For many, comics still represent the fantasy realm of Mickey Mouse and Spider-Man. But two new releases in Germany deal with a very real horror, the Holocaust. Some question if the subject is appropriate for the format.
Today graphic novels aren't afraid to take on previously taboo topics
Most adults probably remember "Wham!" "Pow!" or "Zzzzzzttt!" from the colorful comic books of their childhoods. Often the stories would climax with the superhero, usually in a skintight leotard, giving the murderous villain a powerful uppercut or a blast from a power ray, thus saving the world from imminent destruction.
But the reader opening one of the two comic books or "graphic novels" which recently hit bookstores in Germany, is confronted by a starkly different set of pictures: emaciated figures populating a landscape of barbed wire, sadistic guards and gas chambers; faces etched with terror, but set with determination as they prepare to rise up against their persecutors and go to certain death.
The stories are not set on some distant planet or in centuries from the past, they deal with a real event of the 20th century, the Holocaust.
Auschwitz, drawn by Frenchman Pascal Croci, presents a graphic account of life in the notorious death camp where an estimated one to one-and-a-half million people lost their lives, mostly Jews. Croci has chosen to the tell the story from the perspective of a fictional married couple in the former Yugoslavia in 1993, as the country finds itself torn apart by civil war.
They are about to be put to death for treason, but before the executioners come, they begin to think back on their time in Auschwitz and the loss of their only daughter there. It's a subject they had suppressed for nearly half a century.
A page from "Auschwitz" by Pascal Croci
Croci's talents as an artist are admirable. He has depicted a world of grey, devoid of vegetation, and those humans still living are but walking ghosts, with sharp, angular features and prominent, haunted eyes. His pictures are realistic but stylized, with a steely aestheticism that reminds one of the cold blade of a knife. Croci spares the reader little in terms of presentation of the horror of the camp, showing a gas chamber filled with dead bodies and Jewish prisoners forced to carry them to mass graves for burning.
The second book, Yossel, by American arist Joe Kubert, uses a different technique to address the terror of that time. His story largely takes place in the Warsaw ghetto and ends with the courageous, but ultimately futile uprising of the Polish Jews there. The book centers on a 16-year-old boy who is moved to the ghetto with his family and becomes a resistance fighter, all the while documenting his experiences through drawings.
Whereas Croci uses traditional comic book narrative and structural form in telling his story, Kubert breaks out of that, using pencil sketches, some only half-finished, scattered across the page that provide stunning snap-shots into the daily humiliations and hardships of the ghetto's prisoners.
A page out of "Yossel" by Joe Kubert
The sketches have something of the look and feel of the kind done by a court reporter, and they give his book a more documentary feel.
Still, it, along with Croci's work, are both fiction based on reality. Croci was born years after the Holocaust, in 1961, but spent five years researching the topic and talking with eyewitnesses. Kubert's family eimgrated from Poland to America in 1926, and his account explores what might have happened if his parents had decided to stay in the country of their birth.
While both treat the matter with gravity and respect, in Germany, there are voices asking if it is right to depict the Holocaust in comic book form. A few Jewish groups have expressed concerns that the format could minimize the seriousness of the subject. Others have worried that right-wing extremists could want to add the books to their collections.
"We will have to watch very carefully indeed whether this kind of treatment really does address the people it is aimed for," said Paul Spiegel, chairman of Germany's Central Council of Jews.
A page from "Yossel"
But according to Alexandra Germann, an editor in charge of graphic novels at Ehapa, the publisher behind both works, graphic novels are exactly the vehicle to reach people who might have little knowledge of the Holocaust.
"They could especially bring younger people to a topic that they might not have looked at so closely in the past, or even adults, who for some reason have blocked it out or need a new way to find a connection with it," she said.
She points out that both works have been researched intensely. Croci spent five years preparing before he actually drew the novel, interviewing eyewitnesses and getting their approval before drawing the more ghastly scenes such as those in the gas chambers or at the mass graves. Kubert also spoke with survivors and used historic photographs as the basis for many of the scenes.
Depicting the Holocaust in comic form would have been unthinkable for decades following World War Two. But in the early 1990s, American artist Art Spiegelman broke new, and controversial, ground with his graphic novel "Maus."
"Maus" by Art Spiegelman
Spiegelman recounted the Holocaust using the recollections of his father, Vladek, and presented events using anthropomorphic animals. The Jews were mice, the Nazis, cats, and the Poles, pigs. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for the book.
That book has been widely praised in the ensuing years, but it has not made the topic of Holocaust representation any less sensitive and opinions are as varied as the people presenting them. Some have criticized Spiegelman's animal work as (literally) dehumanizing the Holocaust, while some critics in Germany of these two recent works have said the animal metaphors made an incomprehensible subject more understandable. They say the authenticity strived for in these recent graphic novels, especially Croci's, is problematic, since comics' strengths do not lie in documentation and realism, rather in interpretation, reducation and abstraction.
"[Croci's book] is ‘over-aestheticized' and does not really succeed in presenting the horror of the death camps even in its full-page drawings. I think ‘Yossel' works in that it presents smaller, individual pictures that better communicate the experiences of individual people," Andreas Platthaus, a critic at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, told German public radio.
Still there are many, even in the Jewish community, who say a graphic presentation of the Holocaust can be powerful and affect some people in our image-dominated world more than the printed word.
"These books have been able to translate the events into visual form quite well," said Christian Böhme, deputy editor of Germany's largest Jewish newspaper, the Jüdische Allgemeine Zeitung. "I understand some people have been concerned, but from my reading of them, despite the fact that they're comics, the real horror of what happened is still there."