MONTREAL — Daniel Bernard earned his PhD in religion with a thesis on the Mishnah’s Pirkei Avot – the Ethics of the Father – and is an expert in the ancient biblical world from which it sprang.
He was a professor at Concordia University, where he studied, and at DePaul University in Chicago, teaching esoteric courses on early Judaism and rabbinics from a sociological perspective.
He received awards for his scholarship and appeared to be on the tenure track.
But, disillusioned, Bernard, 35, has given up academia for something he finds more challenging: writing comic books.
Bernard is the creator of the soon-to-be published series The Chieftains, a re-imagining of the little-known biblical story of Deborah.
Depending on the translation, Deborah appears on only one or two pages in the Book of Judges. But that sketchy account of this female warrior and seer, unusual in a patriarchal world, was enough for Bernard to spin into what he plans to be a 24-book epic series.
Illustrated by Italian artist Luisa Russo, The Chieftains was unveiled by Bernard at the Montreal Comiccon, the huge convention for comics fans, held at the Palais des congrès in September.
He expects to have the first instalment out by February, with the rest following monthly after that.
While The Chieftains is fiction, Bernard is using his expertise to authentically recreate the society in which Deborah lived. Set in the 12th century BCE in the southern Mediterranean Levant, as the Bronze Age is giving way to the Iron Age, this is a dynamic period.
“A few hill clans or tribes were forming cities, political organizations and inventing new technology,” much of it for war.
There’s a power vacuum after imperial forces, after a century of conflict, retreated from these vassal territories.
“The Chieftains is in the fantasy genre, but there will be nothing supernatural. It’s a plausible story, nothing outlandish,” Bernard said.
What The Chieftains is not, he emphasized, is “a dumbing down” of the biblical account. “I’ve studied this world for 10 years, and have worked hard to put myself into it, to show the nitty-gritty of how people lived. If anything, I think I’ve had to work harder than ever.
“This is for the intelligent reader who wants to be immersed in a rather complex world.”
As the title suggests, this story is about more than one person. The name is intended to evoke the clan warfare led by charismatic leaders that characterized the period.
Chieftains, Bernard also believes, is a more accurate translation of the Hebrew “shoftim,” than judges.
Biblical comics are a fairly common genre, but Bernard believes his series is different in that it is not intended to promote any religion. The words “Jewish” and “Israel,” in fact, will not appear anywhere, because this story takes place before the various small tribes had coalesced into a nation, he said. Even Jerusalem had not been founded.
The series will be a prequel to the biblical story, imagining – through flashbacks – Deborah from her childhood and what led to her becoming one of the Hebrew Bible’s rare females with political influence.
“The Bible story is very short, and unclear about who she was before… She was a judge, but that meant more like being a seer or a prophet. She was also a war hero, who seems to have taken up arms, but was more of a strategist.”
His fictional Deborah was a child prodigy who was able to harness her formidable intellectual and personal qualities for the good of her people.
But Bernard posits: was she really a heroine – or a pawn?
Bernard, who has written five books in the series so far, promises his version of events will be filled with intrigue, shifting allegiances and disloyalties.
His Deborah is, of course, good looking, and while the Bible only hints at the nature of her relationship with the general, Barak, under Bernard’s pen, that could get romantic.
The Chieftains is aimed at readers of at least 13 years of age.
“I’m not going to pull any punches; there is violence, as there was in that time, but it’s not gratuitous,” Bernard said.
Despite his expertise, he said religion “never really stuck with me,” but he has always been fascinated by biblical stories – and comic book heroes. He grew up in a “standard secular Jewish family” and attended Jewish People’s and Peretz Schools.
Bernard is trying to raise $16,000 for the publication launch in traditional paper format through the online crowdfunding site Kickstarter. The 40-day campaign ends Nov. 8.
Once at least a small readership is established, Bernard hopes to get The Chieftains into stores.