We Spoke Out: Com­ic Books and the Holocaust

Rafael Med­off and Neal Adams; Craig Yoe, ed.

  • Review
By – June 26, 2018

With each pass­ing year, more ink is ded­i­cat­ed to the inhu­man­i­ty of the Holo­caust — its hold over the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion has nev­er abat­ed. Indeed, the vast scale and hor­ror of the Shoah allows end­less avenues of cul­tur­al, com­mer­cial, and psy­cho­log­i­cal explo­ration. For bet­ter or worse, the mechan­i­cal deprav­i­ty of the actions of the Third Reich — too per­vert­ed for sane minds to com­pre­hend — invites macabre inves­ti­ga­tion through art, media, and literature.

In the course of post­war his­to­ry, com­ic book artists and writ­ers explored the emo­tion­al ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the Holo­caust with sur­pris­ing alacrity. On one lev­el, it makes sense that comics would be the first of the mass media to use the sav­agery of Holo­caust iconog­ra­phy in their pages: the Amer­i­can comics indus­try was nur­tured and inno­vat­ed by Jews, so it was only nat­ur­al that the after­math of Auschwitz, Dachau, and Sobibór would find its way onto the lurid pages of ten-cent newsprint.

Though such writ­ings could have leapt to exploit the Holo­caust for cheap prof­it, the con­trary proved true. In fact, the ear­li­est comics about the Holo­caust were often rumi­na­tions on the dark­ness of the human heart. We Spoke Out: Com­ic Books and the Holo­caust is an acces­si­ble, over­sized aca­d­e­m­ic tome that exam­ines the pro­gres­sion of Holo­caust themes in comics. Edit­ed by leg­endary com­ic artist Neal Adams and comics his­to­ri­an Craig Yoe, with con­tex­tu­al essays pro­vid­ed by Holo­caust schol­ar Rafael Med­off, the text is a unique arti­fact that dis­plays the diver­si­ty of post-Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture while also act­ing as a his­to­ri­og­ra­phy of the trauma.

The mate­r­i­al reprint­ed in this vol­ume focus­es its atten­tion on super­hero yarns, war hor­ror sto­ries, and bio­graph­i­cal mem­oirs. It looks at the ways cre­ators of comics in post­war years came to com­pre­hend how ide­ol­o­gy and big­otry destroyed not only a peo­ple, but basic human decen­cy. And accord­ing to Med­off, the the­sis of the book demon­strates [how] comics did play a sig­nif­i­cant, albeit unher­ald­ed, role in bring­ing the Holo­caust to the atten­tion of many [Amer­i­cans].”

The selec­tion of comics is impec­ca­ble. As if plucked from the spin­ner racks, sta­ple heroes like Mar­vel and DC make appear­ances, but so do the types of sto­ries that aren’t as pop­u­lar with con­tem­po­rary read­ers. Not many peo­ple are clam­or­ing for film adap­ta­tions from the EC Comics archive, for exam­ple. Nonethe­less, the edi­tors of We Spoke Out opt­ed to include vir­tu­oso pieces from Wal­ly Wood, Archie Good­win, Joe Kubert, Bernie Krig­stein, and more. These raw, gut-punch­ing tes­ti­monies show off the form’s nim­ble­ness and its abil­i­ty to pro­vide mature, guile­less sto­ries about the effects of evil in a world filled with super­hu­man beings.

What Adams, Yoe, and Med­off do here is beyond admirable: it is essen­tial for the pub­lic good. As the first step to a larg­er under­stand­ing of how art and aes­thet­ic pro­vide cathar­sis, this book is indis­pens­able. And as a stand­alone com­pendi­um — and a snap­shot of a wider, unex­plored swath of pop cul­ture—We Spoke Out is a vis­cer­al expe­ri­ence of trau­ma and recovery.

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