The Big Kahn

It’s an immediately gripping concept — at his funeral, a beloved rabbi is revealed to not be Jewish. He’s a con man who 40 years ago fell in love and decided to become what he was pretending to be.

The Big Kahn cover
The Big Kahn
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His long-lost brother appears to say his final goodbyes, telling everyone the truth. His family — the widow; his son Avi, a rabbi following in his footsteps; his daughter Lea, previously non-observant; and the youngest child, Eli — are all shaken in their faith and their relationships by this revelation. Avi was planned to take over the congregation, but they refuse the son of a liar, regardless of his innocence. Lea and her roommate drink, dance, and party to seek escape. Eli, meanwhile, tries to find out more about his father and his legacy, while Mom has her own secret (one that unfortunately isn’t followed through on in the book).

The concepts are thought-provoking, exploring the nature of faith and its practice. It’s a shame that the art isn’t up to the strengths of the story. The figures are stiff and often interchangeable; I sometimes had trouble recognizing characters without dialogue to identify them. The expressions are rarely as deep and revealing as the story wants them to be. (At times, they don’t quite fit the heads they’re carried on.) Camera angles flip around, and the reader may not be sure of the details of a scene’s staging or exactly who’s moving where in the space shown. The unvarying rectangular panels can be claustrophobic, which may be intentional, to reflect the pressure on the family.

Something exploring such potent emotions would have been better served by a more experienced artist, I fear. Or it might have been better as something filmed. The chapter transitions, framed as screen wipes, suggest that the idea was in the creators’ minds. With actors, the emotions could have been better portrayed more accurately and with reserve, when necessary. At times, the writer goes for cliché — how better to show that the daughter has rejected her faith than to have her screwing some unidentified guy at her father’s funeral? It’s shock for its own sake, and it doesn’t match the later, more subtle picture Kleid paints of her journey. Kleid has said he was inspired by Six Feet Under, and I can definitely see this as an episode of that show. It’s got the same feel of the family and pacing.

Overall, it’s an involving story, but the artistic execution doesn’t live up to the potential of the premise. Neil Kleid previously wrote Brownsville and Ninety Candles. This is Nicolas Cinquegrani‘s first major work. The publisher has posted preview pages. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)

12 Responses to “The Big Kahn”

  1. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Aug. 19, 2009: Very shy and quiet Says:

    […] [Review] The Big Khan Link: Johanna Draper Carlson […]

  2. Jim Kosmicki Says:

    I pre-ordered this on the strength of the idea and the general quality of Kleid’s storytelling, but your comments about the art make me a bit wary now. I liked the idea and the general storytelling of Brownsville, but the art did not work very well — I felt it was far too difficult to tell the characters apart. If you’re going to do B&W (and I understand that economics affects this decision as much,if not more, than artistic choice) you need to be able to clearly distinguish between characters. In color books (or even in costumed hero books), you have other clues to tell you which character is which, but in B&W, the artist really needs to be able to have distinctive body shapes and facial features, or at least they do in the types of stories that Kleid is telling.

  3. Johanna Says:

    It’s especially difficult in this case, since you want the family members to look similar, but too much becomes confusing. I don’t envy Kleid, trying to find artists with the skill his work deserves.

  4. neil kleid Says:


    You’ll be able to tell the difference between the characters. One of the things I took away from BROWNSVILLE was this point exactly and honestly, I’m a little surprised that Johanna had this problem with the book. Nico and I gave a lot of attention to making sure each character had a distinctive article of clothing, hairstyle, etc to set them apart from the other. The only two characters who may be an issue are Eli and Avi – two brothers, one older than the other, whose facial features look somewhat the same but Eli, the younger, clearly has a rounder, softer, younger quality than his older, leaner brother. I’m curious about which other characters you feel, Johanna, are confusing?

    Again, this is all my opinion, as is any review of a piece of literature. Johanna had some issues with the book that I disagree with, but those are her opinions and are certainly valid. I know a few other readers have had issues with “stiffness” in Nico’s art (which, personally, I don’t see) and, again, that’s their valid opinion, too. I don’t think it takes away from the strength of the story(telling) and everyone I know who has read the book — and I’m not talking about close intimates, I mean retailers and readers on the other side of the country that I’ve never met in person — has enjoyed it. The has garnered reviews from corners such as Publisher’s Weekly, USA Today, Graphic Novel Reporter, Booklist and more every day.

    I encourage you to give it a try, Jim (and anyone reading this review with concerns based on the critique), even if you just take out from the library, and if you’d rather not there are some other great graphic novels out there I’m sure will be up your alley.

    Thanks for reviewing the book, Johanna,


  5. neil kleid Says:

    That should be “The has garnered GREAT reviews, etc.”

    The pitfalls of fast typing.


  6. Johanna Says:

    The scenes that were most problematic for me, Neil, were group scenes, such as the shiva (with the mother and other women hard to recognize immediately) or when Avi was interacting with a bunch of people at the synagogue. That ties into the staging issues I mentioned. I’m glad to hear some others are not having the same problems.

  7. neil kleid Says:

    Got it. I’ll admit, this is the first I’m hearing about that, especially the synagogue board scene where we deliberately made sure each person looked different. But to each their own. Sorry it didn’t work for you

    I’ll also say, while I understand that the art didn’t work for you, I wish you’d discussed a bit about what did. You mention “the concepts are thought-provoking, exploring the nature of faith and its practice” and that “it’s an involving story” and for the time and effort you went into explaining what you didn’t like, I wish you’d taken the same time to explain what you DID like, giving as much weight to the positive as you do the negative.


  8. Johanna Says:

    I wish the art had worked better for me, because as I said, I thought the subject of the story deserved better.

    Given the praise you’ve already gotten, as you’ve mentioned here, I didn’t think I needed to pile on that bandwagon. :) Since I was bucking the crowd by pointing out problems in the art, I felt it was more important to go into detail in that area.

  9. Jim Kosmicki Says:

    I guess I wasn’t as clear as I thought I was. I’ve preordered the book. Even with my difficulties with telling characters apart in Brownsville, i liked it enough to order this through my mailorder retailer. So I won’t see this until the beginning of next month, but since it’s already listed on the packing list, I know that I WILL see it.

    For what it’s worth — I read this as an overall positive review,with one particular critical point being made. Since it spoke to my main difficulty with the previous work, I spoke up. But remember, even with my difficulties with the art, I still liked that previous work enough to order this one sight (and review) unseen.

    it’s a unique element to comics when one is a writer — the critical literature speaks about this every so often, but it deserves more discussion.

  10. neil kleid Says:

    Jim, glad you’re gonna give it a shot – hope you dig it.

    Johanna, one point about: “Given the praise you’ve already gotten, as you’ve mentioned here, I didn’t think I needed to pile on that bandwagon.”

    As a writer, I’m always reminded that every comic book story could be someone’s first… or last. Not everyone knows what’s come before or spoken of elsewhere. I suppose I have the same idea about criticism– just because the bandwagon praised the book doesn’t mean everyone’s following the bandwagon. This isn’t just directed at BIG KAHN, by the by, but my opinion in general — when I read a critique or review, I like to see the good and the bad, even if there’s more bad than good. NINETY CANDLES got a lot of heat as did BROWNSVILLE about various aspects, but there was always a bit of detail or expansion about what the critic liked or thought worked and I would have liked to have seen that from you, someone whose opinions I respect.

    Thass all :)

    Thanks again for checking out the book!


  11. Interview With Neil Kleid, Graphic Novel Writer » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] Kleid, writer of Brownsville and The Big Kahn and cartoonist of Ninety Candles and various minicomics, has just self-published his first prose […]

  12. Book Review: The Big Kahn « 1330v Says:

    […] Other reviews: Comics Worth Reading […]




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