As Jews, we are to question and challenge ourselves. To some degree this doctrine is the cornerstone of comic writer Eli Valley’s work. Valley’s work exists in a world all its own, a far cry from mainstream comic world, but a bit too zany for the political/social commentary comic one. Valley has carved out his own niche, but his willingness to dissect the idiosyncrasies of his own culture and religion has become his raison d’être.
“My favorite work is the stuff that tells a story beyond the immediacy of the satire. One of the beauties of the medium is that comics are panel-by-panel narratives through time. So story is as important to me as satire.”
However, Valley’s willingness to satirize hot button issues within the Jewish community has a tendency to galvanize his critics.
“I poke fun at certain communal assumptions: The self-conception of powerlessness, or the dependence on anti-Semitism to form identity or to fundraise, or the contempt shown towards people who intermarry, or the insistence that Israel is the culmination of Jewish consciousness. It’s interesting: generally, American Jews are socially and politically liberal. They’re engaged in the larger world, and the culture of Judaism is just one part of a multifaceted and fluid identity. But the community leadership tends towards the conservative, whether it’s on questions of Israel or intermarriage, and tends towards a more tribal, Us vs. Them attitude regarding engagement with the larger world. I don’t think my stuff is controversial among Jews in general — but it is controversial among the vocal minority of “Us Versus Themites” who claim to speak for all Jews. But they don’t speak for me, and I don’t think they speak for anybody, actually, beyond their actively terrified donor base.”
Perhaps Valley’s willingness to look for faults within his own world is a function to an extent of his childhood. Growing up in Southern New Jersey, Valley faced a certain duality when it came to Judaism at home.
“My father was religious and my mother was secular, and they got divorced when I was little. So growing up, I lived with my mom but I’d have intermittent bursts of religious activity, either through the phone wires or when visiting my dad. I think trying to find a synthesis between the two is one of the tensions behind my work.”
While religion may have been the subject of some debate within the Valley household, Eli’s decision to become an artist, was not. Discussing his childhood, Valley is quick to point out that his parents were wholly supportive. Fondly, Valley remembers his early attempts at drawing comics.
“In middle school I’d be drawing the adventures and escapades of a tube of “Crust Toothpaste” gone wild. I remember taking a comic-making class in Philly when I was 15 or so, and everybody else there was in college, and I was just awful by comparison. But the teacher, Cal Massey, was really patient and supportive. I remember he had me learn by copying two or three panels of The Thing spazzing out in The Fantastic Four.”
Recently named “artist in residence” at The Forward, Valley has been prolifically turning out comics that satirize themes of Jewish culture. Whether he’s infusing Kafka with Jewish themes or riffing on the “The Four Sons” — with regard to Israel and Palestine, Valley has turned The Forward into a hub for comic Jewish satire.