How Mirka Got Her Sword: Charming graphic novel for kids and adults

Mirka.jpg

It is baby season in my life. In three years, I've acquired a nephew, a niece, an awesome little girl I consider a niece, and a plethora of pregnant or newly-parenting friends. Coincidentally, I've also started paying attention to kids' books again, and I've noticed something about them that hadn't really occurred to me before—children's books seldom do a good job of taking readers outside their own culture. Sure, there are plenty of stories set in worlds of imagination. And plenty of earnest, training wheel non-fiction that explicitly tells kids about life in other parts of the world. But it's both rare to see (and difficult to do) a fiction story, set outside of mainstream, middle-class culture. Even more rare is a story that pulls off that feat as smoothly and magically as Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, a graphic novel about childhood adventure set in an Orthodox Jewish community somewhere in the United States.

Written and drawn by cartoonist and political blogger Barry Deutsch, How Mirka Got Her Sword is not, strictly speaking, a children's book. Grown-ups will enjoy it, whether or not they're reading it to kids. It is, however, exactly the kind of story I would have loved as a child: All about a clever and brave little girl, who bests a troll in a battle of wits and wins her dream MacGuffin—a sword that will help her fight dragons.

What's more, Mirka is the type of character that six-year-old me would have called "for real." Too often, the heroines of children's books are too Good for their own good. It drove me crazy as a hyperactive, messy, rule-breaking little girl to be presented with story after story in which the girl was the one who was always tidy, who worried about whether the heroes were doing something wrong, or who simply seemed to have no flaws at all. Mirka isn't like that. On the way to greatness, she is dangerously impulsive, lies to her parents, is cruel to the younger brother she loves, and generally makes the kind of mistakes that real kids make. And she learns from those mistakes in a "for real", non-saccharine way.

As an adult, though, I really appreciate that this character exists not in a suburb, gentrified urban enclave, or idealized small town—but in Hereville, a place completely outside my personal experience. Mirka and her family don't dress like most Americans. It's made clear that she speaks Yiddish, not English. And there's a whole section where Mirka sets aside her quest for the experience of the Sabbath. And, rather than feeling like a lesson in multiculturalism, all of this comes across as a simple slice of life. Deutsch drops us into Mirka's world. He explains that world when necessary. But there's no coddling of the reader, and no gape-mouthed pointing or exotification of Mirka.

And no stereotyping, either. In other hands, this could have turned into a story about a strong young woman struggling to fit in in a world that doesn't allow strong women. Instead, it's about a strong young woman who happens to be religious and wear religiously dictated "modest" dress, but whose story and central struggle aren't strictly defined by those things. This is the kind of story that I think of as truly feminist. It passes the Bechdel Test with aplomb. It presents little girls with options beyond "love interest", "the token", or "the responsible sidekick". It shows people as people, not as "MEN" and "WOMEN". But it's not about Feminism. And it takes place in a world that I suspect most people would consider actively anti-feminist. That's part of it's charm. The "for real" world isn't black and white. Deutsch allows Mirka to be a real person. And he allows her community to be every bit as real and layered—both flawed and loved. I sincerely hope that the colon in the title means that we'll be seeing more of both Mirka and Hereville in the future.

Read a 15-page preview of Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword

Read the full webcomic that the book is based on.

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  1. My first interest in becoming a Jew was the result of listening to the weekly dramas on the NBC radio program “The Eternal Light”. In stark contrast to the rest of radio dramas the characters were flawed and the story endings weren’t sprinkled with treacle. They were just as messy as real life.
    For a story to be interesting there must be a conflict and often that conflict is internal to a character. Mazel Tov, Mirka.

  2. I’m friends with the creator, so I may be biased, but I’ve got to say that this is simply one of the best comics of the past 5 years, as far as I’m concerned.

    In addition to being feminist, it addresses religion without either white- or black- washing it, and treats children like actual people.

    And Barry is one of the sweetest, kindest people I’ve ever met.

    All in all, worth buying.

  3. I came across it a while ago as a web comic and loved it. I’ve got three nieces and am really getting sick of the Disney TV movie where every girl is strong… in pretty much the same way and still needs a lame relationship to be fulfilled. The one niece is getting this in a few weeks for her birthday.

  4. So, Mirka gets a sword, while her little brother gets part of his genitalia amputated without his consent and under torturous conditions.

    Come talk to me about equality when BOTH boys and girls get to keep ALL of their genitalia.

  5. The beginning of “Seven Little Australians” by Ethel Turner specifically points out that the children are not the neat, tidy, well-behaved ones of so many children’s novels – and this was written about 120 years ago! You might enjoy it.

  6. …it’s about a strong young woman who happens to be religious and wear religiously dictated “modest” dress…”

    Because she’s been told time and again by her parents, her community and the old man who thinks he’s got a hot line to god, that god won’t like her if she doesn’t do exactly what some other old men think that some old book and the comments of other old men who think they have a hotline to god, tell her to do.

    Doesn’t matter which superstition it is, jews, moslems, christians.

    It’s always the MEN who think they have the hotline to god who tell everyone else what god wants and how god will fuck them over if they don’t do exactly what god wants when god wants it done.

    I hope Mirka puts that sword to good use when the parents and the rabbi tell her who she’s going to marry.

    1. You can’t just say that patriarchy exists no matter which superstition it is and then name 3 variations of the explicitly patriarchical Cult of Abraham.

      However, it is interesting to note that Jewishness is largely considered to pass only through women.

      1. Those are the three major superstitions that I am familiar with, where it’s either one man or a group of men who claim to have the ear of god and that god speaks directly to them, and god tells them to tell everyone else, particularly the women, to do what this particular man tells them to do, or god will get to smiting all over their disobedient asses!

        However, it is interesting to note that Jewishness is largely considered to pass only through women.

        And who proclaimed this to be the Revealed Truth?

        It’s doubtful that it was a woman.

        1. As a former ultra-orthodox jew and a woman (now an atheist lesbian), I have to say that growing up ultra-orthodox is not at all as disempowering for women as people in the secular world assume (the gay issue is another story of course). Since the men are supposed to study Torah all day, women have the jobs, the driving licenses, wield almost all the financial power, and make all the big decisions about running the household. Having grown up used to strong women all around me in ultra-orthodoxy, when I entered the modern world, I was quite shocked to see how many women in the secular world dumb themselves down or make themselves appear weak in front of men.

          Of course, women cannot be rabbis. But technically speaking, since the chain of smichah (the process of becoming a true rabbi) was broken long ago,a rabbi is not legally anything special in many strains of ultra-orthodox judaism outside of Hassidism- just a learned advisor. Unlike a Catholic priest, the rabbi has no special sacred or legislative status. A powerful rebbetzin in the ultra-orthodox world has plenty of say.

          This looks like a great comic! I’m definitely getting it.

    2. Chris,

      Wow, it’s amazing how little you know as you shoot your mouth off. Spend some time with some Orthodox women, some Chassidic women; believe me, strength is the rule, not the exception. And no one can tell a Jewish woman who she will marry. Orthodox Jewish women get introduced to suitors via friends, teachers or matchmakers; they date, talk, and consider, and then they choose. Considering the divorce rate in Judaism as compared to the divorce rate in the secular Western world, it’s working quite well, thank you. Don’t believe all the hate-filled fearful propaganda you hear.

  7. http://www.amptoons.com/blog/ is barry’s (aka ampersand’s) blog.
    i stopped reading it/commenting a few years back – some of the commenters are a bit strident – but there’s a pretty high level of dialog going on there, might be worth a visit.

  8. It looks like an interesting comic. If it’s not explicitly feminist then why try to make it about feminism unless you are specifically trying to analyze it with a feminist methodology?

  9. Hi, this is Barry Deutsch, the creator of “Hereville.”

    First of all, thank you for this wonderful review! I’m a longtime reader and fan of Boing Boing, so this was a wonderful surprise for me.

    Second of all, to the one or two “anon” posters replying to Chris Tucker (#11 and #12), thank you! I really appreciated reading your comments, and I agree.

    Finally, Blueelm, while Hereville is not “explicitly feminist,” I think of myself as a feminist and consciously tried to make a book that all readers would enjoy, but feminist readers especially would be happy to read and to give to their kids. My own nieces definitely notice whether or not there are engaging girl characters in the stories I read them; I think it really matters.

  10. A bit late, but since the link is still on the BoingBoing main page… Just got the comic from the library, and my son and I devoured it. Loved the story, loved the characters, and thought the dialogue was frequently brilliant. We both especially liked the twist on “trolls” that Deutsch created (but no spoilers here).

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