Nexus Graphica: Midrash

I’ve been reading a lot of “Midrash” these past weeks, comics-wise. What is “Midrash?” Well, according to one online dictionary, it’s “a Hebrew word referring to a method of reading details into, or out of, a Biblical text.”

It can also be used, in Judaism, to explain the reasons “why” a certain law or Rabbinic precept exists. They are stories, in other word, used to plug in the gaps when people ask, “Well, wait a minute, but why?” (or, perhaps, “how?”)

I happen to teach a Sunday school class here in the wilds of L.A., where I emphasize “Midrash” a lot — in other words, a trove of storytelling built upon the inherited lore, myth-cycle and laws we generally call “The Bible.” (Or in a more specifically Jewish setting, “Torah” — the first five books, or “Tanakh” — the whole “Old Testament.”)

I like the idea of Midrash because it tells you “the book isn’t closed,” as it were. Finishing the story, in the largest sense, is still up to you. (The “you” being, in this instance, one of the 4th graders I’m in the room with…)

It can also provide you with interesting behind-the-scenes reworking of ostensibly “known” stories, or delve more deeply into events or incidents that have been recounted. Sort of like retconning in comics!

And it was exactly those two threads that came together for me with a particular trio of graphic novels I read since last column, the first of which was literally “Midrash.”

I refer to Darren Aronofsky’s comics adaptation of his own Noah film, done with co-writer Ari Handel, with terrific art by Niko Henrichon. It comes from Image comics, and is based, I’m given to understand, on an earlier draft of the film’s script. Since I haven’t seen the movie yet, I don’t know how divergent they are, but boy, is there a lot of midrash here.

Aronofsky and Handel use a character named Og here, who in Midrash, exists as a kind of “King of the Giants,” and in some “extracurricular” stories (though I’m referring to the “official” Midrash as passed along by Rabbis) is said to have either sat on the roof of the fabled Ark, to get through floodtimes, or in other stories, walked “bestride” it — like hanging next to a toy boat in your swimming pool — while olive branches and dry land were waited out.

Without giving too much away, Og here is used to weave another “Midrashic” stand into the tale, that of a haunting couple of lines in Genesis that refer to the Nephilim, who appear to be an eldritch race of giants. Or “fallen ones.” Or both.

Aronofsky & co. certainly opt for “both” here, and it makes for a very interesting tale, in terms of the cosmic view of humankind being rather inexorably drawn to destroying the very world that sustains it (or that we were “given,” depending on your view of these things).

In fact, the whole “Og” strand pushes this Noah telling even more firmly into sf/fantasy terrain, along with all the ecological ethos that is loaded into the story.

Nor is Noah — his lack of faith in humanity “rewarded” — exactly a very likeable character himself.

As someone who revisits the Noah story on an annual basis (where, in class, we talk about the prevalence of flood stories in other cultures, whether we’ve “gotten it,” since then, on the “stewardship” front, and in order to craft some “King Og” midrash of our own), I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Another kind of “Midrash” exists in Gene Luen Yang & Sonny Liew’s The Shadow Hero, from First Second Books, increasingly one of our more invaluable graphic publishers. Yang, of course, swept through the accolades and awards last year with his epic Boxers & Saints.

Here, he handles the script side to Liew’s art, as they retell the story of “The Green Turtle,” an actual Asian, or intended-to-be-Asian, superhero from the Golden Age (or “the first Golden Era,” if you’re a Mamas & Papas fan).

The original Green Turtle was created by an artist who, I confess, I hadn’t heard of before this, called Chu Hing, who had dispatch to create his hero only to find, close to press time, that, well, an Asian hero wasn’t going to fly, so to speak, in such racially blindered times (if you came from another planet entirely, however, that’d be okay).

So the original G.T. was drawn so that you could never quite see his face — he still might be Asian. One of my favorite things about this volume was the reprint of the original Green Turtle comic in the back, and Yang’s historical discussion of the hero’s quick appearance, and subsequent lapse into obscurity.

And so we have his “Midrashic” treatment here — Yang and Liew reclaim the hero, and definitely let him “face forward,” while recasting his origins (or giving him a full one, for the first time), replete with a moody, somewhat noir-tinged setting, and some riffs on iconic Hollywood-style “Asiana,” adding to the layers of masking/unmasking the characters do along the way.

The last thing I finished before coming here to write this all up was Manifest Destiny, about one of my favorite own lore-fused “real” moments from American history, the journey of explorers Lewis & Clark, and their Corps of Discovery, from the “edge” of America — then hovering around St. Louis — to the actual “edge” of the continent, and back again.

It took a mere two years, and the captains, and some Corps members, became celebrities after, mostly because the trek was documented through copious journals.

Yet, as noted with other foundational texts passed along to us, these journals leave much between-the-line speculating (that “midrash” riff again) to those attempting to make sense of the emotions, states of mind, racial signifiers, and reactions to the pieces of plain blind luck that kept the Corps going throughout its journey (heck, I even got a whole Danger Boy book out of my own speculations!)

Now comes this collected volume, also from Image comics, of the first half-dozen issues of Manifest Destiny. Writer Chris Dinges and artist Matthew Roberts have run with a somewhat Lovecraftian ball here, picking up on speculations and snippets of surviving exchanges, between Thomas Jefferson and the two captains he was dispatching to find out just what it was, exactly, he had gotten, with the Louisiana Purchase from the French. And of course, there was that quick trade route to the Pacific they wanted.

Since they’d just recently been unearthing mastodon and saber-tooth fossils in America– “dinosaurs” hadn’t quite been discovered yet — there was some speculation that perhaps such large creatures were still extant “out West.” Along with rumored races of Giant Men (Nephilim!?) alleged to dwell there.

No one in the Corps, in other words, really knew what they might be encountering, or that a Native American teen mom would eventually save their asses.

Sacajawea plays a similar role here, but she’s a monster-fighter, and we get a lot of intriguing ones, of the floral/”pod-people” sort and the Manitou/Minotaur sort especially, in these first issues.

The art is great, the potential tremendous. Additionally, in this fictive version of the Corps, there are paroled prisoners, “expendables,” along with some of the known historical personages, and each of these — released murderers and such — have their own human “monstrosity” they bring to the mix.

One senses the series hasn’t reached its full potential yet. But then, that’s what long journeys — whether by land, sea, or more treacherous inner-landscapes — are for, yes?

See you later this summer.