This Cat purrs: French Jewish cartoonists latest has gripping story, stunning art

It doesn’t make sense at first, but the more I read Joann Sfar’s comic books the more I think of Muhammad Ali.

This has nothing to do with knocking out Joe Frazier or lifting up Howard Cosell’s toupee. It has everything to do with Ali’s mantra: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” For that’s how Sfar draws.

The prolific French Jewish cartoonist’s panels can often appear messy and off-kilter. The eponymous cat in his wildly popular “The Rabbi’s Cat” series varies from panel to panel; at times the proportions of his angular Siamese head are stretched to the point where he resembles a preying mantis.

But then — pow! — the next panel will sharpen up into some of the finest and most evocative comic art I’ve ever seen. Sfar’s skill for portraiture, his ability to capture a feeling of nascent love and insecurity in the face of a young woman, is deeply moving. And when he chooses to draw the cat with photorealism, he has great skill; for proof, one only needs to look at the photograph of the author (and his cat) on the jacket.

“The Rabbi’s Cat” sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Sfar’s native France and more in translated editions worldwide, and fans will be pleased with “The Rabbi’s Cat 2.” Set in Algiers during the 1930s, the first book introduced us to Rabbi Abraham, his beautiful daughter, Zlabya, and their mercurial cat — who eats a parrot and is blessed with the ability to speak (and enter into talmudic discussions).

All of the principal characters return in for the sequel, and Sfar wisely fleshes out some of the more intriguing bit players from his first book. “The Rabbi’s Cat 2” opens with a sojourn in the desert alongside a white-haired old gent named Malka of the Lions, Abraham’s swashbuckling cousin. Malka wanders from town to town, regaling youngsters with tales of his desert adventures — until, lo! A lion enters the village. Malka chases it off and accepts the peasants’ rewards. Of course the lion is Malka’s pet (at one point, during a discussion with the cat, the lion breaks it off, noting, “Hang on, that’s my cue”).

This section — probably the best the book has to offer — becomes an intense meditation on decline and death. A snake trails Malka, the lion and the cat through the desert, and offers his bite “as a gift” to avoid the indignities of the descent into old age (and the pain of watching the same in one’s loved ones).

From there, Sfar takes the plot out of the desert and back to the bustling city of Algiers. A persecuted Russian Jew literally mails himself to safety — and, fortunately, the talking cat can translate for him. Before long, the cat, the rabbi, the Russian and the wandering Sheik Mohamed (and his donkey) are heading through Africa on a half-track, searching for a city of Jerusalem located in Ethiopia.

The relationship between the rabbi and the sheik is meant to be an olive branch for France’s embattled Muslim and Jewish populations; Sfar told j. in 2006 he feels his countrymen too often act as if they are Israelis and Palestinians when most of them (including him) trace their heritage to Algeria, where they coexisted for thousands of years.

And yet, these sections — and an ugly, lethal confrontation between Islamic extremists and an eccentric Russian exile — seem just a shade too contrived. In essence, Sfar’s message is the same simple one Rodney King uttered pleadingly in 1992: “Can’t we all just get along?”

Not all of Sfar’s subplots work, either. When our protagonists stumble across a famous Belgian cartoon character in the jungle, it’s a thrill to see how Sfar draws the character’s trademark little tuft of blonde hair (and his little white dog). But nothing more comes of the section other than the message that, hey, colonialism wasn’t cool.

So Sfar’s story is good, not great. But it could even be lousy and I’d have still enjoyed this book due to his wonderful skill with the pen. Unlike Muhammad Ali, Sfar may not be the greatest of all time — but he sure is damn good.

“The Rabbi’s Cat 2” by Joann Sfar (144 pages, Pantheon Books, $22.95)

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.