How ironic if “Jerusalem” were not to receive wide recognition given that it is helping to set the standard for the relatively young literary art form that we know as the graphic novel. The general public is still getting to know it, compare it, and see what it can do. Let them read “Jerusalem,” the new graphic novel by Boaz Yakin and Nick Bertozzi.
“Jerusalem” provides a rich and dense texture to a narrative that invites a thorough reading. You can jump around and check it out but you’ll soon see that this is a multi-layered tapestry. It follows the pace of a good novel without the pretension. It also brings to mind the beautifully melancholy films of François Truffaut. Yakin and Bertozzi bring the colossal subject of Jerusalem down to a basic human level that we all immediately recognize and relate with. The story begins and ends with Motti, a little boy who only seeks love and understanding in his life. You don’t have to worry at all about the history. What you need to know it presented for you in crisp and concise ways.
This is a story of family. It is these characters, connected by blood ties, that we rely upon to provide us with some truth, something to hang on to, as we witness the chaos and bloodshed that ensues. Compared to its 5,000 year history, Jerusalem was occupied by the British Empire for only a blip of time. But it was what came from that blip that continues to haunt us all to this very day. It was after World War I that Great Britain took control of land from the Ottoman Empire that was to become Palestine. Our story begins with the British Mandate, on the wane in 1946, giving way to a UN Partition Plan in 1947 that gives way to civil war and the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. The British occupation of a land and people it had no interest or understanding in was a powder keg just waiting to ignite.
In Motti’s immediate family, he has three brothers who all respond to the times with fervor. There is Avraham, the war hero, who becomes a Communist. There is David, who works the system to help Jews enter Palestine. And the is Ezra who is compelled to resort to terrorism. Motti is but a boy lost in the shuffle. His father is extremely distant, as present as a ghost. His mother is so stern there is little evidence of tenderness. And he has a sister, Devorah, very quiet and afraid. If not for a cousin, Johnathan, there would be no real friend for Motti. And this is not an easy friendship to maintain since Motti’s father, Izak, is at odds with his brother, Yakov.
Nick Bertozzi has a drawing style that is at once gritty and warm. But it’s more than that. Bertozzi has honed a style that looks effortless and conveys something of the human soul even in his most simple depictions. Whether it is buildings, or people, or specific characters, there is much to admire about his vigorous, expressive, yet well controlled, style.
Boaz Yakin’s script gives a human face to the conflict that arose as the State of Israel came into existence. We find characters compelled into action. There’s a very touching scene, for example, where the children gather to perform a wedding ceremony between two of them. They do this instinctively, from a need for love and order.
Motti, you will come to see, steals the show even though he appears to forever be pushed to the margins. He’s the little boy full of spirit and a willingness to fight. Just the sort of character you’d find in a film by François Truffaut, the creator of many wonderful films about misfits. There is magic in his films and there is magic in this graphic novel.
The graphic novel, of course, has made enormous strides over the years. We are moving past citing a select group of works as landmarks. The general public is working its way to looking forward to the next great graphic novel in the same manner as comics insiders do. “Jerusalem” has that special temperament about it, not self-conscious, not forced, just there to get the job done right. It is a quality that all readers will appreciate.