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.