152: PASSOVER Can Rabbi Harvey Tame the Wild West and Graphic Novels, too?

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     I
f you’re a Baby Boomer, you’ll recall the autumn evening in 1972 when a new kind of hero strode into the Wild West that we thought we knew so well after a thousand cowboy movies and TV series.

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    This new hero was a Shaolin monk of Chinese-American ancestry, played by David Carradine in a brand-new TV series called, “Kung Fu.” He was a man filled with ancient spiritual wisdom, an often misunderstood man of peace — and a stark contrast to the fast-shooting cowboys who had populated our childhood.
    Of course, truth be told, most of us watched “Kung Fu,” not really for the spiritual wisdom, although many of us still remember little Kwai Chang Caine’s teacher calling him “Grasshopper” during scenes from his early training in China.
    Truth be told, what we really waited for so eagerly in that series was the moment when Caine had had enough — and with flying feet and fists blurring across the TV screen, he’d kick some serious bad-guy butt!

Now, a black-suited, black-bearded, black-hatted rabbi, named Harvey, is attempting the same feat as Caine — through a series of graphic novels.
    He’s been successful enough that his second volume is hitting stores right now — and his creator already is planning more. In the world of comics and graphic novels, simply getting past a debut issue and publishing a sequel is an enormous accomplishment.
    Quite simply, people have fallen in love with this character, because New York-based writer and artist Steve Sheinkin is taking Rabbi Harvey even further than Caine dared to tread.
    Rabbi Harvey is taming the Wild West without lethal force — in fact, without gunfire or martial arts of any kind. Rabbi Harvey is taming the Wild West with centuries of Jewish folk wisdom.
    The tales in these paperback books are an absolute delight as he turns around the lives of even the most ruthless killers!

    In recent years, I’ve talked a number of times with Sheinkin from his home base in Brooklyn. At 39, Sheinkin may have the perfect eclectic background to create something so innovative. He grew up in a home steeped in Judaism — and full of thick books of Jewish folk tales — but he didn’t grow up as an obsessive fan of comic books or Westerns.
    When I telephoned him to prepare this story, he told me that he came to Westerns and comics almost backwards — through “Star Wars” and other films that sprang from the roots of pulp fiction and Hollywood cliff hangers. In other words, he wasn’t a die-hard fan of any particular genre and was free to mix and match elements he enjoyed.
    “When I was a kid,” he told me, “everything was all about ‘Star Wars.’ I wasn’t the right age to have seen the original Clint Eastwood movies. For me, I came to all of this as an adult. When I got older, for example, I got into John Ford movies and John Wayne Westerns, especially. I love ‘Rio Bravo’ and I used that the most for visual references as I designed scenes for Rabbi Harvey.”

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    While we were talking, Steve emailed me a digital photo he took while watching “Rio Bravo” one day. He liked the look of John Wayne standing bravely in front of the sheriff’s office.
    Then he told me to open his new book, “Rabbi Harvey Rides Again,” to page 18 where the drawing shown at the top of today’s story appears.
    “You’ll see my image of Harvey uses this same idea: leaning on a beam in front of a run-down office,” Steve explained.
    However, Harvey isn’t John Wayne by a long shot. Unlike “the Duke,” Harvey never shoots back. It’s part of his ultra-cool stance as a lawman. Oh, there are bad guys roaming the hills all around Harvey’s town, but Harvey never so much as oils and loads a gun for battle.
    Instead, he oils and loads his wits.
    Among other stratagems, Harvey stages contests called “Stump the Rabbi.” In the new book, he does this at the equivalent of the county fair. The narrator explains, “If he couldn’t answer your question, you won your choice of fresh fruit pie.”
    It’s this constant training, apparently, that keeps Harvey ready to pull off the truly big feats of rabbinic wisdom — like figuring out how to separate the killer Big Milt from his firearms with Big Milt’s willing participation in this clever approach to disarmament. I won’t spoil the tale by revealing Harvey’s trickery — but it’s a tribute to Jewish folklore.
    Sheinkin even provides an appendix of “Story Sources,” if readers really get hooked on this kind of tale and want to learn more.

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Now, if you happen to be a fan of Rabbi Harvey comics already, the big news in “Rabbi Harvey Rides Again” is the introduction of Abigail, a tough, clever pioneer woman (pictured above as Harvey stammers to make small talk on a winter’s day).

    I asked Steve where he came up with such a delightful new character.
    Abigail isn’t a beautiful school teacher or a madame at the local saloon. She’s a pioneer who dresses practically and acts practically — although in one terrific tale in the new book, she manages to bake some pastries that wind up proving to be nearly lethal. I won’t spoil that chapter by saying more, except that I enjoyed the way Sheinkin apparently ended the pastries story in one section of the book, wrapping it up in a satisfying way. Yet, he actually managed to hide the real punchline of the pastry story later in the book.
    That’s good writing.

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    “So where did Abigail come from?” I asked him.
    “I really was responding to readers’ comments, especially from Rachel my wife who said Harvey was lonely. I said, ‘Well, of course! That’s the archetype of the superhero and the Western hero — walking off into the sunset alone. It’s almost cliche, but that’s how it’s done. You can’t make these attachments because you have to focus on the sacrifices you’re making for your work.'”
    Rachel didn’t buy that argument. And Steve was smart to listen to his wife.
    “I finally decided that this could be interesting, if I created a character who was intellectually challenging enough for Harvey,” Steve said. “Abigail comes up three times in the book, but I know she’ll be a main character in the third book.”
    I asked, “Is marriage on the horizon for Rabbi Harvey?”
    But, Steve declined to answer. “I really don’t know yet. I want to hear more from readers.”

    So, at this point, it’s important to explain: To visit Steve Sheinkin’s home online, go to www.rabbiharvey.com, where you can read sample stories — and send a note to Steve with your ideas. That’s a photo of Steve (below at left) reading Rabbi Harvey to his daughter.
    His publisher is Jewish Lights, which you might want to explore for other books on Judaism.
    ALSO, you can click on the cover of his book (shown at right here) to jump to our reviews of his books — and you can order copies via Amazon, if you wish.

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    But there’s still one very important question — a Passover question really — worth contemplating for just a moment longer.
    If Rabbi Harvey is taking a shot at taming, not only the Wild West, but graphic novels themselves — where did this rather audacious notion arise?
    Steve said, “It’s right there in Jewish folklore.
    “These stories come from places and cultures where Jews were a minority — and a very weak minority at that,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter where these stories came from — violence wasn’t a great option for the people.
    “Historically, there were some revolts here and there, but they turned out badly for the Jews. And, for the most part, the Jews had to rely on their wits. Judaism, at its core, isn’t pacifist. There are many times when Jews have fought successfully. But, what I realized from reading these old stories is that the rabbis often realized that they were outnumbered 1,000 to 1 — and so the future of the people often depended on the person who could outwit, rather than outfight, their adversaries.”

    HERE AT READTHESPIRIT, we’ve been covering developments in spiritually themed comics, graphic novels and manga. If you’ve missed our earlier coverage, here’s a good place to “read more” about faith and comics — a recent story about the period after World War II when some Americans began burning comic books.

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