Soaring Penguin Press, the small press publisher based out of UK, is in the midst of their latest Kickstarter campaign, for an English language collection of Israeli cartoonist Ilana Zeffren‘s Urban Tails strip. The comic is a slice-of-life strip that follows Zeffren and a cast of those around her, particularly her two cats. As fans of all things cat-related here at The Beat, we’re pleased to present an interview with Zeffren on behalf of Soaring Penguin Press.
Beginning in 2006, Ilana Zeffren has chronicled her life as a weekly newspaper comic strip. Urban Tails brings these strips together in English for the first time, presenting a 200+ page collection which is down to earth, honest, and provides a gentle look into the lives of Ilana, her girlfriend, and their two cats.
Addressing subjects as diverse as mental health and the proliferation of Crocs (shoes), Zeffren brings a fresh perspective and humanity to her comics. The cats, Spaghetti and Rafi, serve as a Greek Chorus, providing a running commentary even as war zones and life-changing worries take center stage.
She spoke about her work, her love of cats and the process of adapting her comics for Urban Tails.
As a fellow cat owner, I know how easy it is to get sucked into watching them do whatever they’re doing- so what’s the most distracting thing your cats do?
Ilana Zeffren: My cats do all the classic distracting things like sitting in front of the computer screen (during the days of Corona it evolved into sitting on the laptop too) and on the book I’m trying to read or on my sketchbook and knocking over whatever was in their way, and also more unique things like moving pictures on the wall from side to side.
Are you a lifelong cat fan or a later convert?
Zeffren: I’ve had at least one cat since I was six years old. I have no idea what life is like without them, and that’s probably why the cats were talking in my comics from the start. It seemed natural and obvious. But I didn’t plan for them to become so dominant in my work, they just took over as cats do. This doesn’t mean I don’t like dogs too. I do. I actually love all animals (in some aspects more than humans), except for cockroaches.
Do you have any favourite comic cats? Any cat comic inspirations?
Zeffren: As a kid I read Garfield. It’s actually the only comic I read back then which is pretty funny if you think what became of me. I used to go with my twin sister on “fun days” in the big city (Tel Aviv) and we always came back with another Garfield book.
Other than that I think I was more influenced by The Muppets and the characters from Sesame Street than by other cats.
One thing I love about Urban Tails is the warmth between the characters- humans and cats. I think there’s a growing audience for LGBT+ stories which are able to be happy and warm like that rather than fraught. Were you thinking about that when you started writing and drawing?
Zeffren: I tried in Urban Tails, as I always do, to present a lesbian relationship as a normative one. Not because I think LGBTQ people should be like straight people (god forbid!), but rather because I really believe it is. I like to tiptoe on the thin line between mainstream and subversive, I think it’s an interesting place to be at and that in this way a wide range of people can relate to my stories. So I always refer to things in a gentle way and with humour, rather than in a militant way.
That was my attitude from the start, with my first book, Pink Story, which tells the story of the LGBT community in Israel alongside my own story, and it still is today with the weekly (and many times political) cartoon I’ve been publishing in Haaretz newspaper for the past seven years. I take whatever I want to say and warp it in soft cat fur and humour.
As it previously ran weekly, did converting Urban Tails for collected publication take much work?
Zeffren: It took some adjustments and some editing decisions. Since it ran weekly and sometimes referred to current affairs it has a documentary aspect to it which I think is nice. On the other hand, similar to how it is with caricatures, some things don’t work out of context, so I had to add some footnotes and leave out things here and there.
One of the big draws of Urban Tails when it’s out here will be seeing how similar and how different your life in Tel Aviv is to life in the west- it’s important to have our eyes opened to diverse experiences like that. Is there anything in particular you want to share with distant readers?
Zeffren: I think I would like to share the idea that Tel Aviv is a regular western city on the one hand and that the personal (and everything else) is political on the other, and also the idea that beneath our differences (in terms of culture, lifestyle, politics, religion and so on) we are all the same. I once did a cartoon in which Spaghetti asks Rafi: “What are you more, Jewish or democrat?” and he replies: “A human, I mean a cat”. I think that says it all.