Beyond MAUS. The Legacy of Holocaust Comics

Frahm, Ole; Hahn, Hans-Joachim; Streb, Markus
Schriften des Centrums für jüdische Geschichte
Anzahl Seiten
420 S.
€ 55,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Kevin Haworth, Department of English, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh

The Holocaust is a challenging subject for any artistic medium – all the more so, then, for a medium like comics, which, for most of their history, have been considered juvenile, throwaway fare. Art Spiegelman’s 1986 publication of the first volume of MAUS permanently changed the relationship between comics and the Holocaust, demonstrating to a skeptical reading public that comics are not only able to address the horrors of Nazi genocide, but do so in a way that draws on the strengths of comics’ approachable combination of text and art. Though MAUS has been part of literary culture for decades, its importance has not decreased in that time; rather, it has become a focus for scholars in multiple fields. Indeed, the recent decision by a Tennessee school board to ban the book (because it contains nudity and obscenity, the school board claims, not because of its subject matter) has returned the book to the public spotlight and the bestseller lists, making this an ideal time to reassess its legacy.

As the editors of Beyond MAUS: The Legacy of Holocaust Comics write in their introduction, MAUS (the first comic of any kind to receive significant scholarly attention) changed the medium both for readers and for other comics creators. “Other artists were encouraged” to develop their own Holocaust comics, the editors write, “and earlier works […] were seen in a new light” (Introduction, p. 11). While the importance of MAUS is difficult to overstate, it is often seen as singular in ways that are not accurate. The goal of Beyond MAUS, then, is twofold: to re-evaluate earlier, often obscure comics that engage with the Holocaust; and to see how comics published since MAUS’s appearance have built on the new space it created within the comics world.

One of the book’s core arguments is that early Holocaust comics helped to define what Emil Gruber, in his chapter titled “Israël Souviens Toi!”, calls the “visual memory” of both Nazis and their victims (p. 99). The sources that formed this visual memory, as explored by the contributors to Beyond MAUS, are a diverse and fascinating lot, both reflective of their time and place while often transcending them. In Markus Streb’s “Early Representation of Concentration Camps in Golden Age Comic Books”, for example, we see how Holocaust imagery becomes fodder for the graphic, titillating material that characterizes American war and horror comics of the 1940s and early 1950s. Streb’s survey shows that while depictions of concentration camps and their victims are more common than previously thought, many of these depictions subordinate empathetic engagement in favor of revenge-driven fantasies, supernatural horror featuring Nazis as monsters, and other forms of “Nazisploitation” (p. 113). Like the culture at large, these comics mostly avoided focusing on Jews as victims or exploring the trauma associated with Holocaust survival. An important exception, as Streb shows, is “Master Race”, written by Al Feldstein, drawn by Bernard Krigstein, and published in 1955 in Impact magazine. Though “Master Race” refers only briefly to Jewish victimhood, its groundbreaking art and empathetic treatment of survivors marks it as one of the most significant early Holocaust comics; Art Spiegelman himself has spoken often of its influence on himself and many other comics artists.

Though the wartime American comics industry largely elided references to Nazi death camps, Kees Ribbens shows that information about the camps was certainly available, and that some of the most vivid images of the camps made their way into comics form quite early. He explores the little-known sequential narrative “Nazi Death Parade”, created in 1944 as part of an educational pamphlet titled The Bloody Record of Nazi Atrocities, which aimed to increase American awareness of Nazi crimes. “Nazi Death Parade” was illustrated by August Froehlich, an immigrant from the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy who contributed a number of comics to American publications in the 1940s. Ribbens argues that, despite its obscurity, “Nazi Death Parade” marks an important attempt to help readers visualize the horrors of the camps at a time when no photographic evidence existed. The sequential narrative, he writes, “could render how the scrupulous process of destruction in the last stages of the Holocaust unfolded” in a way that could not be replicated in other media (p. 163). Unfortunately, this early attempt made little impact on American readership, which would not fully reckon with the horrors of Nazi industrialized murder of civilians until years later.

Didier Pasamonik’s “From the Dreyfus Affair to MAUS” illuminates another aspect of 20th-century visual memory: the use of animalization to represent Jews. Spiegelman’s depiction of Jews as mice and Nazis as cats was one of the most controversial aspects of MAUS when it was first published, and it remains a significant topic of scholarly attention. For that reason, Pasamonik’s investigation is particularly valuable. He shows how animal representations of Jews became a core trope of anti-Semitism from the Dreyfus affair through the Nazi period; at the same time, he demonstrates how comics have acknowledged and subverted that visual language to powerful effect. For example, Mickey au Camp de Gurs, a 1942 comics album created by Horst Rosenthal, and which circulated within a concentration camp, refigures a Jewish prisoner as Disney’s famous animal hero (see the book cover). Similarly, 1944’s La bête est morte! by Edmond-François Calvo assigns animal representations to different nationalities, while post-MAUS, artists such as Ilan Manouach have adapted Spiegelman’s visual strategies, just as Spiegelman responded to previous anti-Semitic representations and the comics that challenged them.

The essays in this collection provide not just historic depth but also geographic breadth. In Jaqueline Berndt’s reading, for example, the decades-long presence of Anne Frank in shōjo manga (girls’ comics) shows how even a story as powerful as Anne’s can be flattened by universalizing and kitschy aesthetics. And yet, though Japanese comics may seem an unlikely site for Holocaust education, Berndt suggests that more recent manga nonetheless indicate that comics “hold the potential to draw uninitiated people of younger age and at geopolitically distant locations to Holocaust history” (p. 190).

Hergé’s long-running Belgian comic Tintin (since 1929), provides another look at how the Holocaust can be refracted in popular comics in sometimes surprising ways. Considering that scholars have identified Tintin as a site of colonialism and racism, not to mention Hergé’s own role as a contributor to a collaborationist publication, it is no surprise that the comic shows “unsettling ambivalences with regards to Jews and their persecution” (p. 239). Nonetheless, Hans-Joachim Hahn argues that reading the series over its long lifespan shows how deeply references to Holocaust have become embedded in popular culture, even in the hands of an unsympathetic creator such as Hergé.

Other chapters, by Susanne Korbel and Kalina Kupczyńska, respectively, look at trends in comics from Israel and Poland. It may come as no surprise that Israel is a site of substantial production; however, by tracking more than fifty years of Holocaust comics in Israel, Korbel shows how multiple generations of Israeli artists have engaged with this material, and that while MAUS is undoubtedly an influence, material from the Holocaust graphic narratives to American pulp fiction have also played important roles. In Poland, Holocaust comics are more recent – only twenty years or so – and almost exclusively the province of educational comics. Kupczyńska identifies two important trends: on the one hand, many comics foreground Polish heroism rather than Jewish suffering, in keeping with stubborn traditions in Polish discourse; on the other hand, there are examples of comics that challenge that framing, documenting Jewish suffering and offering nuanced depictions of pre-war Jewish life.

As my overview of select chapters suggests, this volume supports a thoughtful reading of Holocaust comics published both before and after MAUS, and together the essays offer a remarkably diverse perspective on how this medium has depicted the Shoah. Unfortunately, the reading experience of this worthwhile volume is impacted by consistently poor copyediting. This is not limited to individual chapters; rather it is more common than not. Titles of journal articles and character names are spelled or styled inconsistently, sometimes in the same paragraph. Other errors range from missing apostrophes and punctuation to simple typos. I refrain from citing specific examples because the point is not to impugn certain contributors; it is clearly a book-wide problem, and distracts from the scholarship enough to be worth mentioning. The research performed by the scholars here is substantial, and while it certainly can still be appreciated, perhaps in a future printing the production quality will match the level of scholarship.