We asked Leela for a self-portrait. She sent a boring snapshot by a friend, posed smiling near a tree. We laughed.
Her comics are riddled with explicit self-portraits, beautifully rendered. Besides, many of her protagonists are made to look remarkably like her. She forgot about those. Or she thought them too specific. Maybe she thought they were too scary. Maybe they are.
Leela Corman was brought up on the isle of Manahatta (Lenape land). She spends much of her imagination dwelling in the Old World, in the Europe of World War II. Her ancestor's departure from that world has left in her a wound that never heals.
Leela has a second, deeper wound that never heals. Her first daughter, her first child, for no apparent reason, at two-years-old, died in bed.
Unterzakhn, 2012, Corman’s first graphic novel, is an entwinement of twin sisters. They grow up first-generation New Yorkers kneaded by the shtetl of the Lower East Side. Esther shakes free as a dancer, then a prostitute, then a blasé penthoused diva. Fanya fights off men’s frantic finger, cares for her harsh mother, apprentices to an abortionist, dies in childbirth on her sister’s bed. In the last panel, the surviving twin daughter cradles the daughter of the dead twin daughter.
In 2015 Corman published the story PTSD: The Wound That Never Heals. She paints the pain of loss in images that stumble from quotidian, to diagrammatic, to mystic. She alternates distancing language borrowed from psychology primers with bloody metaphors torn from her viscera. She draws us utterly into the convolution of her pain and keeps us there as she hugs it, refuses to forget it, refuses to medicate it or mediate it away. Holding nothing back, she offers us her all, which is searing pain and mental disease. She offers her story to us as an inoculation. And in the last pane she offers us some symptomatic relief, a cradling: “Eventually, very gentle yoga, gentler than I’d ever given myself permission to do before, helped me get to a base level of functioning.”
Life is an Ambush: My Two Birth Stories came out a year later. The drawings are shot with black and red; the imagery is more of death than life; the language is enraged. At the center of the tale are two paintings: a field of corpses and an ocean of bones and ash. It is a story of two births and of two deaths: of the firstborn child and of mid-century Europe. The last frame addresses us with words of warning — “You can’t control what happens at the gates of life and death.” — inscribed on a blood-red umbilical snake biting its tail.
The next year, 2017, Corman published It Only Masquerades as Entertainment, a story about her connection to Nick Cave. Cave’s son died in an accident at age fifteen. In the story, hands touch across death and life, across memory and presence. Describing Cave’s music, she describes her own mission: “If anything, his new songs have even more power. Coming as they do from the place beyond reach. Each one is like a gigantic lullaby for people whose grief is exhausting. A cave to crawl into, where our sorrow is seen, and we are allowed to rest.”
You Are Not a Guest came out five years after Life Is An Ambush and also spirals around a forest, a forest that is a killing ground, a burial ground and a memorial. This is a story of “multigenerational trauma,” but also, gorgeously, of its healing. The watercolor panels are consistently lush, sensual; the text is narrative, conversational, and full of Yiddish. We are served a proper borscht and correct pierogi. It concludes: “I floated above her history, along the river of my own blood, back to Poland, to where my living memories are safe.” It is a tale of rediscovery, reunion and rebirth.
The story Kraut is a central chapter of Corman’s graphic novel Victory Parade, which is nearing completion. In Kraut we are introduced to the book’s protagonist, Ruthie (Rifke), the wrestler known as Ruthless Ruby the Killer Kraut; to her manager, Meyer Birnbaum, in a return appearance from the earlier novel, Unterzakhn; to Rifke’s dead mother, who appears in a dream; and to an ambiguous young girl — Ruthie’s sister? cousin? ward? — nicknamed Killer. In the ring, Ruthie/Ruby crushes her opponents, with malice. In her nightmare encounter with her mother, Rifke is devastated.
In Victory Parade, Corman paints a cornucopia of dramatic visages with ultra-ripe eyes. For the complexity she needs, Corman draws inspiration from faces in movies, from close-ups. Look at the emotional range Ruthie/Ruby/Rifke exhibits over the course of five pages:
And let’s take a close look at some hands on those same pages. More than just telling gestures, they are poems about kindness:
Victory Parade is set in World War II Brooklyn: in the Navy Yards, at the East River, at Coney Island, in tenements, in a cafeteria, in the wrestling arena. There is a flashback to Ruthie’s feral childhood in Weimar Berlin. The title of Victory Parade is ironic; the story is pure defeat. The characters we come to love are killed off, suddenly, devastatingly, or suffer a death in life, haunted.
Corman’s audacity takes another turn in the book’s penultimate chapters, concentration camp scenes. Firstly, how audacious to enter the ring with Levi, Lanzmann, Styron, Resnais, Ophuls, Spiegelman, and two of her favorites: Lena Wertmuller and Anna Justice. Corman holds her own with them, even introduces a few new moves all her own. She directs an extraordinary cast of original characters. There are American soldiers, some jaded, some compassionate, including a Black G.I. who learned Yiddish from his Boston neighbors. A German vomits at the pile of corpses she is forced to smell, begs for a cigarette, and has smoke blown in her blond face. A Commandant is put to the gallows, then, over the course of 14 mystic drawings, is dissolved into the tiny black shards of a Malevich painting of nothingness. Prisoners barely alive or just dead become speaking ghosts. The dead, the ghosts have sea-green eyes without pupils. They are not blind. They see. They see differently. They see the living and the dead.
Leela Corman is a painter, educator, and graphic novel creator. Her books include Unterzakhn (Schocken/Pantheon, 2012) and the short comics collection We All Wish For Deadly Force (Retrofit/Big Planet, 2016). She is currently at work on the graphic novel Victory Parade, a story about WWII, women's wrestling, and the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Her short comics have appeared in The Believer Magazine, Tablet Magazine, Nautilus, and The Nib.