When I read that French comicker (and now filmmaker) Joann Sfar has done over 100 books I get depressed–not for any reason relating to directly to Sfar, but because such a prolific creator (he was published by L’Association, for god’s sake) is not only unknown in the United States, but also because only a handful of his work has made its way into the English language (Note to comic buffs: learn French). Good thing we have the underrated publisher First Second to publish works like Klezmer: Tales of the Wild East, which is the first of three books following the adventures of traveling musicians in Eastern Europe.
Book One has Sfar getting the band together. First, we have “The Baron of My Backside,” a Jewish musician whose previous band was killed during a musical turf war and who now travels with a young singer named Chava. Running parallel is the story of Yaacov, a student thrown out of his yeshiva who doesn’t want very much to do with Judaism at all. So he finds a banjo amidst a group of dead musicians and ends up enlisting a couple of other musicians he comes across: an Italian fiddler and a gypsy on the run.
It’s a quaint little odyssey rather than a high adventure. As such, Sfar keeps interest through minor incidents and misadventures. Early in his journey, Yaacov takes shelter with three cave-dwelling Jews who are convinced that he is a reincarnation of their rabbi. Meanwhile, the Baron and Chava, a pair rife with sexual tension, find themselves hungry and performing for boorish, threatening peasants in exchange (hopefully) for food.
Sfar doesn’t oversell it, but the land our characters traverse is clearly dangerous, as it should be during any odyssey. Sfar begins the story with the massacre of the Baron’s band, but that’s not the end. The Baron fears the peasants will murder him and rape his companion, and when he first meets the gypsy, Tshokola, he is being lynched by gang of Kossacks.
Klezmer finds Sfar shifting his style from one of high detail and imperfect lines to one of loose linework that gives the appearance of ease in dense-yet-easy-to-read pages. His figures have a fluidness that evokes squiggly, hand-made animation styles (a medium Klezmer is ripe for should Sfar want to adapt more of his comic book work).
Sfar accentuates his lines with gorgeous watercolors that give depth to his sometimes minimalist panels. He proves himself to be a master of color–using fiery reds, deep blues and otherworldly greens to imply mood and lighting in some panels while at other times using them as subtle shading for snowy regions.
Watercolors tend to get a bad rap these days (it’s just so easy to write them off as kid stuff, especially if you’ve only used them as a kid), but Klezmer makes a case for the method’s sophistication and versatility–especially in an age where so much coloring in comics is done by computer. There’s a beautiful imperfection to Sfar’s use of watercolors–even on the cover he doesn’t let the paint stay within the lines or, sometimes, even approach his lines.
Klezmer Book One ends on a cliffhanger–just who will they be performing for??–and I hope First Second gets around to publishing the other two books in this series.