By Steve Sheinkin
144 pages, color
Published by Jewish Lights Publishing
I love when I end up with a good book that I otherwise might not have picked up. That’s certainly the case with Rabbi Harvey vs. The Wisdom Kid, a graphic novel set in the wild west frontier starring a rabbi who has to deal with all sorts of calamities. The book reminds me a lot of John D. Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain books, in that Rabbi Harvey is funny and clever and holds a near-universal appeal.
Rabbi Harvey vs. The Wisdom Kid starts off simply, with Rabbi Harvey rescuing someone from drowning in a stream, and then quietly builds from there. It’s a soft progression of events, and Sheinkin does a nice job of making the series of vignettes slowly feed into one another, until everything comes together around the halfway point of the book. Honestly, if all we had were the early vignettes I’d have been happy enough; Sheinkin’s character of Rabbi Harvey is a smart guy who uses his wit to teach the people of the town through stories, suggestions, and examples. You never get the impression that Rabbi Harvey looks down on the people of the town (even though they’re rather naive at times), and it’s part of what makes him such an affable character. It’s a deliberate contrast between him and the so-called Wisdom Kid, a rival rabbi who comes into town to try and make it his own and run Rabbi Harvey out. When matched up against someone almost (but not quite) as smart as him, Rabbi Harvey’s good personality traits shine through.
There’s a lot of comedy in Rabbi Harvey vs. The Wisdom Kid, something I wasn’t expecting when I first stared reading it. The most obvious entry in the section set in Helms Falls, populated by a group of people so stupid that it’s hard to not just start shaking your head when you see them. (In one sequence, a townsman explains to Rabbi Harvey that their only serious crime was when the blacksmith committed murder, so they hung the baker. When asked why, the response is that the town only had one blacksmith, but two bakers.) Sheinkin reuses some of the material from The Wise Men of Chelm stories, but to both new and old readers alike they’ll come across as funny. In general, a lot of the bits of wisdom from the book are from old Talmudic stories, and Sheinkin offers up a series of author’s notes at the end of the book to explain their various sources. The overall plot of the book, though, is all Sheinkin and it’s a charmer.
I wasn’t as crazy about Sheinkin’s art as I was his writing. It’s not bad, but it feels limited. Characters are typically in one of three poses (hands by their side, hands on hips, one hand in the air) and characters appear so often from the waist up that at times you might start wondering if this is a village full of people without legs. Sheinkin’s few action sequences come across slightly stiff and awkward here; fortunately the story doesn’t have many of them in it, but it’s a pity that one of them appears in the first few pages as Rabbi Harvey saves Mr. Bloom from drowning. I’d also like to see Sheinkin switch over to a slightly more graceful font for his lettering; even something as simple as a new font from Comicraft would go a long way in making the art look a little more polished, rather than the thick and clunky letters currently being used. Kids who like superhero comics might be less than impressed with the look of the book, but I think newer readers to comics wouldn’t have that much of a problem.
This is a book that feels like it’s aimed at upper elementary and lower middle school students, but I think it’s actually got a much wider age range to tap into. As someone who’s not Jewish or a young reader, I found myself entertained from start to finish. Sure, there are some parts that are better than others (the narration is unusually thick early on, telling us what the art is showing us) but on the whole it’s got a lot of charm and wit. Hopefully more people will get to see the Rabbi Harvey books, because I think they’d be equally entertained. I’s definitely say yes to another pleasant afternoon with Rabbi Harvey.