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The Story and Impact Behind Eli Valley’s Unseemly Art

by Fiona Farrell

[originally published 12/6/2019]


Remove all of the words, urgency, and political regalia from his comics and you might find yourself looking at...the crudely-crafted cover of an amateurish death metal album? An ill-placed advertisement for an obscenely low budget horror-comedy? A caricatured depiction of the fiery ramparts of hell?

If Eli Valley’s comics remind you of any of the above, fear not---it is to no fault of the reader: it is, rather, a sign that Valley has done his job right.

One may wonder: what exactly might this job be?

Ask Valley himself, and you’re left to decipher an unabashedly snarky remark. The matter of one’s occupation, after all, is decidedly intimate and complex. But it’s one that Valley explained to us with perfect clarity on November 19th, during his much-awaited sojourn to Oberlin. At the end of Valley’s lecture, we had all come to know what he is about. Valley’s job, quite frankly, is to wake us up. Not graciously, not with the superfluous niceties of tenderness and warmth, but with all the raw and unbridled aggression required to attack quietism, hypocrisy, and inaction at their core.

Before we understand how Valley does this, we must first understand why.

The son of a devout rabbi of hawkish oversight, Valley was raised in an orthodox Jewish home, where he developed an affinity for comic reading and drawing at an early age. This combination of circumstances would prove greatly fortuitous; in his own words, being a comics reader and the son of a rabbi was kind of a “kinetic combination.” Young Valley did not hesitate to merge these two worlds into one at every opportunity granted him; he reminisces on bleak sermons spent imagining superheroes battle it out on opposite sides of the blue ribbon in his father’s Bible.

Growing older and galvanized by the rigidity of his father, Valley began to question, explore, and scrutinize the layers of his Jewish identity. He wondered why his father transparently requested the last names of his high school classmates, and why the issue of Israel brought out such a raging fire in otherwise mild-mannered people. Valley determined that it was not his job to put out this fire, but to overshadow it with a greater creative fire of his own—a fire sparked by his age-old fascination with comic-drawing.

Naturally, yesterday’s superheroes began to grow into more than just a dreaded sermon’s playthings. They became tools capable of expressing the concern, anger and frustration that began to fester within Valley over the changes that confounded his identity---all veiled under the Mad-inspired veneer of daring, unapologetic satire. Take, for instance, his Batman and Robin comic--what Valley refers to as “my way of making superheroes Jewish.” In this comic, young Johnny presses Batman: “‘What’s wrong? Is there a bomb?” to which Batman responds “‘Worse, Johnny! Are you aware that American Jews are on the verge of vanishing completely?!’” Batman then castigates Johnny for sitting with gentiles in the cafeteria, because, to him, this is analogous to “letting Hitler win.” No less subtle is Valley’s permutation of “The Incredible Hulk.” Says Valley: “The Incredible Hulk is your average Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde treatment applied to a liberal Jew who becomes right-wing batshit insane on the solitary issue of Israel...Destroys television for antisemites..cutting funding from PBS...starting Facebook groups with names like ‘Palestinians already have a state -- Jordan!’”

These comics are prime bait for the ravenous dogs of polarized politics. Yet, no matter how glaringly contentious Valley’s comics are, one critical fact remains: they are all produced out of a deep sense of caring for one’s own, which was brought about by a lifetime of bittersweet endurance and reflection. This runs contrary to the inflamed suggestions of Valley’s critics, who conflate his flagrant rejection of far rightwing ideology with antisemitism, Valley is in fact not a self-hating antisemite. He claims: “We’re in a state of emergency in America, and we’re also in a state of emergency as American Jews. The silencing of diaspora Jews, but, more precisely, the silencing of a secular, non-nationalist majority, has helped pave the way for today, and it’s why so many of our organizations are inert, complicit, or grappling with how to respond.” Valley’s art is aimed not at reflecting disgust over the advancement of his people, but disgust over the discriminatory trajectory of advancement promoted by extremist movements such as Zionism. Valley champions the advancement of all of his people---and people of other groups and identities, too.

We are now brought around full circle: back to the hellfire.

In Valley’s eyes, anyone who thrives upon the repression of others should be exposed for what they truly are -- a monster. Hence, no human features proliferate Valley’s comics. Instead, we witness savage, outlandish corporeal distortions of every kind. Enormous, toppling-over heads perched in acute disarray atop microscopic necks. Obscenely oversized, cowish teeth protruding from devilishly snarling half-mouths. On women, Medusian hair cascading over hideously jarred shoulders. On men, no hair at all, or hair comically slicked back into oblivion. All drawn in a blotched unruliness, everything falling into place in an implacable wretchedness. This wretchedness is Valley’s cudgel against the far right. Supremacists and enablers have replaced superheroes as his playthings.

After reading Valley’s comics, we might remain paralyzed for a few moments—but nothing longer. Their contents might scare us, their truths might rattle us to our core—as any reckoning or hurricane would. No matter how hard we try to forget them, though, the truth of the matter is that we simply can’t. Through their ink bleeds Valley’s past; in their picture lives our present. Whether it be due to the temerity of their content or execution alike, Valley’s comics remain unshakeable in their power and influence. They scold in their willful intimacy and personal resplendence. They interrupt preeminent disquietude. They penetrate beyond the flesh, into the murky abyss of the human psyche. They leave a mark. And they implore us to leave one, too.

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