Exclusive: Eli Valley on Satirizing Jewish World Taboos
According to the EV Comics Web site, Eli Valley is by avocation and obsession, a writer. “But at night, when it’s all dark and nobody is watching… I draw comics,” he explained when we met him a few weeks back at The Curious Theater Company’s Spring Preview Salon. His work, which appears monthly in The Forward newspaper, satirizes elements of Jewish life which aren’t typically discussed. Which is why we decided to interview him. “I’m serious about comics, despite the tone of my work, so I might come across a bit tendentious or whatnot, less funny than expected,” he told us later over IM. You be the judge, and check out our exclusive interview with him below.
Flavorwire: OK, first question. What were the comics that you read when you were growing up?
elivalley: I used to read everything from Archie and Richie Rich to Superheroes to old MAD comics I’d pull out, against the magazine’s admonitions, from MAD Super Specials.
FW: Ha. Do you ever read MAD now?
elivalley: Sometimes, but not as often as I’d like — which is less a statement about the current MAD than about my unending game of catch-up on things to read. I reread the old MADs from the ’50s. A lot of it is still revolutionary.
FW: Speaking of revolutionary, how unique is creating a Jewish comic?
elivalley: It’s not an oversaturated area at all. I guess it depends on how you define “Jewish comics” — whether you mean satire or graphic narrative. There are a lot of amazing new comics coming out now that explore Jewish history and personal identity, and a lot of others have Jewish themes as secondary or tertiary elements. My comics for The Forward are different, I guess, in that they’re exploring political and communal elements that aren’t getting much play, at least in the comics arena.
FW: What made you decide to explore politics in this medium? Were your comics always political, or was that part of you maturing?
elivalley: I think my comics have always been political — I did an Ollie North haircut comic when I was in high school, and throughout college I drew one-shot political cartoons for the student newspaper. But I’m not really interested in that anymore, largely because I don’t think I have any insights that aren’t being conveyed more effectively and beautifully by others — e.g., by Ruben Bolling or Tom Tomorrow. So I can just read them and feel satisfied and not feel like I need to draw my own comics on those topics. But there are Jewish issues, whether ideological or communal, that are ripe for exploration and satire, and it’s exciting to be doing that. There are so many taboo issues in the Jewish world, and they’re taboo for a number of reasons — but I think younger people don’t see these things with the same blinders as the older generations. So to be drawing pictures about all this is exciting.
I should also add that it’s very difficult to satirize the Jewish world, because just when you think you’ve made something preposterous, you pick up the newspaper and see that events have actually out-satirized what you’ve just done. So it’s always a race with reality. I’m more of a stenographer than a satirist in that regard.
FW: Have you ever offended anyone?
elivalley: Yes, every day. Oh, you mean personally? Yes, that too. My recent “social entrepreneurs” comic mocked a certain fad in the Jewish communal world, and it came out just before a Jewish communal conference devoted to “social entrepreneurs” as the panacea who would rescue Jews from perceived blights of assimilation and disengagement with the community. So there was some irritated feedback, but most people seemed to get the joke and enjoy it. A couple of tense emails though.
FW: How long does it take from the original idea to produce the completed product?
elivalley: That depends. I wrote this comic in September actually, but I wasn’t able to draw it until more recently. I like them to gestate a bit, send them around to friends, get feedback. When I sit down to actually draw it, it takes a shamefully obscene amount of time. I use a brush and ink, which I absolutely love, but which isn’t exactly the most time-efficient way to draw these. But I love the brush and ink too much to do it any other way, for now at least.
FW: Do you ever make yourself laugh?
elivalley: Sometimes, if I’m doing it right, then yes. It’s not a necessity, but if it happens it’s good. Mostly I just don’t want to cringe too much.
FW: Who are the illustrators who have inspired your style?
elivalley: Oh boy — soooo many! First, the EC comics of the ’50s, not just MAD but the entire lot, are my main source of inspiration, as they are to so many. Will Elder, Al Feldstein, Jack Davis, Jack Kamen, Johnny Craig, and lots of others. I buy Tales From the Crypt calendars just to stare at the enlarged art reproductions. (In terms of plots, too, these old pulps-with-purpose really inspire a lot.) More recently, everybody from Charles Burns to Peter Bagge to Paul Pope to Robert Crumb to Tim Lane are sources of instruction and inspiration — and a whole lot of others, too. I can’t say enough about Will Elder though.
FW: According to his Wikipedia entry, Elder was known as “Wolfie” in his teens. Do you have a nickname?
elivalley: Um, no, although I’ve been called “self-hater” more times than I can count. But that’s not a cool nickname. I’d prefer “The Fonz” or something, but it hasn’t stuck.
FW: Where did you grow up?
elivalley: Cherry Hill — on the “edgy” side of town, really!
FW: Were you popular in high school?
elivalley:No, not in the traditional sense, but I wasn’t “unpopular” either. I guess I was friends with different kinds of people but never fell into a particular “clique.” But if I post this to Facebook I’m gonna get comments to the contrary from the four high school friends I’ve maintained contact with.
FW: Ha. You sound like Lindsay Lohan when she was doing press for Mean Girls. So, do you have a goal with EV Comics? Besides, you know, becoming famous.
elivalley: Ultimately, it would be cool to put out a book. I hope that by mocking the inconsistencies and ideological lunacy that passes for so much of “mainstream” Jewish communal dialogue today, the comics might lead to more honest and open reflections and debates. Because there are so many issues — e.g., Israel, Zionism, Jewish community presumptions, the place of fear in Jewish communal life — that are considered inviolable in large swaths of the community — or large swaths of the “institutionalized” community, ie. those who affiliate with Jewish institutions. It’s often the case that Jews who question these issues are dismissed as “self-haters” — but that’s a part of the problem, and it’s why I think these comics have a useful purpose. Plus, I love drawing crazy Jews.
FW: If your comic was an ice cream, what flavor would it be?
elivalley: Self Hatred Ripple
FW: The Rolling Stones or the Beatles?
elivalley: STONES, no comparison… If the next question is about Kanye, lemme just say that Auto Tune is the death of hip hop.
FW: Are you secretly the Incredible Hulk?
elivalley: Yes, the Hulk strip was about me. Even though I’m liberal on Israel issues, I have a very low BS tolerance, and I sometimes get reflexively angry with some of what passes for argument about Israel in certain circles. But I recognize that it’s sometimes too reflexive on my part — so for that comic I just made it more extreme. Like when Israel is under attack and I turn on Fox News to feel better. Then afterward I have to take a shower.
Eli Valley’s work is published monthly in the Forward, a newspaper with a vital history of serving as a watchdog in the Jewish community. (You can see some of the amazing things from the old Forward, back when it was in Yiddish, here.) He’s currently working on a novel that has a lot in common with his comics, in that it’s satire and there are Jews.