Ear­li­er this week, Ilan Sta­vans wrote about the prob­lem with aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing and asked: Is there a Jew­ish lit­er­ary renais­sance? He has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

I’m a pas­sion­ate lover of the graph­ic nov­el.

I grew up in Mex­i­co City. As an ado­les­cent, my week­ly lit­er­ary diet includ­ed comics of all types. There were the usu­al sus­pects from the Unit­ed States: super­heroes of var­i­ous cal­ibers, such as Super­man and Bat­man, as well as fun­ny char­ac­ters like Archie and Sab­ri­na. But the comics I cher­ished the most were local­ly made or import­ed from oth­er parts of Latin Amer­i­ca: Kalimán, La famil­ia Bur­rón, Con­dori­to, Mafal­da… Like oth­er read­ers, I saw my own social, polit­i­cal, and his­tor­i­cal dilem­mas reflect­ed in them.

Recent­ly I trav­eled from one book fair to anoth­er pro­mot­ing El Ilu­mi­na­do, a graph­ic nov­el I wrote (with Steve Sheinkin), set among the cryp­to-Jews of the South­west. Scores of writer friends I met were sur­prised I had accept­ed to exper­i­ment in this field. Isn’t it for younger peo­ple?” one of them asked. Theirs is the gen­er­a­tion of the mov­ing pic­tures…” I laughed, telling him about my uncured devo­tion to com­ic strips as well as mam­moth nar­ra­tives. The read­ers of Don Quixote are always young, aren’t they? And Cervantes’s imag­i­na­tion was quite cin­e­mat­ic. Were he alive, I’m sure he would be a fan of graph­ic nov­els.”

Did you like Michael Chabon’s The Amaz­ing Adven­tures of Kava­lier and Clay?” anoth­er inquired. Not real­ly, I said, it is both long and long­wind­ed. The mes­sage was clear to me, though: Why hadn’t I writ­ten a straight book about my com­ic-book edu­ca­tion?

The answer is straight­for­ward: I’m inter­est­ed in the graph­ic nov­el for its fresh yet ancient com­bi­na­tion of image and word. They are at their best when address­ing a his­tor­i­cal issue head on, like the ones cre­at­ed by Will Eis­ner, Art Spigel­man, and Joe Sec­co. The genre is still in its infan­cy. In the last few years it has thrived pre­cise­ly because of the exper­i­men­tal dri­ve of its practitioners.

Ilan Sta­vans is Lewis-Sebring Pro­fes­sor in Latin Amer­i­can and Lati­no Cul­ture at Amherst Col­lege. His most recent books are the col­lec­tion of essays Singer’s Type­writer and Mine: Reflec­tions on Jew­ish Cul­ture (Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Press, 2002) and the graph­ic nov­el El Ilu­mi­na­do (Basic Books, with Steve Sheinkin).

Ilan Sta­vans is the Pub­lish­er of Rest­less Books and the Lewis-Sebring Pro­fes­sor of Human­i­ties, Latin Amer­i­can and Lati­no Cul­ture at Amherst Col­lege. His books include On Bor­rowed Words, Spang­lish, Dic­tio­nary Days, The Dis­ap­pear­ance, and A Critic’s Jour­ney. He has edit­ed The Nor­ton Anthol­o­gy of Lati­no Lit­er­a­ture, the three-vol­ume set Isaac Bashe­vis Singer: Col­lect­ed Sto­ries, The Poet­ry of Pablo Neru­da, among dozens of oth­er vol­umes. He is the recip­i­ent of numer­ous awards and hon­ors, includ­ing a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship, the Mass­a­chu­setts Book Award for Poet­ry, Chile’s Pres­i­den­tial Medal, the Inter­na­tion­al Lati­no Book Award, and the Jew­ish Book Award. Sta­vans’ work, trans­lat­ed into twen­ty lan­guages, has been adapt­ed to the stage and screen. A cofounder of the Great Books Sum­mer Pro­gram at Amherst, Stan­ford, Chica­go, Oxford, and Dublin, he is the host of the NPR pod­cast In Contrast.