Today I have a special treat- an interview with comics artist and author Steve Sheinkin, author of three terrific graphic novels featuring his character Rabbi Harvey: 2006's The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey, the 2008 follow-up Rabbi Harvey Rides Again and Rabbi Harvey vs. The Wisdom Kid, just out this month. All three are available in paperback from Jewish Lights Publishing.
1. Tell us a little about yourself and Rabbi Harvey. How did he come into your life?
That question really takes me way back to my Hebrew school days. I was bored to death by all the memorization, and my dad, seeing this, got me a book of Jewish folktales. I loved the stories, and started imagining how I would change them – mostly by adding jokes. Rabbi Harvey evolved years later, when I came up with the idea of setting Jewish folktales in the Wild West. I wanted a main character who was part rabbi, part sheriff, someone who could defeat villains without using a gun, and that led me to Harvey. His look has changed a bit since those first sketches, but he always had the unibrow.
2. Who or what influenced your particular style of art? What comics artists do you like to read?
I wasn’t a big superhero comics reader as a kid. It wasn’t till I was in my 20s that I realized you could do any kind of stores you want in comic format. Reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus was a big part of that realization. I started little drawing comics of crummy jobs I had, and it was a lot of fun. These days I love a wide variety of artists: Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine, Joann Sfar, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, and many more. What I love about the format is that everyone has a unique visual style. It doesn’t matter that I’m not a great artist, as long as stick to my own style.
3. Why did you choose to do a book-length story after your previous two volumes of shorts?
Partly for the challenge – to see if I could string a few dozen Jewish folktales and bits of Talmudic wisdom into a cohesive plot. Also, I thought it would be fun to read. Comics are so close to movies, and I’m a huge fan of old Hollywood westerns. So it seemed natural to try to do a Harvey “movie” in comics form.
4. You draw heavily from the rich tradition of Jewish folktales for all of your Rabbi Harvey stories; one of the pleasures of reading about the rabbi's adventures is recognizing familiar tales retold and learning new ones. Which ones are particularly meaningful for you? What are some that you like that haven't made into the rabbi's stories so far?
I read hundreds of stories, maybe thousands, looking for just the right ones for these books. I always wanted to use the beautiful story of the two brothers – each gets the idea of helping the other by secretly bringing wheat to the other’s barn. I finally figured out a way to work that one into the new book. I’ve also been trying to think of a way to get some of the Wise Men of Chelm stories into a Harvey book. With this new book, I realized I needed to create a whole new town, Helms Falls, Colorado, where these stories could take place. I look forward to revisiting in future volumes…
5. Rabbi Harvey, a question for you. How do you feel about the way Steve Sheinkin portrays you? Does he portray you fairly? And- what's really going on between you and Abigail?
Yes, I would say that the books are a fairly accurate portrayal of life in Elk Spring. One minor point: Steve had taken to drawing me with pants that are a little too short, and I don’t feel that’s 100 percent accurate. Overall, what I enjoy is the ability to share wisdom from thousands of years of Jewish thought. The danger, of course, is that people think I’m the one who thought up all this stuff. They think I can answer any question they throw at me. Like Steve says in the books, it’s not always easy to be the rabbi.As for Abigail, well, I lobbied Steve to give her a larger role in this new book, and my motives were not wholly unselfish. I’m hoping her part in these stories continues to grow. But I suppose it’s not entirely up to me…
Steve, thank you so much for a great interview and I'll be watching for the Rabbi's latest adventures!