On a rare break from my binge of reviewing the latest in queer comics (don’t be alarmed, that regularly unscheduled programming will be back before you know it, I’m sure), I picked up a middle grade graphic novel that provides a different sort of representation. Hereville #1, How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch, touts itself as featuring “yet another troll-fighting eleven-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl”. And while it has a veeery busy corner of the market in which to distinguish itself (that was my sarcasm voice), Mirka mostly comes out on top.
The plot of How Mirka Got Her Sword is… pretty self explanatory from the title, but I’ll get into a few details. Mirka is, as the tagline suggests, an eleven-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl, one of a family of nine siblings living in an exclusively Jewish community. After she accidentally angers a witch in the woods, she finds herself beset by the witch’s pet pig, who torments her in retribution. However, when the tables suddenly turn and she saves the pig’s life, the witch offers her a favor so that she won’t be in Mirka’s debt. Mirka has always wanted, against her stepmother’s express wishes, to fight monsters, and for that she needs a sword. The witch tells her where she can find one—in a troll’s horde—and it’s up to Mirka to figure out how to defeat the troll and get what she wants.
Overall, I really enjoyed this story. It’s at its best when it’s exploring Mirka’s relationship with her faith, with which she has a strong and genuine connection (unless she feels like being sassy.)
There’s an extended scene where the narrator explains Mirka’s family’s Shabbos ritual and explains the sense of community, peace, and belonging that it brings to her. The whole thing was not only depicted in such a way that Gentiles could easily understand the importance of the experience to the group, but also in a way that the reader is also suffused in the same sense of warmth. In addition, Deutsch weaves casual Yiddish words into the dialogue (with subtitles at the bottom of the page), normalizing the use of the language, and explains certain other aspects of Orthodox Jewish society, like the separation of genders in school and the ways people are expected to dress, taking care to note that just because the girls all have similar clothes doesn’t mean that they’re all dressed exactly the same. It’s definitely worth pointing out that Mirka’s outfit doesn’t stop her from being a badass.
I also really appreciated the way they portrayed Mirka’s stepmother, whom she calls Fruma. Fruma starts out as a kind of one-note nagging Jewish woman, always ready with an argument and a lament, but as the story progresses, we see that she is one of the smartest women in Hereville, and that she really does care for Mirka and her other children. It’s a fantastic subversion of the typical portrayal of stepmothers in fairy stories and it was more than welcome to see this meaningful relationship develop over the course of the book.
Moving on to the art, it’s delightful. Drawn by the author and colored by Jake Richmond, it’s dynamic and really captures the heart of the story. The characters are expressive and distinct, and the style is somewhere between Marjane Satrapi and Raina Telgemeier.
I only had a few issues with the book. My major concern is that although it’s a quick read altogether, the pacing of the story is a bit bungled. In a book of less than 140 pages, we don’t actually get to see the trolls until around page 116, giving us less than thirty pages for Mirka to do battle, defeat the trolls, get home, and reconcile with her brother, whom she beat up so that she could sneak out to fight. In fact, while we do see that she regrets it, we don’t actually really see her apologize to her brother for bullying him.
My other concern was the setting, insomuch that it’s a little too vague for my tastes. I had a hard time getting a handle on when the story was set, and while it’s clearly a fantasy world due to the existence of trolls, I couldn’t tell whether it was urban fantasy, where fairies and monsters exist in a world that is otherwise identical to our own, or if it was more of an archetypal hard fantasy setting. The art style, while appropriate for the age group and just generally fun and fluid, is pretty monochrome, and while it uses some blues and oranges to add a bit of color, this actually gives it more of an old-timey feel. This historical feel is underscored by the fact that, when Mirka encounters the witch’s pig, she has no idea what the animal is. While it’s understandable that no one in a Jewish community would raise pigs, it’d have to be a very secluded and controlled environment for a modern-day Mirka to have never even seen an image of one. However, in one scene Mirka falls into a neighbor’s backyard and we see them using a barbeque grill, and in another we see her wearing sneakers. In the lead-up to Shabbos, they have to pre-rip their modern, pre-perforated toilet paper, which they can’t do once the sun sets because that (in addition to cooking and turning off light switches) counts as doing work. So it ultimately comes off as a bit confused in terms of time and place, which is a bummer in a book that was otherwise pretty great.
Aside from these issues, though, I’d say checking out Hereville #1 is an excellent use of your time. I’ve already put the next two volumes on hold at my library, and I’m looking forward to seeing where Mirka (and her sword—it’s in the title, so it’s not spoilers to tell you she does get the sword) end up next.
Hear more from Lady Saika on Character Reveal, the podcast she cohosts with BrothaDom!