JT Waldman, 33

The Talmudist of comic books

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

JT Waldman put it bluntly: “I’m a comic-book geek. My entire world view is defined by them.” While he grew up in a Reform synagogue, went to Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah, Waldman was essentially a lapsed Jew by the age of 14. His was the normal stuff of childhood: comic books, video games and Froot Loops. But when he was in college, studying in Spain, his Jewish identity became more apparent. “I was really called upon to represent my people, and I had no idea what that meant.”

He began to immerse himself in Jewish history, liturgy and literature, if not quite becoming Orthodox. But he never outgrew his passion for comic books and found a striking parallel between that art form and classic Hebrew literature. There was something Talmudic about the comic book, he said, with its central image only making sense with the explanatory text surrounding it. In 1998, he began the project that has since become well known: “Megillat Esther,” an illustrated version of the book about Purim. Those illustrations have been the subject of a traveling exhibit, which is currently on view at the Yeshiva University Museum.

His current project, an illustrated history of Israel, is a collaboration with one of his childhood idols, Harvey Pekar. “I didn’t even know Harvey was Jewish,” Waldman said. But after meeting Pekar at a comic-book convention and showing him his “Megillat Esther,” he said that “Harvey kvelled over it.” They decided to collaborate on an illustrated history of Israel that would contrast the two artists’ divergent views about the country — Pekar is highly critical, Waldman is less so.

“He’s not connected to the mainstream,” Waldman said of Pekar. “My job is to frame the debates and make sure” Pekar gets challenged. Pekar will be writing the text, and Waldman will illustrate. Recently, Waldman finished an illustration of the two artists in the same frame; the idol and the idolizer, sharing the same stage. It felt strange, he says. “I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s weird.’”

Favorite artist: Egon Schiele.

Favorite Jew: “Toss-up between Rabbi Meir or Doña Gracia Mendes Nasi.”

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Staff Writer

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