Graphic novel embraces issue of womens choice through eyes of girls in turn-of-century New York

From the opening pages of “Unterzakhn,” a new graphic novel by Leela Corman, it’s evident that this is no light comic fare.

It’s 1909, and on the streets of New York City’s Lower East Side, 9-year-old Fanya Feinberg is sent to find the “lady doctor” to help a woman who has been severely injured while attempting to give herself an abortion.

The scene sets the tone for an absorbing narrative that spans two generations and more than 30 years, grappling with immigration, cultural assimilation, class divisions, sexual politics and women’s control over their bodies. It’s set against a richly rendered backdrop of life in New York’s historic tenement buildings, and told through the eyes of Jewish twins Fanya and Esther as they attempt to navigate their roles as young women and first-generation Americans.

Corman, a New York native now living in Florida, will be in San Francisco Wednesday and Thursday, April 11 and 12, to read from and sign the book.

“The characters honestly came into my head and just didn’t leave,” said the writer-illustrator, who studied painting and printmaking at Massachusetts College of Art before discovering her passion for illustration. “I was sitting at a talk by [comics artist] Kim Deitch at the West Side YMCA, and all of a sudden I was just seeing Fanya. The story really just grew out of her.”

Though the thirty-something artist grew up in the city, she says she has no biological connection to the Lower East Side — none of her family members lived there; they came from Eastern Europe much later than the characters depicted in the book.

Still, Corman was drawn to the time period and locale — the bustling streets with their mix of Russian, Polish and Italian immigrants, the mélange of Yiddish and English slang. She did in-depth research into the fashions of the era and the history of the Lower East Side, traversing the area on foot and taking photos of architectural features she liked: cornices, wrought-iron railings, crumbling staircases, old fire escapes.

“I went to the Tenement Museum so many times the tour guides started to recognize me,” recalls the artist, “though they wouldn’t let me sketch [inside] the apartments.”

She was also drawn to the age-old tale of one generation’s values butting up against those of the next.

“I actually started out wanting to talk about abortion and access to birth control, because those are issues I care a lot about, but I’m not an artist who works a lot in political narrative,” explains Corman, adding that her female protagonists’ character arcs and challenges — depicting limited options for women at that time — weren’t entirely planned.

As “lady doctor” Bronia takes Fanya under her wing and discovers that the girl can’t read, she goes to the child’s mother to point out that it’s the law for her to be in school. Minna, Fanya’s mother, refuses, explaining that her children don’t need to learn “goyish” things. But Bronia convinces the elder Feinberg, and Fanya becomes her apprentice. Meanwhile, Esther, who dreams of being a dancer, eventually achieves her dream as an adult — but not before a series of choices that estrange her from her family.

Which is not to say all is dark in the world the Feinbergs inhabit. There are sweet scenes of the girls helping their mother make pierogies, bathing their younger sister and generally treating the Lower East Side as their playground, along with neighborhood kids from different backgrounds.

Throughout, the bold black-and-white panels are peppered with expressive Yiddish idioms and dialogue (the book’s title translates to “Undergarments”). But the author believes the story is universal. “Especially in New York, everybody throws Yiddish expressions into their sentences!” she says with a laugh. “Puerto Ricans, Italians, everyone. And for me, it’s just the way that I grew up speaking. I say ‘Oy vey iz mir,’ without thinking about it.”

Corman has illustrated for dozens of books and publications — among them the New York Times, Lilith and Tikkun magazines — and published two graphic novels, “Subway Series” and “Queen’s Day,” both featuring female protagonists. But “Unterzakhn” marks her largest-scale effort, and arguably contains the weightiest subject matter. That just makes her part of a proud tradition, says the artist.

“I was a young teenager when ‘Maus’ came out, and I think that was the first comic, for a lot of people, that made them sit up and go, ‘Oh, comics can be about that?’ ” she says. “I’m glad the form is diverse enough to include this, too.”

Leela Corman will read at 5 p.m. Wednesday, April 11 at Comix Experience, 305 Divisadero St., S.F., www.comixexperience.com, and 7 p.m. Thursday, April 12 at the Cartoon Art Museum, 655 Mission St., S.F., www.cartoonart.org.

“Unterzakhn” by Leela Corman (203 pages, Schocken Books, $24.95)

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.