We live in a world where some governments are passing laws to restrict what can be said about the Holocaust. Where polls are finding that most Millenials—and plenty of other Americans—know little or nothing about the Nazi genocide. And where dictators and terrorists continue to engage in mass murder, more than 70 years after the horrors of Auschwitz were revealed. Boy, do we need a hero!
Well, guess what—we already have some heroes who have been fighting to make people aware of the Holocaust. They have familiar names, such as Captain America, Batman, and Captain Marvel. Some of the most famous heroic figures in our nation’s popular culture have taken the lead, over the years, in raising awareness about the Holocaust. Those of us who mistakenly thought comic books are for kids just didn’t realize that there is much more to the story.
A very impressive new book, We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust, shines light on a little-known chapter in American history by showing us that comic books were talking about the Nazi genocide during the years when not many other people were. In the 1950s, comic book stories with titles such as “Escape from Maidanek” and “Master Race” were introducing young Americans to a part of history that even many adults were not closely acquainted with.
“Master Race” is a particularly interesting example of this genre. Published in 1955, it was one of the first comic book stories to deal with the Holocaust. But it also happens to be one of the most famous comic book stories of all time, because of its remarkable and innovative cinematic storytelling technique.
It’s probably no coincidence that the author of “Master Race,” Al Feldstein, and the artist, Bernie Krigstein, were both Jewish. In those days, talented young Jewish men (and a few young women) from the Lower East Side dominated the comics industry—it was a profession where, unlike certain other fields, Jews could move up the ladder without facing discrimination. Maybe that’s because comics were considered low-brow. Still, it was a sign of the times that many Jewish comics creators were nervous about being identified as Jews and felt they had to change their last names.
Another 1950s comic strip in We Spoke Out that really stands out is “Desert Fox,” written by Harvey Kurtzman—who was Jewish—and drawn by Wallace Wood—whose wife was a refugee from the Nazis. In the early 1950s, certain revisionist historians and filmmakers tried to whitewash the late Nazi general Erwin Rommel (whose nickname was “desert fox”), arguing that he was an honorable military man who deserved respect.
Kurtzman and Wood took on the Rommel myth in a comic strip which demonstrated that the general and his military exploits were, in fact, part and parcel of the Nazi murder machine. There’s no separating the mass killing regime from the military wing whose victories kept Hitler in power and made Nazi atrocities possible. But who would have thought that a comic strip could make that case so effectively? Kudos to Kurtzman and Wood for setting the record straight.
The 1960s comic strips in We Spoke Out are no less striking than their predecessors.
Readers will be fascinated by “The Mad Master of the Murder Maze,” a Captain Marvel story by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane from 1969. It sheds light on the always-disturbing question of how easily many people can be manipulated to blindly follow a leader.
What makes this particular comic strip especially fascinating is that it seems to have been inspired by Dr. Stanley Milligram’s famous “obedience to authority” experiments. They caused a sensation in the late 1960s—right around the time Captain Marvel took it on. Milgram wanted to see how far an ordinary person would go in obeying orders from an authority figure. The people in his experiment thought they were administering high-voltage electric shocks to a person strapped in a chair, on the order of a “doctor” wearing a white lab coat. Both the doctor and the recipient of the shocks were actors. Most of the unwitting subjects of these experiments were willing to go astonishingly far in delivering what they thought were potentially lethal electric shocks, so long as a “doctor” was ordering them to do it. Scary!
The co-authors of We Spoke Out, Neal Adams, Rafael Medoff, and Craig Yoe, are an interesting team, each bringing to the table a unique set of skills. Some readers will find this reminiscent of those classic Marvel “team-up” comics where heroes from very different backgrounds would cross paths and join forces to defeat a nefarious villain. In this case, of course, the villain is ignorance about genocide.
Adams, who has been described as the greatest living comic book artist, is especially famous for illustrating comics in the 1960s-1970s in which the heroes dealt with topics such as racism and poverty. Medoff is an award-winning Holocaust scholar. Yoe is a historian of comics and cartoons and the author of numerous books on the subject. They are quite a trio.
Not surprisingly, a number of the Holocaust-related comic strips in We Spoke Out originally appeared in horror or war comics, two genres that naturally would often involve Nazis, and occasionally addressed the persecution of the Jews. The “Sgt. Rock” stories written and illustrated by the late Joe Kubert are especially noteworthy. Kubert also contributed an evocative painting for the back cover of this book; the front cover is an equally stunning illustration by Adams.
Fans of the X-Men know that in the recent X-Men movies, the writers probed the background of the sometimes-hero, sometimes-villain Magnetol, as an inmate of Auschwitz. Adams, Medoff, and Yoe have found an early X-Men story where the Magneto-Auschwitz story line was first introduced, and present it here with a particularly interesting commentary. Each comic strip in the book is preceded by historical comments and explanations by Dr. Medoff, as well as interviews with the writers and artists.
The comic strips in We Spoke Out go until the 1990s, by which time the Holocaust was finally being widely talked about in American schools, as well as in the popular culture in movies such as “Schindler’s List.” The presumption is that once the topic of the Nazi genocide entered the mainstream culture, comic books became less important as a source of information about it. That makes sense in theory. But in practice, the recent polls showing that Millenials know frighteningly little about the Holocaust suggest that today’s educators could use some help—maybe from Batman and other comic book heroes, once again. Is it time to shine the bat-signal over Gotham City, as a cry for more help in this vital area?
We Spoke Out also features a foreword and afterword by the inimitable Stan Lee, fitting bookends to this extraordinary volume. In his 60-plus years in the comics industry, Lee was the co-creator of Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and many other pillars of the comics world. Lee’s original name was Lieber. He has described how he changed his name, back in the 1940s, not because he was trying to hide his Jewishness, but because he was trying to hide the fact that he wrote comic books!
Today, a literary form that was once considered lowly has become a centerpiece of mainstream American culture, in movies and on television. Even more remarkable, it turns out that the writers and artists who populated this so-called lowly genre were pioneers in teaching several generations of young Americans about a subject that most people considered inappropriate to discuss in polite company. Today, in retirement, Stan Lee, elder statesman of an under-appreciated industry, has much to be proud of. And We Spoke Out reveals yet another badge of pride for a generation of writers and artists who, it is now clear, have been much more than just entertainers.
Reviewed by: Ariella Haviv