Dani Colman is the author of The Unfinished Corner, a middle-grade graphic novel illustrated by Rachel Petrovicz, colored by Whitney Cogar, lettered by Jim Campbell, and published by Vault Comics. Dani sat down with But Why Tho? to discuss the graphic novel, how it managed to squeeze 4000 years of Jewish storytelling tradition into one book, and just what makes Jewish storytelling so powerful. The following interview is edited for brevity and clarity. The full interview can be heard on the But Why Tho? Podcast.
BUT WHY THO? Can you share a bit about your background and how you came to know so much about the Jewish mythology that went into this book? What inspired you to make a graphic novel about it?
DANI COLMAN: I grew up in Northwest London; there’s a large Jewish community there. My tradition is Masorti, which is sort of somewhere between Conservative and Reform, and so it wasn’t hugely traditional (which I liked)… but we had services in Hebrew—there was a big emphasis on education and on study. So I did the thing that Jewish kids do: I went to Jewish studies classes on Sundays, I went to synagogue not quite every week but a bit more often than just the High Holy Days. And I was and still am a giant nerd, so the thing that I found appealing growing up in this tradition was how much there is to study. I remember studying for my Bat Mitzvah, and you learn to read from the Torah… and I ate this up. I loved it. I loved the academia of it.
And I also grew up in a tradition of storytelling. I have very creative parents and siblings. We, collectively as a family, had an interest in mythology and folktales. I remember one of my very first comic books was a comic book adaptation of Greek mythology. I remember that book fondly. I’ve just always had this interest in storytelling. Fast forward to, as an adult, I had a chance to pitch a story to Vault Comics. I can only imagine how many young readers became interested in Greek mythology because of Percy Jackson and the Olympians. That was the inspiration for pitching to Vault—putting something out into the world that not only would be fun and entertaining and meaningful to Jewish kids, but would also be a compelling enough adventure story on its own so that non-Jewish kids would want to read it and want to know more.
BUT WHY THO?: From the first few pages, this book felt different from typical Jewish storytelling for a lot of reasons. The biggest one being the characters are diverse. They represent the swath of Jewish experience, there’s a secular kid, there’s a traditionally observant kid, there’s a Black kid, there’s a kid who I interpreted as Sephardic. Not to mention that their personalities are diverse. There’s the nerdy kid, there’s the athletic kid, there’s the popular kid. Why was it important for you to include all of these types of diversity in The Unfinished Corner?
DANI COLMAN: Because Jewish experience is diverse, and it’s not perceived as such. The popular perception of Judaism has two facets to it, and that’s it. There’s Israeli, and there’s Ashkenazi. I grew up Ashkenazi, and I want to see that represented, but it’s not the only aspect to Jewish culture. Around the time that I was starting to research the book, there were a number of news stories about Sephardi jews in the U.S. connecting with their ancestry. And it was eye-opening to me—there’s this entire side to the culture that’s just not represented. And it’s so rich and has this incredible history. Similarly, there’d been a number of high-profile Jews of color coming out and saying “here’s my heritage and I’m proud of it.” Tiffany Haddish had a Bat Mitzvah. Daveed Diggs wrote a rap about wanting a puppy for Chanukah. I don’t think any Jewish kid should ever feel not Jewish enough because they’re not Ashkenazi or look like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Jews are diverse, and so diverse Jews should feel seen in the media they consume.
BUT WHY THO?: Beyond being diverse, the characters each get to challenge pre-conceived expectations based on who they are and what they look like. And they get to have their own relationships with one another. Why was it important to showcase the fullness of each character?
DANI COLMAN: Because people are complicated. Because teens and pre-teens are especially complicated. You’re figuring out who you are, you’re figuring out where you fit in. When I was that age, I sort of moved on the periphery of a number of social circles. And something that had a big influence on how I viewed the world growing up was realizing that people can be very different depending on the circumstances that they’re in. The same classmates who wouldn’t give me the time of day when they were in a group with each other… could be surprisingly kind in other circumstances. I wanted to create relationships between these characters who under ordinary circumstances may not have been friends as a way of saying “life is a little bit richer if you give people room Onto be more than they are on first appearance.”
BUT WHY THO?: The Unfinished Corner is filled to the brim with ancient, medieval, and modern Jewish myths and stories. One of the biggest influences seems to be the Book of Enoch. How did you land on this not-usual story as one of the major influences?
DANI COLMAN: It was a lot of going down research rabbit holes. Priority number one for me was to tell a compelling story with plenty of fun and problems to solve. As I was doing truly epic amounts of research, I was cherry-picking the ideas that I thought flowed well with one another. And I wanted to make sure the book was accessible to non-Jewish readers. And that meant trying to find certain things that can sort of stand alongside our more traditional understandings of angels, demons, monsters, etc.
There were two things I knew had to be included. Number one was the Golem of Old Prague. It’s just so compelling story and… one of relatively few specifically Jewish stories that non-Jews are likely to be familiar with. The other one… Rabbi bar [bar] Hana, basically the Simbad of Jewish mythology. One of the books that I used in research had a whole section of Bar Hana stories and it was the first collection of Jewish stories that I’d seen that revolved around traveling to one far-flung place after another and encountering the different fantastical situations there.
BUT WHY THO?: My Judaism is based on the idea that Judaism, as both a religion and peoplehood, has been constantly growing and evolving since its inception. Our stories, even from Genesis, are adapted from Sumerian stories, Assyrian stories, and Babylonian stories. I appreciate that perspective that these are Jewish stories, no matter how we slice or dice them.
DANI COLMAN: Something that I found while researching that rang so true was what makes a story Jewish. You can have two stories from the same community, say the wider Bulgarian community and one from the Jewish Bulgarian community. And they can have similar elements. But what makes the Jewish story Jewish is that problems are solved not by punching them, or swinging swords at them, or raising an army against them, but by outthinking them. It’s all problem solving, lateral thinking, and a fair amount of wordplay. That was a guiding light for me—I could change things if I needed to, combine stories or pull in elements that felt foreign, as long as the solution to the problem was clever or involved teamwork and problem-solving, it would still feel Jewish.
BUT WHY THO?: One of the best questions that this book asks is, “what is the point of all this? Why should we still bother with this Judaism thing? It’s been going on for so long and led to endless suffering for thousands of years?” Why should we bother?
DANI COLMAN: There are as many answers to that as there are Jews in the world. So the best answer I can come up with is—because there are as many answers as there are Jews in the world. We all have some reason for sticking with it, and there is a sense of cultural cohesiveness that we have that is so strong. Whether you are in a large and vibrant Jewish community or the only Jew in the village, there’s still a sense that we’re all in this together. There is not only this shared history of trauma that is important to recognize because it means we have all survived it. There’s also this shared tradition of coming together. It’s such a communal religion. It’s one of the things that I still love about it. There’s certain things you can’t even do if there’s not enough Jews—the concept of the Minyan is so beautiful to me, that it’s never a truly personal relationship with the traditions, it’s something that’s shared with your community, your family, and with other Jews.
BUT WHY THO?: The book doesn’t end how it sets you up to expect. What morals do you hope readers draw from the true ending?
COLMAN: Primarily, that you should look for the humanity in the people around you. That it’s never as black and white as this person or this thing is such a way, and that thing is and always will be bad. That it’s not that simple.
The Unfinished Corner was certainly not the Jewish middle-grade story I was expecting. Still, 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 in its reflection of Jewish storytelling tradition.
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