Monday, April 6, 2009

The Jewish Girl's Guide to Fighting Trolls

Stereotypically, webcomics are chock full of talking animals, uncharacteristically friendly demons, and drunken twenty-somethings. While there's certainly nothing wrong with any of that (in fact, many of my favorite webcomics fall into one or all those categories), I'm continually impressed by the wide array of stories online that step far outside the typical webcomicky box. In just the last few weeks, we've seen Evan Dahm's surreal, multicolored meditation on destiny and free will, Dylan Meconis' hairy academic drama, and now Barry Deutsch's charming and morally complex fairy tale, Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword.

Mirka is a young girl living in the Orthodox Jewish community Aherville, a small Yiddish village of indeterminate geographic and temporal location. Far more interested in slaying monsters than learning the domestic arts, Mirka constantly shirks her knitting lessons by luring her stepmother into lengthy debates on the nature of the world. But when Mirka rescues a bona fide witch from a pair of local toughs, she's set on the path to an adventure that will require all the brands of wisdom her stepmother has to offer.

How Mirka Got Her Sword reads as a particularly smart children's book. It is laced with traditional fairytale conventions: a protagonist whose mother is deceased, a witch, a quest, a troll, a challenge, and the triumph of ingeuinity over a physically superior enemy. But there is more to it than that. Mirka takes us inside an Orthodox household in a matter-of-fact manner, peppering his dialogue with Yiddish and setting part of his story during Shabbat. Mirka's world is portrayed neither as alien, nor with the condescending appeal that we're all the same; it's just a place with its own culture and traditions.

The story also manages to be feminist without false pretensions of girl power -- and not only when it comes to our plucky protagonist. It's Mirka's stepmother Fruma who gives Mirka the tools to become a hero simply in the way she operates her daily life. She may not dream of fighting dragons, but Fruma is a fiercely intelligent domestic goddess, stern but loving, well-read, and intent on teaching her children to use their brains, to figure things out for themselves, and to reflect on the morality of their actions. Mirka may find knitting and housekeeping frightfully dull, but it's crystal clear that she could do a lot worse than grow up to be just like Fruma.

And then there's the fascinating moral dimension. We are to understand that Mirka is basically a good person, just, brave, and interested in pleasing God. But on her path to the sword, Mirka makes some morally questionable decisions -- sneaking out at night, physically threatening her brother not to alert their parents to her plans, and putting herself in harm's way. Although the story ends without resolving these issues, Deutsch doesn't simply ignore them. He acknowledges that Mirka may have triumphed over a monster, but she'll still have to pay a price for her actions. It's probably best read by kids and adults together (the book is available in dead tree format) and discussed afterward.

Deutsch promises a full Hereville graphic novel next year, including pages from Mirka and fresh material. Personally, I'd like to see a long-form Hereville series if they could all capture the simple fairytale charm of How Mirka Got Her Sword.



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