REVIEW: ‘The Unfinished Corner’

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Unfinished Corner - But Why Tho

The Unfinished Corner is a middle-grade graphic novel written by Dani Colman, illustrated by Rachel Petrovicz, colored by Whitney Cogar, lettered by Jim Campbell, and published by Vault Comics. Miriam is on the brink of her bat mitzvah, but she’s not particularly committed to it or her Jewish day school she just found out she has a ticket out of but hasn’t told her friends about. Just as she’s about to confront the endless flow forward of time, she’s whisked away on a field trip with her friends she won’t soon forget.

I have often wondered what a Jewish middle-grade story a la the ever-popular and expanding Rick Riordan Presents model. It’s a special type of genre that allows the youth of different cultures and experiences to see themselves as the heroes in stories rooted in their people’s myths and legends. It was hard to ever really come up with the kind of story with fantastical beasts and epic heroes other cultures seem to have because, well, Judaism doesn’t really emphasize that stuff. The Tanach has its epic heroes, David or even Moses, and corners of our tradition speak of golems, leviathans, or dybbuk. You don’t learn about a lot of that at religious school. Or, at least, I certainly didn’t.

The Unfinished Corner’s approach to telling an epic Jewish tale is unlike anything I’ve seen. First of all, the book stars four diverse kids: the secular Miri, the traditionally observant Avi, David, who is a Black, kippah-wearing, sporty-seeming protector of the group, and Judith, a potentially Sephardic cool kid who isn’t really friends with the rest of the crew before the adventure begins. It’s by far the most diverse group of Jewish kids I’ve seen in a story, and I absolutely applaud the book for showing the true diversity of the Jewish people beyond Ashkenormativity. I also love that each character gets to have their own relationship with each other, not just to Miri, as these different dynamics are key to showing young readers that they can have friends who have different backgrounds, experiences, and interests than themselves.

Its plot, too, is rather outside of the usual Jewish storytelling box. While it absolutely contains its classic biblical references, shtetl tales, and (powerfully portrayed) Holocaust stories, it also delves into ancient Rabbinic thought, medieval Jewish mysticism, and modern antisemitism. There are constant footnotes explaining different Jewish terminology (although one description of the Tanach doesn’t quite fit right for me, not that I know quite how I’d describe ) so that non-Jews or Jews who have not yet learned those terms aren’t left out of the dialogue. It’s rather impressive how The Unfinished Corner manages to squeeze several thousand years of Jewish history and storytelling into a single story.

To this end, The Unfinished Corner taps into some better-known stories, like Miriam and her ability to provide water in the desert or Judah Loew ben Bezalel’s golem. But it also dabbles heavily in non-canonical Jewish texts. You would be entirely forgiven if you’ve never heard of the Book of Enoch, Book of Tobit, or knew that demonic/feminist figure Lilith had specifically Jewish origins. It’s because while these tomes and interpretations are explicitly Jewish in their origins, they are apocryphal and not considered part of Jewish textual canon. They have played roles in Jewish thought, wisdom, and mysticism over the centuries. Still, you won’t find the stories of Lilith, Azazel, the half-angel Nephilim, and the other angels and demons of The Unfinished Corner in the Torah.

At first, I was a bit confounded and discomforted by these extra-biblical demons playing such a central role in the plot. I get the need to have a big scary bad guy to run from and eventually confront, and Judaism doesn’t really have that in its more traditional mythology (if you don’t count, say, Hitler or Isabella and Ferdinand). The visual depictions of these demons felt kind of Christian at times, at least to my eyes that have really only seen demons depicted in explicitly Christian stories. But by the end, with a strong conclusion and a lot of great triumphs against danger and group along the way, I found that I simply enjoyed the research I did as I read along to learn who the various characters were in their source material. So while this may not be the kind of Jewish middle-grade epic I have imagined at the onset, it certainly entertained and connected with plenty of parts of my Jewish experience.

The one thematic aspect I really wish had gotten explored further, or even had any feeling of conclusion to it, was the occasional discussion about why it mattered to be Jewish today, or why it was worth it when being Jewish brings with it suffering antisemitism, which is ultimately only the most recent in several thousands of years worth of persecution, exile, pain, and suffering. Avi has an incredibly moving sequence that gets at the heart of why we endure this as a people, generation after generation. But I feel like it never goes to answer the question of why it’s worth the suffering to remain proudly Jewish nonetheless.

The art of The Unfinished Corner is great, with expressive characters and memorable creature designs. Each demon, angel, or otherwise the crew meets is epic in its depiction. And the coloring matches that grandiose, consistently providing beautifully hued backgrounds or distinctively shaded creatures. Lettering is perfectly suitable for a middle-grade adventure.

The Unfinished Corner was certainly not the Jewish middle-grade story I was expecting, but it certainly found its own unique way to struggle with some of Judaism’s most intimate questions while remaining distinct and portraying Jewish experiences beyond Ashkenormativity.

The Unfinished Corner is available now wherever comics are sold, including our Bookshop.org affiliate link.


The Unfinished Corner
4.5

TL;DR

The Unfinished Corner was certainly not the Jewish middle-grade story I was expecting, but it certainly found its own unique way to struggle with some of Judaism’s most intimate questions while remaining distinct and portraying Jewish experiences beyond Ashkenormativity.