The continuing rise in popularity of graphic novels has seen all manner of subject matter examined within their pages, including numerous books on Jewish issues and themes.
Among the best-known graphic novels are Israeli novelist Rutu Modan’s award-winning Exit Wounds; James Sturm’s The Golem’s Mighty Swing, a fascinating portrait of a Jewish baseball team touring rural America in the 1920s; and Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust parable Maus. And, of course, the many Jewish-flavoured novels of the late Will Eisner, including A Contract with God, Dropsie Avenue and Fagin the Jew, are well-known.
Two recent graphic novels, Judenhass (Aardvark Vanaheim) and Good-bye Marianne: The Graphic Novel (Tundra Books), tackle anti-Semitism and the Holocaust with differing results.
Judenhass (German for Jew hatred), by Canadian artist and writer Dave Sim – the publisher of the comic book series Cerebus – is nothing less than an ambitious examination of anti-Semitism through the ages, with the Holocaust as the fulcrum linking the past, present and future. In fact, after a cursory observation that many of the American and Canadian Jewish creators of the best-known comic books, Bob Kane (Batman), Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel (Superman) and Stan Lee (co-creator of Spider-Man), would have suffered the same fate as European Jewry if they had been born in Europe instead of in the safe environs of North America, Judenhass pretty much stays focused on the Holocaust.
Most of Judenhass’ 56 pages, which were painstakingly traced by Sim from photocopies of original photographs, showcase in graphic detail the corpses and barely alive survivors of Auschwitz, with accompanying captions detailing anti-Semitic quotes from famous people, such as H.G. Wells, Martin Luther and Voltaire, and facts illuminating the repressive measures and violent actions perpetrated against Jews over the centuries. It’s dispiriting and truthful reading, though including comments attributed to writer and satirist Mark Twain, regarding Jews incurring the wrath of the world because of their success as moneylenders, is unfair. Twain is better known for a powerful essay praising the Jews for making such a positive mark on history and society despite their small numbers. (Sim explains in text at the end of Judenhass how and why he chose the quotes he included in his book.)
But Judenhass, despite its good intentions, made more manifest by the fact that Sim is not a Jew and intends for the graphic novel to function as a wake-up call for the non-Jewish world, is hamstrung by its choppy structure.
From its listing of anti-Semitic viewpoints and actions, it then jumps to the famous story of U.S. President Harry Truman’s emotional meeting with an old Jewish friend and business partner, which galvanized him to recognize the newly created state of Israel, and follows it with the poignant speech, decrying anti-Semitism, made by Pope John Paul II at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, in 2000, before returning to the present and some recent contentious remarks about Jews made by the likes of the late actor Marlon Brando, among others.
Unlike Eisner’s similarly themed, admittedly preachy but effective The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Judenhass is muddled. Why stick in the uplifting Truman and Pope John Paul II anecdotes if the point of your book is to expose the anti-Jewish racism that won’t ever go away? As it is, that optimistic viewpoint undercuts the rest of Judenahass.Admirably well meant as it is, Sim’s graphic novel is not as thought out as it might have been.
Much more emotionally effective is Good-bye Marianne: The Graphic Novel, the comic book adaptation of Irene Watts’ 10-year-old award-winning young adult novel. Marianne Koch is an 11-year-old Jewish resident of Berlin, who post-Kristallnacht, is feeling the effects of the anti-Semitic realities that are being made more manifest day by day as the Nazis begin their steps toward destroying Germany’s Jews.
Taking place over a few weeks, Good-bye Marianne begins with the young girl’s expulsion from school, as all Jewish children were, her run-ins with various Germans who voice anti-Semitic attitudes and, finally, her being forced to leave her beloved mother behind when she is chosen as one of the kindertransport children, who escaped the concentration camps to find refuge in England.
Beautifully and simply illustrated by Kathryn E. Shoemaker, in what are often stark sketches, Good-bye Marianne powerfully brings home with force what it must have been like to be a Jew in Nazi Germany before the beginning of World War II when discriminatory measures gave a hint of the horrors to follow. Like Judenhass, Good-bye Marianne reaches for a shred of optimism and light amid the darkness, but these elements are more organic to the story in Watts’ graphic novel and hence more successful than Sim’s effort. It’s a modest tale well told.