When it comes to talking about the Middle East, not a lot of people are thrilled about the subject. And can you blame them? It's a conversation that may start out as civil, but then quickly devolves into a tenser, sometimes hostile discussion depending on the participants' viewpoints. Of course the vast majority of people talking about what's going on in the Middle East don't even live there, but somehow are experts on the subject of how to fix it. While there doesn't look to be peace in the Middle East anytime soon, there is a graphic novel being released next week that gives a different view of life there. Specifically, at a blues bar in Tel Aviv.
Mike's Place: A True Story of Love, Blues, and Terror in Tel Aviv from First Second Books covers filmmaker Jack Baxter's experience filming the documentary Blues by the Beach in Tel Aviv about a blues bar, that shortly after becomes the target of a suicide bombing during the filming. Co-written by the director/cameraman Joshua Faudem and illustrated by Koren Shadmi, Mike's Place tells the story of friendship and the sense of community in the unlikeliest of places.
When Jack first arrived in Tel Aviv, he hadn't originally planned on filming a documentary about Mike's Place. He planned on covering the trial of Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti, only to be scooped by another group of filmmakers. Dejected, he walked along the beachfront before being serenaded by the lights and live music of Mike's Place, a local blues bar with only one rule: no talking of politics or religion. After being persuaded by the owner Gal to cover the bar instead of going home, Jack stayed and with the help of the new bartender/film school graduate Joshua. Together they planned on covering what made Mike's Place so special in a region saturated in turmoil.
While Jack's new venture is happening, two suicide bombers are plotting a venture of their own to gain martyrdom status. It's chilling to see the success and happiness of Jack and company's documentary being filmed, while simultaneously unknown horror is about to shatter their lives forever. One of the suicide bombers does successfully go through with his mission outside of Mike's Place, while the other fled.
The story is incredibly powerful, and the fact that it's a true story makes it even more so. The film crew had no idea what they were becoming a part of until it literally blew up in front of them. Instead of fleeing and never returning, they kept filming and documenting the aftermath. Baxter and Faudem made sure the reader got the first-hand experience of what happened that night, and simply seeing what happened illustrated brought chills. The blast did kill a few people, injuring a dozen others, and yet Mike's Place rebounded, stronger than ever. In a story about relationships and finding the strength to move on, Mike's Place definitely hits the mark.
Shadmi's illustrations really bring the Middle East to life, erasing from our minds the usual scenes the news highlights of rubble, guns, and chaos. He masters depicting the good times at Mike's Place and the relationships established between the eccentric cast of characters, as well as the darker side of human nature. While the documentary Blues by the Beach may be too real or extreme for some, the same effect is achieved in Mike's Place with pencils and inks. Shadmi had a treasure trove of referencing material, and didn't make it seem traced or too incredibly detailed.
What started as a documentary capturing the youth culture in Israel, ended with a community coming together stronger than before. While Mike's Place is about a tragic event that unfolded at a beachfront bar, it does give the reader a sense of joy knowing that in the end, the bombing didn't define the survivors or make them succumb to living in a state of fear. It gives inspiration to start a different kind of discussion, not about religion or politics in the region, but rather what brings us all together, and makes life worth living.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my pick for the Best Reality-Based Work Eisner in 2016. The Eisner Selection Committee would be fools not to pick it.