As the final generation of survivors lamentably fades away, the legacy of the Holocaust faces an existential conundrum: who will continue to tell these stories? Fortunately for future generations, first-hand accounts and a copious literature has accumulated that will give a sense of the horrors that happened only seventy years ago.
In the popular culture sphere, it would appear that Holocaust as a topic of interest started around 1993, when Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was released and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC was opened. The dual opening of these cultural milestones paved the way for more investment in studying the Holocaust as a continuum of cruelty and dehumanization. But, as one delves deeper into the literature and historiography of post-war renderings of the Shoah, it becomes apparent that another form of pop media was delving with Holocaust themes decades before Spielberg made Oskar Schindler a household name.
And that media was, of course, comics. And not just any comics, but stories that were written by legends in the field: Kutzman, Kubert, Wood, O’Neill, and, of course, Adams. (Catch my conversation with Neal Adams here). Rafael Medoff and archivist/publisher Craig Yoe, along with Adams, recently released a compendium of comics about the Holocaust titled We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust. While presented as an academic tome (which it is, in some respects due to Medoff’s contextual prefaces to each entry in the book), We Spoke Out is also a comprehensive survey of some of the finest mainstream comics to touch on Holocaust themes. I asked Craig and Dr. Medoff about the process of seeking material for inclusion, what made some of these stories innovative in their time of publication, and how comics can continue to educate and entertain readers about sensitive, essential topics.
FROST: I chatted with Neal Adams about the creation of the book and I wanted to start off our interview with the same question: What do you remember about genesis and formation of this book and about melding your academic and cultural interests as a historian of the Holocaust with comics?
Rafael: Neil and I started talking about the question of how comic books had addressed the Holocaust when he and I were collaborating on a comic strip about six or seven years ago, concerning a prisoner in Auschwitz who had been compelled to create a series of watercolor portraits. And then after the war, tried to get them back when the paintings ended up in the hands of a museum, which is now at the site of where the Auschwitz death camp was located. So this prisoner painter named Dina Babbitt waged a struggle for many years to try and convince the Auschwitz museum to give her back the paintings. The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies became involved in trying to help her, and I approached Neil Adams at that point, knowing from my days as a young comic book fan that he had been a leader in the effort to bring about the return of original artwork to artists. So, Dina Babbitt was an artist trying to secure the return of her original artwork. And it happened, actually, that Dina after the war was an animator for Warner Brothers and other animation companies on the West Coast, so she actually had a sense of history in the cartooning community in addition. Neil suggested the idea of created a comic strip describing her experiences and her struggles to get the paintings back, and during the months that we were collaborating on that comic strip, we had a number of long conversations about the Holocaust, about comic books and the Holocaust, about Jews in the comic book industry, and related topics. Now, when I was a teenaged comic book fan growing up in New York in the 1970s, I think like most kids my age I looked at comic books as a source of entertainment, and I guess that’s how the general public for the most part still views them.
Yoe: The idea for “We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust” was all Neal and Rafi’s. God bless them! This dynamic duo approached IDW with the concept. Scott Dunbier passed the proposal onto me thinking it might be a good fit as the Yoe Books imprint has specialized in publishing compilations of classic comic book material.
Naturally, I was excited about the caliber of Neal and Rafi, each tops in their fields—what a thrill it was to join them in this endeavor. I was also psyched about the quality of the material and the fact that it features renowned characters like Batman, Captain America, Sgt. Rock, and The X-Men. However, I was most keen on the book because of the importance of the message of the stories—and because this vital message was presented in a totally entertaining form. I instantly knew it would be an honor to be involved and we would be doing something important.
Medoff: I also knew that there were times when comic books took on very serious real world issues. And Neil played an important part in some of them. I’m referring of course to the very famous Green Lantern/Green Arrow series in the 1970s which took on issues such as drug abuse, poverty, racism and other issues that thirteen-year-olds didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about, but if you read it in a comic book, suddenly you were exposed to it. Neil’s extremely realistic artistic style brought those stories to life in a way in which I don’t think any of the artists could have done. So, I was keenly aware of his role in using comic books to talk about contemporary issues, and that led us to thinking about to what extent comic books may have talked about the Holocaust, which then launched years of research, eventually culminating in this book.
FROST: Can you talk about the process of that research and determining the final stories that appear in the volume? Because when I was talking with Neil, he said that you guys selected the best stuff, but I wonder how you guys first searched through all the material and then got rid of the stuff you felt wasn’t appropriate or just wasn’t the best, and only had the good stuff, as it were.
Yoe: Rafi and Neal had identified the DC, Marvel, and of course, maybe the greatest comic book story ever created, “Master Race,” by Al Feldstein and Bernie Krigstein and published by the legendary EC Comics. I pointed out another EC story, “Desert Fox,” by Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood, which was about German Field Marshall Rommel. Post-war writers were cutting Rommel slack for his part in the Nazi regime and atrocities and EC bravely (and uniquely) countered that thinking in this significant comic.
Rafael: Although I had been an avid comic book reader and collector in my teens, I am long since lost interest in the world of comic books, and gone on to a professional career as a historian, specializing in Jewish history and the Holocaust. So I had roots in the comic book world, I had not been involved in comics fandom for quite some time. However, as a professor of Jewish studies and Holocaust studies, I began thinking anew about the idea that comics might be used to talk about issues like the Holocaust and other genocides. I already had been kind of thinking about that, and when Neil and I began the research, I started contacting old friends and made a lot of new friends in the comics world, and asking if they knew of any Holocaust related stories that had been published in comic books over the years. And there were many helpful responses, they’re all listed in the acknowledgments section of the book, and lots of clues and leads. I think Neil and I both began with the assumption that we would probably find some Holocaust related stories in army comics but not much else. It seemed logical because you already had a comic book that was dealing with World War II, then we figured at some point they’re probably going to somehow address what the Germans were doing to the Jews. And we did find a number of such stories, some of them are included in the book, but I was also surprised and glad to discover that a number of mainstream super hero comics also from time to time took on aspects of the Holocaust. That I did not expect. In the book, we have stories from Captain America, The X-Men, the Marvel version of Captain Marvel, and others where I would not have anticipated that they would have taken an interest in the subject.
YOE: I also introduced Rafi and Neal to earlier stories from lesser known publishers of the 1950s who did horror comics, and the fascinating “Stamp Comics” from which one of the more interesting stories come from. Stamp Comics published stories behind postage stamps. The “high concept” was “Hey, kids love comics and they collect stamps—let’s do a comic book about stamps—we’ll make a million!” Well, that brainchild of Youthful Publications briefly lasted only four issues. However the last number had a story called “Escape from Maidenek” about the Polish stamp related to the death camp. It was illustrated by one of the strongest, yet unsung, horror comics artists, Vincent Napoli, who we have featured in our horror comic book collections. I can’t think of a better artist to visualize this tale. We thought that this comic was a significant piece of the puzzle in telling the history of the Nazi horrors.
FROST: What was the biggest surprise that you found in that research in terms of a story that you didn’t think would have been tackled by a mainstream comic publisher?
Rafael: There’s a fascinating comic strip in the book called “Desert Fox”, written by Harvey Kurtzman, drawn by Wally Wood in 1951. It’s about the famous Nazi general Erwin Rommel, who’s nickname was “Desert Fox”. So the fascinating thing about this comic strip is that at that time around 1951, there was a major controversy where historians were trying to whitewash Rommel’s role in the Nazi regime. They were arguing that he should be respected as a military genius, and that he had nothing to do with Hitler or anything of the awful things Hitler was doing to the Jews and other civilians. The comic strip by Kurtzman and Wood is actually a rebuttal to those historians. They actually make the case that Rommel was part of the Nazi mass murder regime and he did help enable the atrocities and the slaughter that the Germans perpetrated. So here we have a comic book drawing its teenage fans into a public debate that adults were waging, but certainly average kids in 1951 would have no knowledge of or interest in a debate about some World War II general, so I find this strip particularly fascinating, that they would be using the comic book format but to make a very serious argument, and they make the argument very well. They make a convincing case in just six or seven pages, brilliantly executed by Wood, and very crisply and accurately written by Kurtzman, and it’s a very fascinating example about using the comic medium that was normally only talked about in history books or other kinds of serious forms. So that’s one story in particular that surprised me. I’ll mention another.
The Captain Marvel story is interesting, because it’s clearly based on a series of widely discussed social experiments that were undertaken in the 1960s by a Jewish sociologist, Stanley Milgram, who was trying to understand how it was that so many ordinary Germans blindly followed orders to commit all kinds of horrible acts that under ordinary circumstances, you know, human beings don’t treat each other that way, not in civilized parts of the world. And so what he did was he set up a series of experiments where a person believed they were administering electric shocks to somebody in a glass booth and they were administering these shocks under the instruction of a person in a lab coat who was supposedly a doctor or a professor, they were the “authority figure”. And of course they weren’t really shocked, it was just that when the person pressed the button, the person strapped to the chair pretended as if he was writhing in agony. So the person who was the subject of the experiment believed he was administering incredible amounts of pain to someone and that they were doing it in the name of science. And Milgram found an alarmingly high percentage of people continued administering the shocks, even if it appeared as though the subject was unconscious or maybe dead. Just as long as there was an authority figure there to tell them to do it. So Roy Thomas and Gil Kaine, in the pages of Captain Marvel, created a very important story about people blindly following orders, in this case the orders of some sort of a fascist leader in the making. I interviewed Roy about it, and I interviewed as many writers of the stories as I could find, and he was aware of the Milgram experiment, and he said that it was being reported. But again, you would not expect something that was reported in the New York Times and a serious discussion about social policy and psychological behaviors to be then addressed in a comic book. But it was an encouraging discovery for Neil and myself to see that a comic book was tackling such an issue and was communicating these important moral lessons about not blindly following authority and communicating them to overwhelmingly young teenage audiences. So comic books serving as the vehicle for important educational messages, in addition to the entertainment value that most comics produce. But here we were unearthing a chapter of comic history that really had never been looked at, which is, among many other things, a badge of pride for the industry.
Yoe: Well, really, the whole idea that publishers that I grew up with, and loved, who had stories about radioactive spiders and green kryptonite also tackled such a weighty subject like the Holocaust was pretty mind-blowing. Equally amazing to me was that they did this in a way that was as entertaining as their lighter fare—yet respectfully and compelling at the same time.
FROST: I mean, stepping back for a moment, I would think that in terms of popular entertainment, comics were among the first mass mediums that actually explored Holocaust themes, and I wonder what effect that had on the readership at the time and what that means for readers now because, as I’m sure you know, the New York Times just reported that people’s awareness of the Holocaust seems to be slipping. So as a pedagogical tool, what are your thoughts on comics historically and contemporaneously as tools of education?
Rafael: The Holocaust was not widely discussed in America in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. It wasn’t completely ignored, it just wasn’t widely addressed. If you go back, you can find, for example, there’s a famous episode of the Twilight Zone dealing with the Holocaust. There were occasional plays, occasional movies, occasional books, but not a substantial amount. So, while I would not say that comic books were the only part of American culture where it was talked about, it’s clear that they were a part, and until now they’ve been an overlooked part, and the fact that there were dozens of such stories – not just one or two – but there were dozens, would indicate that they were read by a lot of young people. And again because they were in comic books that were high circulation comic books. Batman, the war comics too, and the others, so a lot of kids were reading them. But there’s no real way to measure precisely their impact. We can look at the cultural markers. We can see what people were reading, watching, talking about, and it’s clear comic books played a part. Now, public interest in the Holocaust increased significantly later on. And we use 1993 as a cutoff date. All the comic stripes in “We Spoke Out” are from between 1945 until 1993. 1993 is kind of a turning point because that’s the US Holocaust Museum was established in Washington. It was around that time that Schindler’s List came out. It was around the same time that Maus became popular. So by the early 1990s, you can say that talking about the Holocaust and other genocides had become a major part of the American culture. And especially important, by that time, a number of states began to require Holocaust education in the public school systems. The number of states requiring that has grown each year since then. But that was when the change happened, in the early 1990s.
Despite the fact that it has been taught in most schools by now, and the fact that we have movies and books and a lot of publications about the Holocaust, there is an alarming amount of ignorance about the subject, as those recent polls show. The ignorance is especially notable among millennials. So these are people who were coming of age in the 90s and the early 2000s, which means many of them were exposed to the Holocaust in schools, and yet large majorities have no idea what Auschwitz was, or they can’t even vaguely estimate the number of Jews who were slaughtered by the Nazis, basic facts of the Nazi genocide seemed to have escaped significant number of young Americans. What that says to us is that Holocaust education in the schools is still not sufficient, and not being taught in ways that are attracting and sustaining the attention and interest of a lot of students. What that might mean for the future is that comic books, comic strips, and political cartoons could be an effective new way of talking about the Holocaust, and we’ve already had contacts with a number of teachers who are using “We Spoke Out” or intend to use it in their classrooms because they know that high school students are more likely to read and remember something that has a lot of graphic imagery, rather than just plain text. So you can hand a 15-year-old a 300-page book about the Holocaust, but you can’t expect that they are going to get through it and remember a lot of it. And I say that as the author of a 300-page history of the Holocaust. Whereas a comic strip or animation, you may know that Neil and I collaborated on a series of animated shorts about the Holocaust for Disney a few years ago, those are much more likely to grab and maintain the attention of young people.
So, on one level, We Spoke Out could be an educational tool. But beyond that, it wasn’t written to be a high school text. It was written for the general audience because these comic strips are an important part of American culture and history, in addition of course to being an important part of comics history, and as we know the comic book characters and the whole industry have now become a central part of American popular culture.
FROST: Was there a decision to not include Maus in the book just because maybe it’s too ubiquitous and Holocaust curricula, or did you just not feel like it fit in with the rest of the book?
Rafael: It was a matter of the chronology. It was late. The central question we were asking was about what teenagers were learning about the Holocaust before Maus, before Schindler’s List, before there was a Holocaust Museum in Washington to which schools bring their students from around the country every year. We wanted to look at that important period from the 1940s until the early 1990s when there weren’t many sources in American culture of education for learning about the Holocaust. We wanted to see if comic books played a role then. Once you have Maus and Schindler’s List and all the others, the role of comic books in teaching about the Holocaust became less significant. There are many comic books from the 90s on that have touched on Holocaust themes, but one may conclude that they probably didn’t have as much impact because fortunately, by the 1990s, there were all these other sources. So we were looking at the period where there weren’t many alternatives. And that’s where comic book creators stepped in and helped fill that vacuum.
FROST: Ultimately, what do you want readers to come away with after reading through these stories? What is your ultimate goal and why did you compile these stories in the first place?
Rafael: We see the book as addressing several different urgent needs. First of all, we live in an era where there are governments – Poland, Lithuania, others – that are trying to restrict what can be said in public about the Holocaust. So comic books talking about the Holocaust is one way to counter that. We also live in an era where, despite teaching about the Holocaust and genocides in public schools, students are not coming away with a sufficient knowledge of the subject. So comic books offer another tool for teachers to use, something that potentially might attract students more than other teaching methods. And third, for the comic book industry, this represents a discovery of a proud chapter in using comic books to talk about serious issues. It will help show the public that comic books are not just entertainment, and not just for kids, but have been a medium for talking about serious issues and still can be, and therefore represent a form of literature that deserves to be taken more seriously than it has been at certain times in its past.
Yoe: We have received high accolades about We Spoke Out from comic book fans and critics and also people who have never before paid any serious attention to the medium. It has struck a chord with people that study both political and comics history, and those who feel We Spoke Out has a message about the times we live in. In our contemporary culture we must be vigilant to work actively against all forms of prejudice and repression whether it’s based on religious beliefs, ethnic backgrounds, gender, or sexual orientation. If our work collecting this material of commendable work by ground-breaking comics creators plays a part in comics characters continuing to punch Nazis in the face then we are a little proud and immensely grateful!
FROST: Thank you for taking the time to chat, and I really have been enjoying going through the book.
We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust is available now.