The following is the first of a four-part transcript of a panel with Sarah Glidden. The How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less cartoonist was one of only two artists to get the spotlight treatment at Brooklyn’s King Con show, back in November. The other was Chris Claremont.
The new book had been eagerly anticipated, particularly amongst the independent comics community in Brooklyn. The cartoonist had released the first two parts in minis in 2007 and 2008 and then retreated to her drawing table to finish the rest of the story in one go, after signing a book deal with Vertigo, an attempt to push the DC imprint further into indie territory than it had previously gone.
How to Understand Isreal hit store shelves the week of King Con, and by nearly all accounts, it was well worth the wait. The cartoonist had taught herself to color in the interim, and the results are rather impressive. Glidden wasn’t staying around to celebrate, however—she was getting ready to leave the country two days later, in search of her new book.
Your book is out this week?
It was out on Wednesday.
So this is the week of the media blitz for you.
I guess so, yeah.
Who have you talked to, thus far?
Ink Studs podcast, last week. There have been a bunch of interviews—mostly e-mail interviews.
This has been a long time coming. When did the minis come out?
I started the minis in 2007. I did the first chapter in 2007 for SPX and then the second chapter in 2008.
That was really the first thing aside from some shorter Webcomics that you put out there.
Yeah, well, I wasn’t really doing Webcomics. I was doing journal comics. I did have them on my Flickr, but I was making them into mini-comics. I had three mini comics of that stuff.
And then you wanted to work on a larger, serialized piece.
Yeah. Well, I had just started doing comics in 2006. I had been doing other art before that, but I was inspired by James Kochalka, as a lot of other people are—by his diary comics project, and I thought it would be a great way to practice do comics, as someone new at it—doing comics every single day. Unlike James Kochalka, since I didn’t have a defined style yet, I’d try a new style almost every day, and figure out how I was going to draw.
I had been doing diary comics for about four months, and I felt pretty confident about them. They’re embarrassing to me now… So I decided that it was time for me to work on a larger project. And then I heard about this trip and though that that would be a great thing to do a comic about.
So the diary comics were never something you thought you could base a career around? Obviously James Kochalka has done other stuff, too, but that’s always been an integral part of what he does. And there are a lot of people out there making very decent careers for themselves making diary comics.
Sure. I don’t know, the diary comics were weird for me, because they weren’t very funny. A lot of people’s diary comics are funny. Mine were a little bit shoe gazey [laughs]. I was kind of kind of embarrassed about that for a while. I guess I thought that no one would want to read a lot of that stuff. It’s really just kind of introspective, and I was really just kind of getting tired of myself [laughs].
Not too tired of yourself, right? You’re still doing autobio stuff.
It’s autobio, but the whole idea was to do an autobio comics that was also about something else.
From early on you really considered it an exercise for your craft?
An exercise, but also I was making minis and selling them and getting to know other cartoonists. And it was just kind of my introduction, I guess.
But with a larger project in the back of your mind somewhere?
It’s not like I had plans like, “’okay, in three months, I’m going to start this larger project,’ but I knew that I’d eventually do something, if I kept doing comics.
Did you sign up for the Birthright trip specifically with the intention of getting a book out it?
Yeah. There were two intentions of the trip. Actually, my mom who’s here [in the audience] inspired me to go. Because we were arguing about the Israeli/Palestine conflict, as we often did. And I was very certain about how I felt about it. We basically on most thing politically, but on that, there was still some argument.
She said, “why don’t you go on one of those Birthright trips? You’re running out of time.” The age limit for a Birthright trip is 26, 27. And I was about to turn 27.
They keep pushing it back a little bit.
They keep pushing it back to get people to go. But I was like, ‘you know, she’s right. It would be a really interesting way to look at the conflict from the Brithright side.’ I know how I felt, and I had really weird, strong negative feelings toward Israel.
What was the basis of the debate you two were having?
Oh, we were talking about Yasir Arafat, and she was saying that he should have his Nobel Prize posthumously taken away.
I’m not going to get into the details of everything, but to me, Israel was the one with more power, and therefore they were the ones who had the key to the peace process. So, I thought that, because Birthright is kind of a program designed the sell Israel to people, that it would not talk about any of this stuff at all in a balanced way. I was interested in going on the Birthright trip to see how they do talk about it.
Specifically to not get both sides of the story?
Yeah. And specifically to see—I had taken a lot of notes, and I had done a lot of reading before I went. I had this whole book with me of Xeroxes. I was going to be ready for whatever they told me, I was going to look into my book and say, “that’s not right.” I kind of wanted to see how they were going to talk about it and it they were going to just ignore it.
Birthright is a fund, and they license these trips. There are different tours. If you’re a religious person, you can go on a tour focused on the really religious sites, and you’ll have a very elaborate Shabbat. And there’s one for ourdoorsy people where you can go whitewater rafting and stuff.
The one that I chose sold itself as secular and humanitarian and promised to talk about the politics of Israel. But if I wanted to do a big expose about Birthright being propaganda, that probably wasn’t the right tour to choose, because they actually ended up really addressing all of these issues in a really surprising way.
A balanced way?
You know, it’s hard to say that anything over there is balanced.
More balanced than you expected.
More balanced than I expected.
Had you gone into it with the intention of actively debating the tour guides—or was it something that you had planned on writing up when you were done.
You know, that’s not really my style. It was more of a plan to sit back and observe and talk to people, one on one. I’m not the kind of person to sit back during a lecture and say, “you sir are wrong, and this is why.” That just doesn’t seem very productive. But I did talk to people about the issues that were on my mind. That’s all in the book.
We’re you largely having these conversations with other people on the trip with you, or were you talking a lot to the people actually running it?
I was talking a lot to the people running it. There was the guide, who was pretty leftwing for an Israeli, and one of the trip leaders, who I ended up becoming really good friends with. He was kind of my proxy for leftwing Israelis. I would talk to him about all of these issues. We would argue.
And other people too—with 43 people on the bus, there were lots of people to talk to.
Are these lasting relationships that you’re building? Are you in contact with any of them?
Sure, I’m still in touch with the guide. He’s trying to get a Hebrew translations [of the book].
Is that going to be a little loaded? Having the book come out in Israel?
Oh, it’s not going to come out in Hebrew, but actually, the Israelis seem to like it, so far. I’m still in touch with some other people from the trip. My friend Melissa, too, who I knew before the trip. A lot of these people on this trip, you kind have the intention of keeping in touch, but everyone has their own lives. You’re in your mid-20s.
Like summer camp.
It’s like summer camp.
Were there other people on the trip attempting to sort of get to the bottom of things?
No. No one else was that stupid, Everyone else was there—people I’m sure had their own reasons for exploring the issues, but no one else was taking the notes.
Was it “stupid” because you weren’t fully enjoying the trip?
No, no. I enjoyed it. I like looking at that stuff. But to kind of go on this trip with this idea of really “finding something out.” It’s a ten day trip, it’s free—some people go on it because they want a trip. Some people go on it becuase they’re curious about their background.
Upon talking to other people, did you find that others were having their minds changed at all?
Sure, there’s this girl who lives in New York. She was saying that, on the last days of the trip, she had been more toward the right. Her father was Israeli, he had been more conservative. But being on the trip had made her see more about the Palestinians, because we had talked about that. She felt a little less biased.
It was funny, because I felt a little less biased toward Israelis. So, yeah, people change.
I assume there weren’t a lot of opportunities to interact with Palestinians?
No, not really. We had had a pair of speakers who were from something called the Family Forum. They came in and talked—all of the members of this group were people who had lost family members to the conflict. So there’s Israelis and Palestinains. They both gave their stories. But it wasn’t so much a conversation.
Stories on a personal level.
Did they stay out of the occupied areas for your own protection?
I think to protect themselves from liability issues. I really wanted to go to the West Bank. I ended up being scared out of it, because my friend was convinced that it would be dangerous of me, and I let him convince me of that.
In the end it, it’s not really that dangerous, especially not for tourists. There’s a lot going on. It’s not like crossing the street into another borough, but it’s a lot less dangerous than people think it is.
There was an armed guard.
There was an armed guard, but I think that’s also for liability.
Did you feel like they were actively choosing what to show you? Is that part of the reason they stayed out of certain areas? An attempt to paint a rosy picture of the situation?
Well, there are stops that are required, that are set up by the Birthright Israel Fund. Everyone has to go to Golan Height. And you have to go to Independence Hall, which is this place where they declared their independence. You have to go to Masada, to the Holocaust Museum. So there’s definitely a lot of things that are scheduled.
But after those required stops, the trip leader can decide where to go. But I think that Birthright stipulates that you’re not supposed to go to those regions.