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The Rabbi's Cat    by Joann Sfar order for
Rabbi's Cat
by Joann Sfar
Order:  USA  Can
Pantheon, 2005 (2005)
* *   Reviewed by Lance Victor Eaton

The comic book (or graphic novel) is the perfect medium for stories that are animal oriented (think Garfield). In the graphic format, an animal can express its feelings in details while events transpire. Rabbi Abraham's cat is a mangy grey cat that follows him and his daughter, Zlabya, through their daily life in Algeria in the 1930s. Even if this cat (no name given) looks aesthetically tasteless in the initial pages, a fondness slowly evolves for the creature by story's end as a connection builds through his trials and adventures.

Shortly into the tale, he gains the ability to talk to his master and the master's daughter. To their amazement, what he has to say comes as a bit of shock, especially when he begins demanding Jewish rites of passage to be performed on him. Meanwhile, the rabbi crams to pass a French exam and his daughter laments the state of her love life. But just when his ideas are needed most, the cat loses his ability to talk with his companions. This tale is permeated with richness and style. Beyond the musings of a witty philosophical cat, the story presents and does justice to Jewish culture and tradition. Though critical, it's critical of religion in general rather than of the Jewish faith in particular.

Joann Sfar, a renowned French comic artist, draws what should be unappealing characters but manages to elevate them through his use of colors and backgrounds. The cat, though haggard looking, maintains a certain nobility. The faded and loosely composed backgrounds bring the character into sharp contrast, automatically pulling the eye to whatever the true focus of the panel is supposed to be. Both dream and night sequences provide distinct color tinting that still gives full illumination for each panel, but eerily alters presentation. The inside panel of the dust jacket (which differs from the book cover) features a picture of Sfar with his cat that bears a striking resemblance to the main character. The story itself is broken into three parts - 'The Bar Mitzvah', 'Malka of the Lions', and 'Exodus' - each section takes its own direction with some concluding resolution.

Albeit farfetched, The Rabbi's Cat still conveys a deep respect for tradition and cultural identity. When graphic novels enter into this realm of storytelling, it only reinforces the underrated value of the medium. The cat provides the means by which we come to understand the identity and love of a rabbi and his daughter.

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