzvah, which he wants not because he believes in God but for personal reasons. The dialog between the preening and selfish cat and the reserved yet most jocular local religious community leader reveals hidden depth in both of their characters. "Malka of the Lions" is a domestic comedy wrapped around the idea of the rabbi potentially being removed from his post in Algeria in the 1930s, and the third is an even more complex and at times outright agitated reflection on family and marriage and art that takes place mostly in Paris.

I liked them all; each short is distinctly pleasurable, the conversation easy to the ear and the art, particularly in Sfar's color work, rich and beautiful and an oasis upon which to rest your eyes. One great thing about the art is that Sfar will pull out a different approach to illustration if it suits the moment, giving us various views of the cat and, perhaps most memorably, a close-up of Malka's face that more dramatically depicts his intense gaze. To be honest, I haven't figured how he conveys variety on a page of potentially similar visuals, to the point I'm beginning to think there's no set pattern to anything Sfar does, that he swirls about and draws whatever the hell he wants to when he wants to. That doesn't mean there isn't a rhythm to his comics; there are a lot of jokes and highlights that bring emphasis to the final panel on a page, and the book adheres to a six-panel construction with religious fervor.

Oddly, The Rabbi's Cat put me in a nostalgic mood. Sfar's work is so assured that my own reading abilities, shaped by years of reading comics from people creating work with a crazed, desperate intensity designed to re-shape an industry severely reluctant to change, seemed a crude instrument with which to engage it. In a way, it's like watching a film from one of the "cool" French directors after years of subjecting yourself to John Milius movies. I wonder sometimes if we're still at the point as American readers where a lot of high-end work from Europe is simply going to register below our ability to process great art, making it all the more difficult to tell what work is fully engaged and what work offers a pleasing surface and a sophisticated presentational style. I'm more than happy to take The Rabbi's Cat for the sumptuous, even meditative work it presents itself to be; it's funny at times, smart at others, and beautiful throughout. I'd be more comfortable if I could detect something propulsive and fevered in the act of its creation, but I think that's a hitch in my critical faculties, not anything that reflects on this lovely comic.

posted 1:00 pm PST | Permalink

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