Joann Sfar

It is not my task to show things the way they are,‹ says one of the protagonists in Joann Sfar’s comic The Rabbi’s Cat and thus puts the artistic concept of the French cartoonist, author and director in a nutshell. Sfar finds it more important to capture the magic of a period, a city or a culture than to illustrate historical facts in detail—yet in his breathtakingly contemporary works, he succeeds in conveying to the readers deep insights into Jewish life-worlds between the Eastern European shtetl and the North African desert.

He has been influenced by the image worlds of Marc Chagall, and so it comes as no surprise that Joann Sfar’s work is inhabited by flying people, Jews who counter their repeated, violent, historical uprooting with a positive model and literally free themselves from all constraints. The metaphor of the ›Luftmensch [air person]‹ that Sfar takes up in his pictures originated in the 19th century and has a number of meanings: from the self-description of a precarious economic situation to the anti-Semitic accusation of rootlessness forming the catchphrase of the anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish campaign initiated by Stalin and lasting from 1948 to 1953 (Wurzellose Kosmopoliten (Rootless Cosmopolitans)). In the image of rootlessness, there also lies—beyond despair—the hope that conditions will change, that persecution and expulsion can be eluded through a miracle or by chance. The state of hovering, of not being rooted, bears the potential of independence from religious and social constraints and the, at least narrative, salvation of Jewish life-worlds destroyed by German National Socialism in transferring them to comics.

Sfar’s cartoons are populated by golems, dybbuks and other traditional Jewish figures. In addition to Jewish artists such as Chagall or Pascin, he has dealt with Eastern European Judaism in Klezmer and North African Judaism in The Rabbi’s Cat. These two perspectives also shape Sfar’s biography: one half of his family is from today’s Ukraine, the other has a North African background.

It was above all the cartoon story The Rabbi’s Cat about a speaking cat arguing with a rabbi over religious and philosophical questions that established his reputation as one of the most innovative and exciting French cartoonists of his generation—and one of the most successful: His volumes have been sold far more than a million times in France and the movie adaptation realized by Sfar also attracted a large audience. Joann Sfar’s work, which traverses all genres and styles, is yet to be discovered in Germany: be it fantastical literature or philosophy, historical comics or surreal worlds, cartoons for children or vampire stories, watercolor shades or austere black and white, quickly drawn sheets or portraits rich in detail – there’s hardly anything that Sfar doesn’t master.

Joann Sfar, who was born in Nice in 1971, studied philosophy and then art before becoming cartoonist. He is living and working in Marseille.