May 27, 2022

“Re-storying” and Re-drawing Biblical Women through Graphic Narratives

By Alec Weiker

Throughout Jewish history, pictures and graphic representations have been fundamental to how people shared and told their stories. However, much like the men creating them, these pieces of art, especially biblical art, were often entrenched in a misogynistic worldview. Women were dressed – and undressed – in ways that were entirely decided by men. 

Sharon Rudahl, The Star Sapphire, (1975)

Sarah Lightman is using the disciplines of art and research in order to correct this. In 2019, she completed her Ph.D. thesis: “Dressing Eve and Other Reparative Acts in Women’s Autobiographical Comics,” in which she examines the way that biblical women were reenvisioned by four female graphic artists, including her own graphic novel: The Book of Sarah. Lightman received an HBI Research Award in 2019 to convert the thesis into a monograph which is slated to be published in 2023.

Lightman points to the work of one artist analyzed in her research who is particularly revealing in how biblical women were redressed, both visually and through narrative. In her four-page autobiographical comic, “The Star Sapphire,” Sharon Rudahl borrows from imagery in which Eve was portrayed in an androcentric and misogynistic manner and literally clothes her as a frame in Rudahl’s own story.

But Rudahl’s work does not merely redress Eve visually, she does so narratively. In her story, Rudahl depicts the challenges she faced while trying to marry a man who was not Jewish, including being driven away from a synagogue. For Lightman, the connection to Eve is clear: “In the Bible, being sent out is what happens to women when they try to be too clever, too powerful, refuse to bow down.” 

Masaccio, Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden (1425), after restoration.

However, expulsion does not mark the end of Rudahl’s story. Rudahl’s relationship with the man falls apart and she instead works to create her own life, her own “Eden.”  Rudahl goes on to join a commune and becomes a successful comics artist. Her new life, depicted in the final frame, is one in which the gender roles are reversed. Rather than Eve giving Adam the apple, a man is cooking for Rudahl. “That’s the redressing of the story, saying women won’t be sent out anymore, they will find their own community that does accept them,” Lightman said.

In addition to exploring the work of other artists, the re-storying of biblical women acts as a recurring theme in Lightman’s own autobiographical graphic novel, The Book of Sarah. Lightman points out that Sarah’s depiction in biblical writing is often one-sided in that it overemphasizes the positive side of being a parent. “She doesn’t say ‘ow it really hurts,’ it seems to be ‘I’m laughing all the time and everyone’s laughing with me,’ and I think my god it’s not like that,” Lightman said. “Where are you allowed to talk about the other stuff? And where could she? So I do talk about the other stuff, and I bring her along the journey with me and my graphic novel.”

The Book of Sarah works to do just that. Lightman’s work is hardly a traditional graphic novel. Rather, it encompasses an ongoing collection of art and text created throughout her life that works through and explores difficult themes from her life including religiosity, motherhood and gender roles. There is no Book of Sarah in the bible, but in this way, Lightman creates her own beautiful Book of Sarah that does not pretend that a Jewish woman’s life can be reduced to motherhood and laughter.

Through sharing her story, Lightman highlights the importance and power of autobiographical writing, specifically the graphic narrative. “I think maybe it’s a kind of patriarchal notion that the famous Prime Minister writes a memoir and it’s of value. But no, it’s much more democratic than that.”  In fact, Lightman believes that everyone can benefit from sharing their story, even if they don’t think that their life is particularly interesting.

“You always have to remember that your work is important to someone else even though you’ll never meet them,” she said. “People have come up to me and said that they were so glad that you talked about this in your book, it really touched a chord with me.” For Lightman, being creative is “an act of generosity.”

Final frame from Sharon Rudahl, “The Star Sapphire,” 3-4. (1975)

In this same vein of helping people share their stories, Lightman has worked to make sure that women are represented and recognized for their importance to the rise of the autobiographical graphic novel. In fact, the first-ever of such novels was created by Charlotte Salomon, a young Jewish artist who was a victim of the Holocaust. Her drawings, which explored difficult themes including mental illness and abuse, were published by her father after the war. Salomon’s work was particularly impactful for Lightman while she was in art school and was one reason that Lightman hoped to share her story in the way that she did.

After art school, Lightman began to curate and noticed all of the women involved in

Charlotte Salomon, gouache from Life? or Theater?, 1940–42

graphic noveling. It was not long before she co-founded LDComics, formerly known as Laydeez do Comics, in the UK which was designed specifically as a space for female-identifying comics artists. “I felt that it was really important there to think I wasn’t some weirdo doing something on my own, there were lots and lots and lots of people doing it,” said Lightman, discussing the importance of engaging with other female graphic artists. “If women knew, and talked more, about the things that they did and the things that happened to them and things their bodies went through, what a different experience we’d all have of our lives.”

While Lightman has published her memoir and completes her monograph, she is creating new pieces that build on all of her work to not only redress biblical women but to empower women today. Her current work also tries to capture her life during the lockdown and exploring how gender inequality has been exacerbated during the pandemic. Specifically, she is looking at how working from home has affected women’s working practices including her own “thwarted strivings for knowledge.”

Most recently, Lightman depicts Eve, borrowed from a 16th-century painting, and she is drawn “undressed next to our endless pile of drying laundry,” Lightman writes. “She and I might want to engage in intellectual endeavors but first we must deal with housework.”

Sarah Lightman, “Dressing Eve During the Pandemic” (2021)

 

Titian, The Fall of Man, (dating to around 1550)

 

 

Alec Weiker PhotoAlec Weiker is a sophomore at Georgetown University and was a 2021 HBI Gilda Slifka Summer Intern. 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Sarah Lightman is a London-based artist, curator, editor, and writer. She is an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Arts at Birkbeck College, University of London and Faculty at The Royal Drawing School, London. Her first book, “Graphic Details: Jewish Women’s Confessional Comics in Essay and Interviews” (McFarland 2014) was awarded The Koppelman Prize (2015) and The Will Eisner Award (2015), and a Schnitzer Award (2016).  Her  autobiographical graphic novel, “The Book of Sarah” (Myriad Editions and Penn State UP 2019), was shortlisted for the  British Book Design & Production Award (2019) and The Communication Arts Award (2020). She is currently editing her monograph “Dressing Eve and Other Reparative Acts in Women’s Autobiographical Comics”  to be published by Penn State University Press and supported by two HBI Research Awards. She is also co-editing a new edited collection “Bodies and Borders in Jewish Women’s Comics” (Syracuse University Press 2022).

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