By Ricardo Serrano Denis
“No one cared.”
Neal Adams, comics legend and co-creator of We Spoke Out: Comics and the Holocaust — also the name of panel discussed here — returned to this phrase repeatedly when commenting on comics about the Holocaust in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Comics were not respected as a medium back in those decades (in fact, they’re still fighting for recognition in certain circles), and they were often ignored because of it. Little did people know, that comics were one of the few mediums talking about the Holocaust in a time where the topic had reached the mainstream. This was before Maus and Schindler’s List. In this period, people were being educated on the Holocaust through comics.
The book, We Spoke Out: Comics and the Holocaust, is a collaboration between Neal Adams, multiple Eisner award winner Craig Yoe, and Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. It showcases the best selection of comics, according to Adams, that tackled the Holocaust and its memory. Stories range from the classic War Comics tradition to Superhero stories that see the likes of Captain America and Batman either infiltrating concentration camps or dealing with deep family traumas related to the Jewish experience during World War II.
The collection contains the comic book story of Dina Babbitt, a Holocaust survivor that drew portraits of Romani camp prisoners for Dr. Mengele, The Angel of Death. Some thirty years after the war ended, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum discovered seven of Babbitt’s watercolor portraits. Babbitt refused to give Babbitt the paintings, arguing they belong to the museum, and to this day a fight rages on between Babbitt’s family and the state museum. Dr. Medoff made it clear that the book not only champions Babbitt’s cause, which continues after her death in 2009, but also acts as an ally in getting the paintings back to their rightful owners.
Dr. Medoff views the book as an example of how comics “were ahead of the curve” as a medium that both entertained and informed the public. The pedagogical potential of comics is displayed in full force here, expressed as a kind of raw form of entertainment that took readers outside of their comfort zones. This line of thought led Adams to say that “if anyone in this country should buy one comic, it’s this one,” referring to We Spoke Out.
That comics were talking about the Holocaust during the 50s and all the way to the 80s and beyond speaks to the reactionary character of the medium. As I teacher myself, I can fully appreciate how important these comics were for an audience that would not get more public discussion on the Holocaust at least until the 90s, when movies and other productions pushed the debate into the public sphere. Dr. Medoff added that comics managed to get away with these stories before because they were so aggressively looked down upon. Again, no one cared about comics, which is what made them so powerful. They were offering strong social justice commentary in spite of their cultural status.
Craig Yoe expanded on comics as an educational tool by revisiting his childhood memories of receiving Fire Prevention comics in school. He makes the link between that type of comic and Holocaust comics by tracing a kind of genealogy of pedagogical comics that show using comics in school is not new, but it has always been effective. Yoe is currently developing comics for struggling countries on personal hygiene, so that readers that haven’t been taught how to wash their hands, for instance, learn to do so to avoid infections and life-threatening health hazards.
Neal Adams made sure the audience knew that the type of stories found in We Spoke Out are “fighting to prevent [more Holocausts] right now.” The recent Trump-backed immigration policies were alluded to in the panel to make this point hit all the more harder. “The whole point was we shouldn’t forget.”
There’s a very pedagogical intention there. These stories aren’t just about a horrible past. They are about trying to prevent those horrors from coming back. Should they come back, though, comics will be there to speak out. Through their book, Adams, Yoe, and Medoff are making sure we always remember this.