SIX YEARS AGO, I started interviewing my father, Herb Perr, about his childhood growing up in a mob-linked Jewish family in Brighton Beach during the 1940s and ’50s. I thought we might connect over these stories, and felt I might better understand him with more context. Although I had a hunch there was a comic in his reminiscences, I definitely wasn’t anticipating a three-part graphic novel, which is where this would lead. Mostly, I hoped that our collaborating in this way might take some pressure off of what was, at times, a strained relationship.
I had no idea that these interviews would fundamentally change our relationship, that we would become genuinely close friends within just a few months of starting this project. I also had no idea that within a few years, my father’s health would deteriorate to the point where he could no longer remember where he was in the present, let alone the details of a particular event in the past. I am grateful we began when we did.
Herb told me about his father, a racketeer whose fits of rage drove my father to move out—albeit across the street—when he was only 14 years old. I learned that in 1959 Herb left Brighton Beach for good to start a new life in the East Village. He was determined to become an artist and to close the door on an unhappy and often violent childhood.
This was the most successful gamble of my father’s life. He enjoyed some success exhibiting in galleries and museums, but he grew disillusioned with the commercial art world and subsequently co-founded an anti-capitalist art collective. Meanwhile, as a professor of education, he taught generations of teachers to infuse their lessons with art. In Hands Up, Herbie! I’ve tried to capture his journey.
My father had a fraught relationship with his family, and he was generally not one to look back. Still he pursued his family’s history on a trip to his grandfather’s village of Kraśnik, Poland in 1987. The following excerpt depicts memories from this trip.
Hands Up, Herbie! is currently available for pre-order through the project’s Kickstarter.