Welcome back to Explicitly Graphic, a monthly column by Cynthia Clark Harvey (who's working on a graphic novel of her own). From time to time, Harvey will review graphic novels, talk to artists, and dive into the scene of all things explicitly graphic. Today, she reviews El Iluminado by Ilan Stavans and Steve Sheinkin.
What do Jewish history, the Inquisition, Spanglish, Yiddish and academic rivalry have in common? El Iluminado, (Basic Books) a new graphic novel by literary critic Ilan Stavans and artist/writer Steve Sheinkin is an unlikely mash-up of all those things with the added fillip of a murder mystery. For me, it somehow all works.
El Iluminado is a page-turning whodunit that delivers a substantial history lesson in a clear, entertaining way. The books centers on the mysterious death near Santa Fe of Rolando Perez, a fictional young man who has become fascinated with the story of the real life Luis de Carvajal the Younger, also known as El Iluminado. See also: - Ellen Forney Talks Mental Health, the Life of a "Crazy Artist," and Her latest Graphic Novel, Marbles - A Soldier's Daughter's Heart: A Conversation with Graphic Novelist Carol Tyler
Having lived in New Mexico for a number of years, I wasn't completely unfamiliar with the book's main theme, crypto-Jews -- Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition but sometimes continued to practice Judaism in the privacy of their homes. Many crypto-Jews settled in New Mexico, where, many, many generations later, descendants participate in Judaic rituals and possess Jewish artifacts without knowing exactly why or where they came from.
What I didn't know before is that the discovery of these Jewish roots has sometimes been divisive among families and between Jewish factions.
Both Stavans and Sheinkin have the chops to deliver a lot of history in the rapid-fire form of the graphic novel. Sheinkin's drawings are deceptively simple, but, rendered in full color, they add clues, details, context and texture to the mystery.
Sheinkin says in the release for the book that he spent time in Santa Fe scouting locations and taking reference photos. "Many of the locations in the book are famous Santa Fe landmarks ... and we wanted to make these recognizable to folks who know Santa Fe."
In the book, Stavans is immortalized as an illustrated character who is a well-respected academic. Cartoon Stavans delivers a lecture in the book, very similar to a real-life lecture Stavans gave a few years ago. After the lecture, both in the book and in real life, a young woman approaches and tells him her family's story: the discovery of a Jewish past had lead to strife in her family that had violent undercurrents.
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Sheinkin formerly wrote history texts, and he now prides himself on writing history books "that people will actually read voluntarily." He also writes and draws the Adventures of Rabbi Harvey, a Jewish folk teller of the Old West and the reason Stavans, a Rabbi Harvey fan, and Sheinkin ended up collaborating.
In the book's release, Stavans calls their collaboration among the happiest of many in his career, while Sheinkin, who was not used to working with a collaborator, is learning to enjoy the unexpected twists of working with a partner.
Both say they look forward to another mystery of historical proportions. I, too, look forward to future projects from them. A fine way to spend a few hours is to be entertained, enlightened and amused all at once by a graphic novel from this pair.