Redrawing the New York-Comics Relationship

Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project

Comics Review: Leela Corman’s “Unterzakhn”

In the graphic novel Unterzakhn, cartoonist, illustrator, and dancer Leela Corman makes the early 20th century immigrant Lower East Side come alive.

Corman, Leela. Unterzakhn. New York: Schocken Books, 2012.

Leela Corman is a cartoonist, illustrator, and dancer. She has published several graphic novels and illustrated such books as The Cuddle Sutra: An Unabashed Celebration of the Ultimate Intimacy and The Long and Short of It: The Madcap History of the Skirt. Corman is a native New Yorker of Jewish descent, both of which are aspects of her background that she uses to great effect in her graphic novel Unterzakhn.

Unterzakhn is a family saga and a coming-of-age-story about Esther and Fanya Feinberg, Jewish twin sisters from New York’s Lower East Side. Beginning in 1909, the story follows the pair into the early 1920s, as they set out on and travel down very different life-paths. When the story begins, the twins are working with their mother who tries to keep them in the home and raise them with as little contact with the non-Jewish world as she can, while at the same time hoping that they grow up to be “decent ladies.” But the sisters both begin to remove themselves from their mother’s influence and parochialism. Taken under the wing of the “lady-doctor” Bronia, Fanya takes to reading and learning “goyish,” and becoming increasingly engaged in a struggle for women’s reproductive and sexual freedoms. Esther, on the other hand, is drawn to the glamorous world of make-up, ostentatious dresses, and burlesque dancing, all of which she first encounters while making a delivery for her mother. As her life progresses, Esther becomes first a dancer, then a prostitute, and, eventually, a famous actress.

Corman is a competent writer. Her dialogue is engaging and her frequent use of untranslated Yiddish gives flavor to the narrative (the publisher has posted a few glossary cards online). The graphic style is simple and cartoony, and Corman uses it to great expressive effect, even if its simplicity does lead to some unsightly renderings of body hair and a similarity between the two sisters that might cause confusion when the narrative switches from one to the other. And while most background environments are rendered without much detail, the streets of Corman’s New York are often peopled to the point of brimming; market scenes in particular are suggestive of the historical Lower East Side’s chaotic hustle and bustle and, although comics is a silent medium, it is difficult not to imagine the cacophony that the pictured activity must presumably produce. One thing the simple graphic style does not suggest, however, is the complexity that lies beneath the surface.

With vivid graphic treatments like those of the Lower East Side markets, it is not surprising that the dedication that opens Unterzakhn reads “For New York.” But it is no rose-colored view of the city that Corman presents; the story, while certainly tragic, is almost entirely devoid of sentimentality. Throughout the narrative, Corman frankly touches upon historical American attitudes towards Jews and the immigrant lower classes, showing the city’s diverse population being divided along ethnic and class lines. And, as already suggested, one of the most pronounced threads deals with perceptions of the place and proprieties of female sexuality in the early 20th century. Although there is a lengthy flashback (that appears somewhat out of place) of the girls’ father’s road to America following his family’s death in a Cossack pogrom, the focus is mainly on issues that women have faced and continue to face, and that men do not have to. Particularly palpable are the problems attached to female sexuality, contraception, and abortion, themes that are notably similar to contemporary debates on reproductive rights and “slut-shaming” discourses, down to the still often attendant double-standards connected to both.

All in all, while it is not perfect, Unterzakhn is an interesting and gripping story that takes aim at both the heart and the brain.

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