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Movie Review: The Vigil turns Jewish folklore into claustrophobic horror

Much has been said about how The Vigil ventures into Jewish folklore to create a truly genuine Jewish horror story. The movie accomplishes this convincingly and it’s nothing short of impressive, especially when one considers how much of it happens almost exclusively in a small house setting.

The Vigil is a very focused horror movie. It takes place in a small Hasidic household that hides more secrets than one thought possible along with a Jewish entity known as the Mazzik (from the Hebrew word mazikeen which translates into “damager” or “destroyer”). A member of the Orthodox Jewish community has passed away and a man called Yakov Ronen (played by Dave Davis) is asked to become the body’s shomer from midnight to early morning, a religious responsibility that entails acting as the deceased’s watchman. He’s supposed to care for the dead man’s soul as it crosses over.

The Vigil
The Vigil

Complications arise as we learn Yakov has recently left the Hasidic community after a traumatizing experience. In the process, his faith has been broken, leaving him somewhat isolated while in the process of dealing with his separation from the life he’s always known.

Director Keith Thomas, who also wrote the film’s script, decided to cram as much as possible into the story to create a fully realized nightmare specific to the Jewish experience. The intention is to get at the terror behind trauma, memory, and the unknown.

It all speaks to Thomas’ ambitiousness and drive to create an authentic Jewish horror film by fully committing to the culture behind its subject matter. The film goes as far as shooting on location at Williamsburg and Borough Park, two places known for their Hasidic populations, to capture as much as possible from the community that hovers around the main character.

Horror
The Vigil

Despite these elements being put firmly in place for maximum narrative effect, what makes The Vigil intriguing is its decision to keep to an enclosed place as it makes Yakov relive his traumas just as the house’s cursed memories start spilling out.

The small, two-story house the story takes place in carries itself like an old and bruised place, overtaken by shadows that seem to only recede in dimly lit spots. Light sources themselves are tinged with opaque reds and greens, making everything seem somewhat shapeless. It makes for a location that comes across as ill-intentioned, persistent in boxing in its chosen victim with no escape in sight.

Thomas uses this to his advantage and amplifies it by keeping the camera close to Yakov. And yet, there’s always enough space left over to peer into the background and see if something unnatural moves closer to him. It allows for a heightened sense of tension and dread to build up and it results in some great scares.

Dave Davis makes the entire experience work with his measured and tortured performance as Yakov. His fear is palpable, but so is the pain he carries. The house and its entity put Yakov inside a black hole of fresh wounds and traumatic memories, all concerning his decision to leave the community he’s currently back in for the night, in spite of his best efforts.

Davis lets the viewer in on his character’s suffering and makes him infinitely relatable, even in the face of his character’s specific cultural traits. The house’s lack of big open spaces creates the eerie sensation one is also trapped inside it with Yakov, making us feel the same claustrophobic terror he’s engulfed in.

Jewish horror
The Vigil

In this regard, The Vigil reminded me in parts of Scott Derickson’s Sinister. That movie’s demon also turned the house setting into a place where memories and hard life choices became things an evil entity could feed on. It exposed them and turned them into nightmares of their own. The Vigil showcases a similar approach to its horror, basically turning the house into a representation of the character’s fractured psyche.

In the middle of all this, the movie also finds a way to comment on antisemitism—from the Holocaust all the way to more modern forms of it—but not in a way that feels heavy-handed or forced. It’s presented as a constant that doesn’t need to rear its head on-screen to remind viewers of its existence, but it’s present enough to also play a role in creating its own sense of claustrophobia for whose who are victims of it.

The entity that attacks Yakov, both spiritually and mentally, is cleverly allowed to be seen in key moments so as to not allow the film to be solely consumed by its metaphors. The Vigil has a lot of things to say, but they don’t get in the way of making sure the movie also gives its audience a proper horror experience. The Jewish demon is memorable and is given the full weight of myth and history to have it embody a kind of evil that is ancient but still relevant.

The Vigil
The Vigil

The Vigil succeeds at making each story beat and horror sequence correspond organically with its Jewish folklore influences and elements. The demon, the house’s haunted memories, and the trauma are all specific to the Jewish experience, but they never close the door on audiences from other cultural backgrounds so they can relate to the horrors on display. It’s claustrophobic and it actively tries not to make anyone feel safe within its story, all attributes of a great horror movie.

Review: The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History

Learn the history of the Black Panther Party. The good. The bad. And the ugly. Learn their struggles and what they were up against.

The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History takes you through everything you need to know to better understand the organization and its history in America and beyond.

Story: David F. Walker
Art: Marcus Kwame Anderson

Get your copy now! To find a comic shop near you, visit http://www.comicshoplocator.com or call 1-888-comicbook or digitally and online with the links below.

Amazon
Kindle
Bookshop

Ten Speed Press provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review
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Review: Yasmeen #2

Yasmeen #2
Yasmeen #2, Scout Comics

Saif Ahmed’s and Fabiana Mascolo’s Yasmeen is in many respects a story about the painful process behind coming of age. Focusing on a girl (the titular Yasmeen) living during the ISIS invasion of Mosul, Iraq first and then years later as a refugee in America, the comic is nothing short of a visceral exploration of how unfair and even profoundly violent change can be.

This is made clear in the first issue of the six-part series. The second entry of the story dives deeper into these ideas, but it takes the opportunity to say something different about coming-of-age stories: they’re not universal.

A staple of YA literature, the coming-of-age story deals in transformation, maturity, and acceptance, all brought upon by a particular set of internal and external challenges. It’s such a flexible narrative template that it’s easy to apply to different types of characters going through a variety of self-identity trials. The emphasis is on seeing how characters grow up and how they accept themselves for who they are, imperfections and all.

Yasmeen’s take on this puts the focus on context and the uniqueness of its circumstances. Growing up during an invasion only to migrate to another country and face the stereotypes and misconceptions of one’s own culture from other groups of people is quite simply on a level all of its own. It’s unique and hard to relate to if the reader does not share in the same experience, or has at very least experienced something similar to it. And yet, what makes this story special is that it wants to help readers understand it, regardless of difficulty.

Yasmeen #2 is where the series hits its stride with its simultaneous approach to storytelling. Yasmeen looks to settle into a normal in her new American life in the present timeline while trying to survive in her new role as wife to a man that acquired her after being separated from the family in the past timeline. The exchange between both timelines is relentless, but it is serves a purpose. In Yasmeen coming of age is a constant, never a phase one can conquer and then move on. It leaves scars.

Yasmeen #2, Scout Comics

For Yasmeen, the memories of the past compromise her ability to adapt to the present. But the present brings challenges of its own. She is surrounded by kids of her same age going through their own coming-of-age woes, but their experiences are worlds apart and reconciling those differences is proving quite the challenge. The book’s art captures this with uncomfortable clarity and inventiveness.

Fabiana Mascolo again does an excellent job of dealing with traumatic imagery without being explicit. The lead up to violence or images of abuse is tense and uncomfortable but knows precisely when to change gears into other sequences. It’s also worth mentioning that Mascolo’s facial expressions tell stories of their own. They invite close study to get the most out every character.

The script deftly raises the intensity between the two timelines in this issue, making for a harder-hitting issue than the first one. Things move faster and the terrors of the past face stronger competition from the struggles of student life in America. The change in environments are skillfully managed and always manage to keep each time period in conversation with one another. There’s a sequence in which Yasmeen is surrounded by ghostly images of the ISIS takeover while walking down her school’s cafeteria that is something to behold. It’s deeply haunting and it captures the spirit of the book perfectly.

The second issue of Yasmeen braves unsettling and rough terrains, full of terrible things. But as is the case with the first issue, hope still manages to carve out some space for itself. There’s a lot of darkness still, but the promise of light at the end of the tunnel is there. I don’t expect that light to be all-powerful or all-healing, but I’m intrigued as to what it offers to Yasmeen.

Story: Saif Ahmed Art: Fabiana Mascolo
Story: 9.0 Art: 9.0 Overall: 9.0
Recommendation: Buy and then read Graphic Policy’s interview with the writer.

Scout Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review


Purchase: Scout Comics Store

Interview: Saif Ahmed on how his comic YASMEEN explores living with the scars of extremist violence

Saif A. Ahmed
Saif Ahmed, writer of Yasmeen

Saif A. Ahmed is a writer that understands the human mind is more than capable of crafting its own horrors even when provided with as little information as possible. This is evident in his approach to violence and trauma in his comic Yasmeen, a story about an Iraqi family’s experience with violent extremism in Mosul, Iraq, and how its memory follows them when they relocate to the United States.

It’s a brutal comic, but the truly terrifying aspects of it lie in what Ahmed leaves up to the reader’s imagination. In this regard, it’s one of the most educational comics on recent Iraqi history available today and I can’t recommend it enough.

Horror is a powerful educational tool. It goes beyond fact to take a proper stab at understanding an event or an experience. In other words, it’s intimate. Yasmeen deeply subscribes to this idea, but it does so by largely concerning itself with the conflictive act of remembering that characterizes trauma.

Yasmeen centers on the titular character, a 16-year-old girl who is captured by ISIS and is then thrust into slavery at the hands of a man that takes complete control of her life, in all aspects of it. It is revealed that Yasmeen and her family manage to leave Iraq to become refugees in America years later. The comic alternates between the two time periods to capture the horrors of the past and the struggles of the present.

Ahmed’s scripts are unafraid to venture into the violence and abuse Yasmeen lived through in the past, but it rarely indulges in gratuity or graphic imagery. The reader is informed on the things that happen to her and the story moves on.

Yasmeen #1
From Yasmeen #1, by Saif Ahmed and Fabiana Mascolo

Artist Fabiana Mascolo perfectly captures the implicit nature of the storytelling and knows how much should or shouldn’t be shown for the narrative to work. It’s a strategy often employed in the best horror stories, the kind that prioritize dread and tension over explicit shots of gore and death to keep the audience’s attention.

Whatever human horrors Yasmeen conjures up in its story, however, are met with a refreshingly humble and realistic sense of hope. There’s something to be said about the will to survive as presented in this comic and it’s important readers experience it. It’s where the story gathers its teachings and invites true understanding.

Graphic Policy sat down with writer Saif Ahmed (via email) to discuss the comic and the various elements that went into the creation of such a harrowing but hopeful story about memory and survival.

Ricardo Serrano: Yasmeen is a book with a lot to say and a lot to teach. It’s curious that despite the recent history of Iraq and the Middle East we still seem to know very little about the actual dynamics behind the events that have taken place there. What are you hoping Yasmeen can bring to the conversation in terms of understanding the things that have happened in Mosul through an Iraqi family’s experience of them? 

Yasmeen #3, by Saif Ahmed and Fabiana Mascolo

Saif A. Ahmed: As a storyteller, my first concern was to tell the best engaging story possible. On top of that I aimed to draw attention to the victims who are still affected by the war. These are people who were living normal peaceful lives, then suddenly they were faced with a pure evil force that subjected them to unimaginable horrors. And while ISIS is almost defeated now and the world has moved on, the survivors still carry emotional and physical scars that will stay with them for rest of their lives. Now I am in no way trying to preach or make the reader feel bad, I myself avoid listening to the depressing news of the world but I do wish to help change how Arabs and immigrants are perceived by simply telling the story of a teenage Iraqi girl and her family from their own prospective. 

Serrano: One of the things I found interesting about the book as that it doesn’t hold the reader’s hand throughout the story. Not everything is explained in a clear cut manner, as is the case with the conflict’s factions and the ideas they uphold. Yet, it still gets its point across. What was the thought process behind this approach? 

Ahmed: Well, the first rule of storytelling is “show don’t tell!” I didn’t want to feed the readers a ton of information (this is the best way to lose them). I rather show glimpses of the long and deadly conflict through the characters’ interactions as if the readers are witnessing engaging high-stakes debates. The fake checkpoint (that’s what we call the infamous terrorist checkpoints in Iraq) sequence for instance was an important scene for me because I once was stopped by a terrorist group that were looking for people from my sect of Islam. I was lucky that I didn’t get caught but if I had, I wish to think that I would’ve been brave enough to say to them what Yasmeen‘s uncle says in the sequence. 

Serrano: Despite the horrors Yasmeen guides readers through, actual instances of violence are treated with restraint and inventiveness. It leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination. What led to the decision to keep things implicit and not graphic? 

Ahmed: I wasn’t interested in the violence itself but rather its influence on the victims. The whole point of the story is that violent acts stay with us long after they take place. Violence is not glamorous in real life. It’s horrifying. The best artists in the world won’t be able to convey that as good as the human imagination. 

Serrano: I’m curious as to the books, movies, experiences, games, etc. that inspired you in the process of scripting Yasmeen. Was there anything you looked that you definitely wanted to be present in the story? Any other things you were consciously aware of that you didn’t want in the story?

Yasmeen #2
Yasmeen #2, by Saif Ahmed and Fabiana Mascolo

Ahmed: I based the story off my life in Iraq/US and the horrible real-life events that the people in Mosul lived through. But as a writer I learned a lot of storytelling techniques like the use of subtext and themes from great TV shows like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Mad Men. As for the second part of your question, I definitely didn’t want my story to be told through the eyes of the usual western outsider protagonist. A lot of them like to turn Arab characters into clichés. I aimed to demonstrate that, even though we might have different traditions, most of us wish to live peacefully just like any other person in the world. 

Serrano: While the book deals with trauma head-on and without restraint, to its success, there’s something interesting in how the story alternates between past (Mosul, Iraq) and present (America). Why was it important to show Yasmeen’s experience and interactions in America via these time jumps? 

Ahmed: That’s how Yasmeen is living. She’s in two places at the same time. Her body is in the US but her mind is still living in the past. Telling the story within two time periods progressing alongside each other combined with Fabiana’s amazing art put the reader right in Yasmeen‘s mind without the need of thought bubbles or unnecessary exposition.

Serrano: What’s coming up after Yasmeen? You looking to expand on the story or are you moving on to different projects? 

Ahmed: It took me more than two years to make Yasmeen. I had the idea for it four years ago. These six issues will come to a satisfying end for Yasmeen‘s arc. And while I have few ideas to take the characters into a new arc, I will probably let it marinate for now and move on to one of the many other ideas that I have. I actually just shared my “vault of ideas” with Fabiana the other day in the hopes that we can work together again.

SDCC 2020: Comics as a Conduit panel, an essential watch

San Diego Comic Con 2020 has been forced down the road of remote programming due to current COVID-19 concerns, but it’s taken the opportunity to present some high quality, highly important pre-recorded panel discussions that people can access whenever they want after they’ve been made available via the SDCC at Home schedule website. One such panel took place on opening day (Wednesday, July 22 ,2020), called Comics as a Conduit, and it immediately set a high bar with an urgent tone and an infectious sense of excitement when it comes to dealing with History as a current and present problem that comics can and should address.

Moderated by Chloe Ramos, Comics as a Conduit centered on the specific uses and intentions of real world developments in comics to inform and engage with the problems currently on display in our streets today. Henry Barajas (author of La Voz de M.A.Y.O.: Tata Rambo), Rodney Barnes (author of Killadelphia), Darcy Van Poelgeest (author of Little Bird: The Fight for Elder’s Hope), and David F. Walker (author of Bitter Root) participated in the panel as their comics are, essentially, great examples of the very conduits under question.

I’ll go through some of the highlights as the panel is up on YouTube in its entirety for anyone interested. I truly recommend taking the time to see it to get everything straight from the source. It was a powerful panel and a great conversation.

Chloe Ramos had an impressive set of incisive questions that didn’t settle for simple answers. In general, they homed in on the expectations that come with incorporating history into a comic and what type of reactions or expectations creators aim for when presenting their extensively researched stories to the public.

Barnes spoke to the necessity of making racism a more complicated type of discussion in media as a whole to really get to explore the actual ramifications of it. His Philadelphia vampire comic, Killadelphia, approaches this idea through the politics of poverty and how it shows apathy and displacement to be a product of a racist history. With such a dense point of view, Barnes also mentioned the importance of making history “not seem like medicine” in comics, so that everyone can get into it.

Van Poelgeest, creator of Little Bird, went a similar route. He emphasized the importance of making books that don’t keep readers out of the loop and, thus, unable to engage with these type of stories. Poelgeest said that accessibility keeps readership diverse and that the opposite “keeps a lot of people out of the world of reading.” This is perhaps one of the most important things mentioned in the panel and it really hits home when considering how certain works of non-fiction stay within the realm of academia without setting up different avenues for dialogue with the world outside of it.

Barajas’ interventions also expanded on this point as his book is a work of comics journalism whose intention is to shed light on a history that doesn’t make it into popular history books. The story of Tata Rambo deals with generational trauma and how it led to a movement that fought for better working and living conditions for the Pascua Yaqi Tribe in Toucson, Arizona. One of the things Barajas added to the conversation considered the inclusion of supplemental material in these type of books. Getting people in touch with actual documents and news clippings can only further the learning process, something La Voz de M.A.Y.O. does very well.

For Walker, a self-proclaimed research junkie (which wonderfully shows in his writing), looking at the Harlem Renaissance for his monster hunting book Bitter Root was an exercise in looking beyond the romantic version of history and into the aberrant racism of early 20th century America. The concept of entertainment as a conduit came to him when he watched George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and saw how a movie about zombies could say so much about race relations and war. He also mentioned that there’s an interesting discussion to be had with horror in terms of responsibility and who’s supposed to fight the monsters. This is a running theme in the genre, across all mediums, and one that Bitter Root explores well. If you haven’t read it yet, now’s a good time to do so.

Again, these blurbs are meant to offer a taste of the panel rather than a summary of it. I whole-heartedly recommend giving it a watch as it says a lot about how we as readers learn through comics and how we can be doing more of it.

For the full Comics as a Conduit panel, click here.

A Historical Evening with Danny Fingeroth

flyerTwo Wednesdays ago, on January 20, the counter guy at Midtown Comics handed me this flyer for an event they were sponsoring. There was a lot of information in it, but what immediately caught my eye was the opportunity to take a selfie with the Batmobile. Sold! Off to the New York Historical Society Museum & Library I went, later that evening.batmobile

I got there a little after six, and as promised, got my selfie; but there was so much more. They had a troupe of cosplayers walking around providing ample photo opportunities, followed by a Parade of Superheroes at 7:00 PM.

There was a fantastic Superheroes in Gotham exhibition that included both Marvel and DC characters (which unfortunately prohibited picture taking, but below is a photo I may or may not have taken of an original art page from Amazing Fantasy #15), originalartworkand a Batman exhibit honoring both Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

Then, at 7:30 PM came the slide show–Superhero New York: Real and Imaginary. I almost skipped out on it (it started at 7:30 PM and ran for an hour, which with my long commute meant I was looking at Midnight for home). I’m happy to say, I stuck it out.

It proved to be a solid presentation by Danny Fingeroth. He made me realize how little I know about the industry I claim to love so much. I knew next to nothing about where Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Will Eisner, and many of the ‘old’ greats hailed from, where they went to school, and where they grew up. He discussed the impact growing up in the gritty streets of New York had on their work; and he talked about their friendships, their falling outs, and more. He took us deep inside their work offices, into the bullpen; and he showcased historic comic book inspired landmarks.

fingerothThen, looking around at the large diverse audience sitting around me, I realized how much things have changed within the short time span I have lived in the comic book world. Here I was at a serious academic lecture, featuring comic books. I’m not sure that this sort of thing would have garnered the audience it did today, twenty odd years ago–not to mention the setting: The NY Historical Society Museum & Library on the Upper West Side. I was totally digging the scene. Danny Fingeroth has encouraged me to seek out more, to read more (I also purchases a signed copy of his Superman on the Couch with a Foreword by Stan Lee), and to learn more about the rich history of the comic book world—and I can start with NYC’s own comic book tour here.

SDCC 2012 – Zenescope Announcements

Zenescope Entertainment was full of announcements last week at San Diego Comic-Con 2012. First up, Zenescope’s Wonderland comic book series is heading to television. Lionsgate, the studio behind scripted fare including Weed and Mad Men has emerged the winner in a six-studio bidding war for TV rights to Zenescope’s Wonderlandgraphic novels.

History and Zenescope’s Silver Dragon Books celebrated the announcement of the Mankind Graphic Novels – the very first graphic novels to be adapted from a History broadcast series.

Zenescope also debuted a new trailer for Grimm Fairy Tales the Animated Series at their booth at SDCC.