We need a hero

Israeli artist and writer Uri Fink shares how he created some of the most noted Israeli comic-book characters, and his thoughts on seeing them on a postage stamp celebrating 70 years of independence

URI FINK PRESENTS the 13th collection of the popular ‘Zbeng!’ with Gingi on the cover (photo credit: SHARONA GUY/ISRAELI EDUCATION CHANNEL)
URI FINK PRESENTS the 13th collection of the popular ‘Zbeng!’ with Gingi on the cover
While Israel has not yet produced an iconic comic book character recognized around the world like the American Superman or the Belgian Tintin, almost all Israelis have read Zbeng! at some point. The comic depicts a group of Israeli teenagers and their lives, including parents, teachers and band practice. The band is called My Lame Sister and one of the running gags is that the lead singer never says anything other than: “Sex, min, and rock-and-roll!” the gag being that min is the Hebrew word for sex.
The Jerusalem Post was lucky enough to get Uri Fink off the drawing board long enough to talk about Jewish values, superheroes, and how he keeps producing fresh work despite keeping his characters in high school for 30 years.
How did you first get involved in comics?
Legend has it – it’s a famous story I always tell – that it’s because of my first-grade teacher.
I was a child who drew everything – all the time and on everything. My first-grade teacher didn’t scream at me, she instead gave me a blank notebook and I began drawing in it. So one day, I drew the beginning of a story and on the second day a second chapter of the same story, and so I did my first comic without knowing what comic books even were!
There were almost no comic books in Israel at the time. There were no comic-book stores. Around when I began to do these stories, when I became keen on telling stories with pictures, my mother had been working in a bookstore and saw some Asterix and Peanuts books and brought them home. My parents were from Germany, so they did not know much about comic books either.
Did they accept your choice to be an artist?
They always encouraged me to read proper books but I published my first book, Sabraman, in 1978. The first article about it was in the Post, David Herman published it. So I think they encouraged me, my mother loved art and concerts and museums. My dad was less involved but he appreciated it. For them it was a legitimate profession.
After the army I thought I’d be a graphic designer. I never imagined I would make a living with comics. I was very much attuned with my parents so it was not really a point of conflict.
I recall a comic in which you present a car ride with your parents and, being a child, you use a Hebrew word which is a slur for Arab [Arabush] and your father becomes very angry at you. Was the household political in any way?
The story you mentioned was done for a French publication that wanted a biographical story with some political content. My father was not active in politics but very aware of the need to support human rights and the need to find a way to live in peace. To live here with our neighbors. He knew Arabic, by the way, which was very impressive for people around him – seeing this pale German Jew haggle in Arabic with merchants in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Your take on Israeli superheroes is unique, since you said in the past that to use superpowers to help others would not be the first thing an Israeli would do. Could you expand a little on that?
An Israeli superhero is a contradiction in terms as it cannot exist. Only an American can be a superhero. Even in France and Japan, where comics are big, there is no superhero that puts on a mask and goes off to help people. They have characters, but not superheroes. An Israeli might put his name on a T-shirt and try to get some fame out of it. I’ve been dealing with this concept for many years.
Sabraman was not a satire, it was a forced attempt to create a superhero in Israel and that was not good. Super Shlumper [Super Slob] is a spoof, a parody. Hebrew just doesn’t sit well with that language of heroism.
I also created Profile 107, which is about a hero in the IDF, and this book is not a parody as much as a deconstruction of the superhero story. Superpowers, I suggest in the comic, are a lot like nuclear weapons – even if they existed, what would they be used for? The answer is they would not be used, so this hero likes to do nothing. His main goal is to get leave off base.
I also created The Golem with Eli Eshed and that whole thing was about creating a fake history for an Israeli superhero. This fake history goes as far back as before 1948 and we cover his entire history. This gave the reader an idea that the golem was involved in Israeli culture during the last decades. Ma’ariv contributor Menachem Ben even agreed to write a review in which he pretended to remember the golem as a child.
Every book I try to attack this topic from a different angle. I think the reason this is important for me is that many Jewish people were involved in creating superheroes. Wonder Woman is an exception to that rule, but many superheroes had Jewish creators. The concept of Superman, for example, is very Jewish. He’s from a world that was destroyed – also this Jewish experience of being very helpless in the ghetto and waiting for someone to save you. But we in Israel, we’re different, so these two parts are in conflict.
I have never seen a country so eager to create a superhero like Israel. In Israel, at every comic-book festival, someone tries to create a superhero like Falafel Man or the Knights of Blue and so on. And this is partly because of the connection between Jewish culture and superheroes.
You once mentioned that you think comics are so popular because it’s basically a way to draw naked people flying.
I was dead serious about it. When you draw superheroes you basically draw naked people, and then add a little line, which makes it into tights so it’s OK. Even today in the movies, actors can’t get to the same level of near-nakedness detailed in anatomical art. When the actor plays Batman, his muscles are in the suit, not on his body.
This element of them being nearly naked is why in the comics Superman wears his underwear on the outside – because they wanted to make it clear that this part is covered. Also, the 1990s was the era of the most exaggerated muscles and breasts and so on in mainstream comics. I’m sure others said similar things but I’ll take credit for this statement if you like.
You created some of the most beloved Israeli comic-book characters, a group of high-school kids called Zbeng!. They became hugely popular and even had their own television series. Please tell us how you created these heroes.
The whole point of Zbeng! was to be a cartoon for Israeli teenagers. They were all stereotypes and because the meaning of being a teenager is always changing, more characters had to be added as it progressed. I was studying in Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and my roommate was working for Ma’ariv Lanoar (Ma’ariv’s publication for youth) and told me they were looking for a cartoonist. So I created something I would have liked to see as a teenager myself when I read Ma’ariv Lanoar, which was a huge thing at the time and lots of teenagers were reading it.
And that’s how I created Zbeng! – by thinking about what teenagers care about. Which, at the time, was surfing, sex, music and not doing schoolwork, and I’m very proud of it and proud to see how it evolved.
In the 1990s I could do things that now seem impossible. Today, it has its own magazine in addition to the weekly strip in Ma’ariv Lanoar. The magazine has been published for 15 years. I also use it to show comics by other people. My subscribers get pure Israeli comics, all local, all in Hebrew.
You commented that you always work on Zbeng! to make it more relevant. For example, there is a gay character and recently you created a character called “Disgusting Gil,” even though you made it clear that when you were a teenager he would not have existed at all. Please tell us more about that.
I like being in my studio and I love not having to leave the house, so I teach comic books to kids and I maintain a connection to them and what they like and dislike through the classes.
In one class, a child was painting very disgusting things like heads being blown up and bodies cut open. Today that kid teaches animation, but at the time that made me think that children need such a character who would be into such disgusting things.
Today we have a punk-goth character, a vegan character, gay and lesbian characters. My daughter used to provide me with material but now she’s an adult and will soon join the army. If I did a comic on old people I’d go hang out at homes for the elderly, but since Zbeng! is about young people I go speak with young people.
Today there isn’t one place everyone goes to get their culture. For a while Channel 2 used to be that for young people but today it’s very fragmented. Even on YouTube you need to do a lot of research to find what young people really enjoy. It’s very saturated, but I hope I manage.
I noticed that in Zbeng! nobody is really evil. For example, the very attractive character of Maya, who is presented as heartless, is shown to have an origin story in which she was rejected and not loved by those around her. Is that true?
The only character I think of as evil is Nir, who is a snob – he’s the only one I think of as bad. The teacher, Miss Za’afani (Miss Grumpy), is to some extent like a Marvel villain, in the sense that she has an origin story and this is her reason for being “bad.”
Zbeng! is changing now because teenagers don’t seem excited by reading about early sexual interests anymore – it turns them off. The comic changed not because of any ideology, like “don’t show this to teens,” it only changes when teen culture changes.
The goal is to make the comic work without being vulgar. I do think that there is real evil in the world, so maybe after this interview I’ll create one very evil character that will be truly bad! [Laughs]
Miss Za’afani, for example, doesn’t work anymore. She’s a collective of all the teachers I knew, and they were all old bitter ladies. They hated their jobs and we were all afraid of them. They were authority figures we feared.
Today teachers are afraid of the children and the parents! In the old days she was a norm and now she’s a unique character, she’s the only one the kids are afraid of. I created a teacher called Michal who doesn’t teach anything and just plays with her phone all day. Michal is more in tune with the current state of the Israeli educational system. She is based on a real person, who is a book editor at Kinneret publishing company. She liked it!
Maya, whom you mentioned, also doesn’t work anymore because that kind of high school heart-breaker sweetheart doesn’t exist anymore, and I’m thinking about what to do with her. Give her her own YouTube channel maybe? We’ll see.
The Israeli Postal Company honored Israeli cartoonists recently by issuing a stamp with various characters created by many different artists. Please tell us a little about that stamp.
Three of my characters are on there. The stamp was created by Michel Kichka, who we all learned a lot from in Bezalel because he exposed us to European comic culture. This is all I know. They sent me a lot of paperwork to give the rights to the postal service for my characters. Every Israeli creator is presented there, I mean the entire richness of Israeli comics. I wonder if I can recognize everyone myself! [Looks at the stamp.] No, even I can’t do that! [Laughs]
I’ve been doing a comic about the history of comics in Ma’ariv Lanoar, it’s a spin-off of my television show where I teach children how to draw. I call it The History of the Pencil and this stamp would be great for that.
You often work to promote Israeli comics around the world. What can you tell us about that?
There is a huge interest in Israeli comics around the world. The reason for this is because we don’t have a tradition. People here don’t grow up on comics, so we have a mixed bag we can pick and choose from when we enter the field.
We always approach the medium in a fresh way. The French artists have a huge body of work they can use to get inspiration from. What do we have? One person, Dudu Geva.
It’s amazing to see how many Israelis publish abroad. If you love comics and are looking for something fresh, Israeli comics is a good place to start looking. Ever since I started, comics have always gotten bigger. The reason is that this country was founded by Polish and Russian Jews, and while Poland today loves comics, Russia still doesn’t have much interest in these things. Only when people who came here from places like Belgium began to create this culture did it become more widespread. We have a lot of catching up to do!