I think if I were a professor teaching a course on Yiddish culture, the reading list would be Harvey Pekar’s Yiddishkeit, followed by a bunch of Mel Brooks films. Then I’d have them read Leela Corman’s Unterzahkn for homework. I think that would give them the skills they need to succeed at an actual history course at a real university. Also they’d get a diploma after completing my course, but they’d have to make it themselves as the final exam. Out of their own hair.
Daydreaming over, let’s talk about Unterzakhn. Meaning “Underthings,” it’s a fine read about growing up, tragedy and the merits of sexual independence.
The two main characters are twin sisters trying to live in a Yiddish section of New York City with a grouchy mother, mellow father, semi-feral little sister and a burgeoning sense of curiosity. Their mother seems bent on sucking all joy from their lives so they can be prepared to be good storekeepers when they inherit the family business, but they find time enough away from her to explore the city and find things to do that leads them down different paths; despite their choices and the fates they supposedly portend, both end up working in professions that force them to take a good long look at femininity and what it means to be a woman.
It’s similar to Habibi, actually. Female protagonists braving mostly terrible living conditions and occasional stories about mythological figures to figure out how they want to use their bodies in a male dominant society, with a second story line about a male supporting character; I mean, I won’t accuse Leela of ripping off anyone, but the similarities are uncanny. (Also, she has a quote from Craig Thompson on the back of the book so I’m sure he’s aware of the similarities.) Still, it’s a good story and it’s different enough. Besides, when you’re going to make a graphic novel where the main themes are about women and their sexuality, most of those points are going to get hit. It’s like war flicks; the guy whose wife is pregnant back home always dies. Okay, bad analogy. Moving on.
The sisters are a great pair to follow, bright, energetic and pretty identical in behavior until they grow older, at which point we get to see how how they diverge and become different people, and in particular how their views of sexual politics change. The author’s got a great handle on her Yiddish and interjects it into their speech, giving characters just the right mix of ethnicity to give that feeling of a family rooted simultaneously in two countries. The interesting part is how their fates cross and resolve; kind of ironic considering the conservative standard set by their mother.
The thing I noticed the most was the sense of pacing. In some places a scene will play out for a couple pages, but often times it feels like a montage of separate events happening in quick succession. There’s a romance scene where a woman spends a good couple pages arguing about who she wants to marry and then up and abandons the person she supposedly “truly loves” after two or three panels. Some pages are taken up by a single image that acts as a break between scenes, but they are all part of larger sections that are divided by the year the events take place in. So it’s like it’s got mini-chapters between sets. Or maybe they’re “books” with chapter. While the pacing comes off jaunty and rushed at times, I find it interesting in a utilitarian way; how much does the audience really need to see, you know? Just get from point A to point B in a New York minute, will ya?
It’s actually a pretty dark story, but the art style blunts the impact of a lot of the bad moments. It’s a recognizable style; I get the impression it’s kind of common in stories like these, using thick black lines and a mix of heavy darks and light greys for their work. I know it isn’t just this and Habibi, at any rate. She’s pretty liberal with her shapes, and while the twins are the most consistent in their style other characters can get wobbly in their appearance. This gives them the cartoony feel that helps soften the tone of the graphic novel, what with characters having goofy movements and odd proportions. What do they call that, impressionist? It doesn’t lose all seriousness, of course, and characters can still be empathized with, but it can still be comical just due to art style alone.
It’s hella NSFW by the way. No need to go into the details, but suffice to say there’s some unsettling stuff in here. Female sexuality is kind of a serious subject when you look at it in an era when it was pretty explicitly associated with exploitation and domination.
This is definitely a quality title, though. Leela Corman has a talent for story and art, and I’d like to see her continue doing more work like this. I definitely recommend this book.
TL;DR: Unterzakhn is an artistic, dark and occasionally amusing adult tale of two sisters and how their paths twist, fray and bind.
Unterzakhn is written and illustrated by Leela Corman and published by Schocken/Pantheon. You can ask your local comic book shop to order it for you or, support Spandexless by ordering it through our Amazon web store.
A free review copy of Unterzakhn was obtained by Spandexless.