Review by C.J. Bunce
If you only could choose one book to represent the potential–maybe even the highest form–of the comic book medium, a new book hitting the stands today may be on your short list. IDW Publishing is releasing a stunning anthology of the history of the Holocaust as seen in comic books of the past, presented with an introduction and afterword by Stan Lee, the creator who broke more stereotypes in his stories than anyone in comic books’ first century. In We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust, artist Neal Adams, who changed the way comic book stories were told in the early 1970s with his Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Batman series, Holocaust scholar Rafael Medoff, and comics historian Craig Yoe have compiled what is arguably the most noble use of comic books–educating kids in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s on a subject of history virtually ignored in mainstream circles. Along with Congressman John Lewis’s March series about the civil rights movement, We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust should be in every library and taught in every history class.
My high school history teacher was astonished to learn none of us knew the details of Watergate–we were only infants at the time–and I recall the realization he saw of what he and his peers were not teaching. This weekend my eighteen-year-old nephew mentioned watching the footage of 9-11 in school this year for the first time. In the 1980s only the last paragraph of the last chapter of our World History textbooks discussed the Holocaust, yet we at least spent a week talking about the subject. But not until the 1990s was the Holocaust taught in most of American school systems. Even today only 35 states require education in the subject in school curriculums. Certainly the most important lessons in history can be taught with its study, and in that light We Spoke Out should serve as a wake-up call to everyone, citizens, educators, and leaders. Oddly enough, for generations of American kids, the only place they learned about the murder of six million Jews, the stories of concentration camps, of the atrocities committed by Hitler and his Nazis, was in the comics pages.
The stories in the anthology present the atrocities of World War II without the overdone blood and gore of many 1950s “horror” comics. In an April 1955 story from Impact Issue #1 we meet a Jewish man post-War still haunted by his memories in what would now be called PTSD. In the pages of December 1951’s Frontline Combat, Issue #3 story the then-lauded Nazi general Rommel is dressed down, revealing the villainous truths of his leadership in the face of contemporary efforts to re-invent Rommel as a military hero. Based on the real-life Nazi Ilse Koch, in a story from Beware! Terror Tales, Issue #4, we are reminded of the vilest of humans who made household goods from the tattooed skin of captured Jews–a real-life horror some may think is only the stuff of fiction from Silence of the Lambs. Among these stories ripped from real life, Adams, Medoff, and Yoe fill in the blanks of time with historical context, including details of what the stories leave out.
We Spoke Out includes works by well-known comic book creators, including Al Feldstein, Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood, Harry Harrison, Vince Napoli, Archie Goodwin, Gene Colan, Gil Kane, Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, Denny O’Neil, Chris Claremont, Frank Miller, Sal Buscema, and others, with stories from popular titles like Captain Marvel, Captain America, The Uncanny X-Men, and Batman. In the pages of Sgt. Rock, Joe Kubert paraphrases George Santayana reminding readers of the importance of remembering the Holocaust: “We are doomed to repeat in the future–the lessons and mistakes in history–that we forget!”
Here is a preview of the first few pages of the book, courtesy of the publisher:
You can bet We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust will be an Eisner Award contender next year, and is certain to be on the required reading lists for better history programs at colleges this fall. Eighteen stories of history, of terror, of vengeance, and truth–an important read highlighting some of the best writing and artwork from more than thirty years of comics can be found in this new book.