When I visited The Mitzvah Store just before Pesach, the cover of Navi Illustrated, a new comic book series, caught my eye. I purchased the first issue – “Gideon, Part I” – for my children, but found myself drawn in, as well. Curious as to the series’ back-story, I approached Navi Illustrators creators to learn a bit more about the books.
Both native Angelenos, Rabbi Ari Guidry and Shlomo Mermelstein have known each other for years. Mr. Mermelstein attends Young Israel of Los Angeles, and while a real estate investor, he additionally teaches a shiur in Kesher Torah. Rabbi Guidry attends Shaarei Torah and the Los Angeles Kollel and teaches adults and children a whole range of topics.
Rabbi Guidry previously produced a graphic novel series called Benny PI, in which a Jewish teen helps the local police solve crimes. Those fast-paced comic books included many moral and halachic concepts. Rabbi Guidry self-published them through Detroit Street Productions. Even before that, he produced CDs that narrated certain chapters of Navi in the style of old-time radio programs. Rabbi Avigdor Miller encouraged that project, and Rabbi Guidry considers Rav Miller as an inspiration for this new endeavor.
When Rabbi Guidry and Mr. Mermelstein made the decision to create Navi Illustrated, they used a popular freelancing database to find an illustrator, eventually contracting with Aidan Kelly. Guidry and Mermelstein have never met Mr. Kelly in person, but Rabbi Guidry sends him scripts to work from for each edition, and they are very pleased with the results thus far. As a reader, I can attest that the illustrations are dramatic and really bring the tale of Gideon to life.
I asked Mr. Mermelstein first why the team chose Navi as their subject – as opposed to the weekly Torah portions, stories from Kesuvim, or aggadah. “In day school and yeshivos, Navi is often overlooked. Understandably, they want to concentrate on Gemarah and halachah. However, we felt if we could produce a graphic novel that one could read at their leisure, and give them information that would enable them to answer most of the questions that are written at the back of the chapter, we basically filled in some of the educational gap.
“Everyone understands that Navi is important, but how important is the real question…Our children are taught that Torah is important, but if they have no grasp of our roots as a nation, which can only be acquired by living and learning every aspect of Torah, [it] will result [in] a great negative impact.”
The team does plan to eventually cover Kesuvim.
Inside their copy of “Gideon – Part I,” readers will find the original Hebrew text, an English translation, and then additional storytelling based on midrashim. These elements are subtly color-coded to keep them straight. When I asked the writers why they decided to include the original text, rather than relying entirely on retelling as a few similar authors have done in the past, Mr. Mermelstein explained that he felt that he had a special responsibility in transmitting our mesorah. “The original text is so powerful that leaving it out would just be a shame. As far as using the commentaries and midrashim, it is utterly impossible to have any meaningful grasp of Tanach without Torah she baal peh.”
Rabbi Guidry agrees, “Unless someone is going to invest many, hours of research, it is extremely difficult to understand what is going on in the storyline. We have made it very easy for anyone to read. Everyone should remember, this is only an introduction to the world of Nach, and that there is so much more to learn.” He adds, “Secondly, this is an excellent way for a father (or mother) to read a terrific, and exciting Navi story together with their younger children, truly fulfilling the mitzvah of ‘Veshinantem Levanecha – and you shall teach your children… (Devarim 6:7)'”
The initial issue also includes colorful maps, sources, and a quiz to test how much the reader remembers of what they read.
The two writers have devoted hundreds of hours of research to this project. Each issue is vetted by a Navi expert in Lakewood and copyedited by three editors in L.A. Then, Guidry and Mermelstein send proofs to local students and teachers for feedback.
All that effort has paid off. Rabbi Guidy explains, “Although, it has only been [thus far] physically distributed in the Los Angeles community, without any national advertisement, we have sales via word of mouth throughout the United States, Canada, and even England…Many [readers] are anxious to get the next chapter. All enjoy the artwork…As someone [told us], ‘The maps are outstanding…it’s worth buying the book just for that.’”
Rabbi Guidry says that while parents generally purchase Navi Illustrated for their children, like me, many parents are picking the issues up after their children finish with them. “The father picks it up, reads the story, and says sheepishly, ‘This is really terrific… I never knew this story, and I learned something new.'”
The writing team of Navi Illustrated invites readers who want to offer their own feedback to contact them via their website, naviillustrated.com.
To obtain issues of Navi Illustrated in Los Angeles, visit your local Jewish bookstore. Additionally, kosher markets will carry it. Elsewhere in the U.S., you can buy copies via Amazon, or to download an ebook, visit Apple iBooks. All those links can be found on naviillustrated.com, as well as links to download the audio versions of Navi mentioned above.