Beyond Maus: Other Holocaust Graphic Novels

Article excerpt

This essay discusses three Holocaust graphic novels: Will Eisner's A Life Force, Joe Kubert's Yossel: April 19, 1943, and Pascal Croci's Auschwitz. It considers how effectively each work portrays the Holocaust by comparing them to the bestknown and most celebrared Holocaust graphic novel, Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale. The essay argues that Eisner's is the most effective of the group, because Eisner recreates a distanced perspective on the Holocaust. In contrast, when Kubert and Croci attempt to recreate the Holocaust itself, the imaginative leap required to envision an atrocity so outside the realm of ordinary human experience overwhelms their artistic powers. The essay also briefly considers the mainstream comics of both Eisner and Kubert as well as Eisner's The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The author concludes that, while these graphic novels have virtues, none of them take the aesthetic and thematic risks found in Maus. In closing, Gonshak argues against the widespread critical view that the Holocaust defies artistic representation.

One notable aesthetic development of the last several decades has been the evolution of a narrative genre which combines literature with art - the graphic novel. Of course, comics are nothing new; comic strips (usually appearing serially in daily newspapers) date back to the 19rh century, and comic books, generally a collection of several discrete stories, often with recurring characters, appeared on news-stands and elsewhere early in the 20rh century. But the graphic novel represents an artistic advance on what is often considered aTow" popular genre pitched primarily at children and adolescents in that the story is book-length, and the subject matter is usually more elevated than, say, Superman saving Metropolis from the machinations of Lex Luthor. On the contrary, such critically acclaimed and commercially successful graphic novels as Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, on Bechdel's experience growing up as a lesbian with a closeted gay man for a father, Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan series, a multi-generational saga set in tum-of-the-century Chicago, and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, about the author's childhood in post-revolutionary Iran (recently made into a movie), all have explored material traditionally thought the province of literary fiction.

Graphic novels have even depicted as weighty and tragic a subject as the Holocaust. When most people think about graphic novels on the Shoah, they think first (and perhaps exclusively) of Art Spiegelman's two volume, Pulitzer Prize winning, Maus I, A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History, and Maus II, A Survivor's Tale: And Here My Troubles Begin.1 And with good reason. Originally appearing in 1986 and 1991, respectively, these works harrowingly recreate the author's father Vladek's survival of Auschwitz, as well as vividly dramatize the complex, moving love/hate relationship between father and grown son many years later in New York City. Of course, Maus' most outrageous and unprecedented distinction is that Spiegelman (a long-time underground cartoonist) has portrayed all the story's characters as animals, with the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, and the Poles as pigs. While Maus has aroused controversy, most critics agree that the work triumphantly clinches the debate over whether a graphic novel can meaningfully portray the Shoah.

While Maus is the best Holocaust graphic novel, it's not the only one. However, although Spiegelman's work has inspired a plethora of scholarly commentary, other Holocaust graphic novels have received little critical attention.2 In this essay, I shall examine three works in the genre: Will Eisner's A Life Force (1983)'; Joe Kubert's Yosseh April 19, 1943 (2003)4; and Pascal Croci's Auschwitz (2003). 5 I'll also consider Eisner's final graphic novel, The Plot: The Secret Story oj the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (2005), 6 in particular the sections depicting how the Nazis employed this notorious antisemitic forgery to justify the Holocaust. …