Long before the Holocaust was taught in schools or presented in films such as Schindler’s List, the youth of America was learning about the Nazi genocide from Batman, the X-Men, Captain America, and Sgt. Rock. Comics legend Neal Adams, Holocaust scholar Rafael Medoff, and comics historian Craig Yoe bring together a remarkable collection of comic book stories that introduced an entire generation to an engaging and important subject. We Spoke Out is an extraordinary journey into a compelling topic. The book features classic comic book stories about the Holocaust and interviews with their artists and writers, with a cover drawn especially for this book by Neal Adams. An amazing but forgotten chapter in comics history!
Craig and Rafael took some time to discuss this important book with Forces of Geek.
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FOG!: Your new book, We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust, covers one of history’s most heinous atrocities as seen through the comic book medium. What was the genesis of this project?
DR. RAFAEL MEDOFF: In 2008, Neal Adams and I collaborated on a comic strip about Dina Babbitt, a Jewish artist who was a prisoner in Auschwitz and was forced to paint portraits for the infamous Nazi war criminal, Dr. Josef Mengele. We were trying to raise public awareness about the refusal of the Auschwitz State Museum, in Poland, to return the original paintings to Dina. (Dina passed away several years ago, but we are still working with the Babbitt family to get the paintings back.)
While working on that comic strip—which is included in We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust —Neal and I had many conversations about how the American public has come to learn about the Holocaust. I shared with him the fact that when I was a teenager in the 1970s, my friends and I learned about racism, drug abuse, the environment and other contemporary issues from the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series that Neal so memorably illustrated.That led Neal and me to thinking about how some comic books had also tackled the subject of the Holocaust—and so began the research which eventually culminated in the publication of We Spoke Out.
Early on in the project, the folks at IDW introduced us to Craig Yoe, of IDW’s imprint Yoe Books, and we realized that the three of us, with our different experiences and skills, would make an ideal team for this kind of book.
FOG!: Many of the comic book creators represented in We Spoke Out were Jewish, as is Stan Lee, who wrote the introduction and afterword to the book. For decades, comics were dismissed as escapist fantasy. Do you think this was a frustration for many of the original creators of both the Golden and Silver Age who were Jewish?
MEDOFF: They undoubtedly realized they were entering a field that most adults didn’t take seriously. What’s remarkable is how effective they were in creating a number of stories about serious and meaningful subjects, alongside the many comic book stories that were pure entertainment.
FOG!: Pioneering publisher EC Comics tackled the subject of the Holocaust in several stories before the company was closed down with the introduction of the Comics Code Authority. Do you think the institution of the CCA consciously prevented Holocaust-themed stories from being published at that time, or were they just looped in with the contents of EC’s oeuvre?
CRAIG YOE: Stefan, we’re not aware of any evidence that the Comics Code Authority singled out the Holocaust-themed comic book stories, though there was understandably some horror present and we do have a number pre-Code stories in the book.
Although the Holocaust-related comics we found from the 1950s were exceptional in many ways, they were probably less gory—and thus less objectionable—than, say, the typical EC horror story.
FOG!: How did you choose the comics that are reprinted in the book?
YOE: On the basis of strong story, top art, and they needed to help skillfully and artfully tell the historical narrative of the Holocaust. We were fortunate that many Holocaust-related comics involved characters with strong appeal, like Batman, the X-Men, Captain Marvel, Sgt. Rock, and Captain America. Plus there are top artists like Neal Adams, our partner, whose compelling work is reprinted along with the sensational original cover he did for this book. Among the other stalwart creators included in the book are Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood, Joe Kubert, John Severin, Frank Miller, Chris Claremont, Roy Thomas, Gene Colan, Jack Davis, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, and Robert Kanigher. We are grateful to the artists and writers or their estates, and DC, Marvel, EC and Warren were so enthusiastically supportive of this important project!
MEDOFF: In selecting the stories, we also considered chronology. We were looking for comic book stories that were published between 1945 and 1993. Those were the years before the Holocaust was widely taught in schools, before there was a U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington or films like Schindler’s List—in other words, the years when comic book stories about the Holocaust played a significant role in exposing young people to a subject that they weren’t hearing about anywhere else. At the same time, we decided to omit several 1950s stories because they were in very poor taste. For example, some pre-Code stories somewhat cheesily portrayed Holocaust victims who rise from the dead as vampires or werewolves and prey on Nazis. We felt those were disrespectful to the memory of the victims.
FOG: Would you say these Holocaust oriented comics are still significant today–perhaps more now than ever?
MEDOFF: Just last week, a poll found that 66% of Millennials don’t know what Auschwitz was, and many of them don’t believe there was a Holocaust at all.
Clearly, Holocaust education in American schools today is not as effective as it should be. These comic book stories offer a way to help young people understand the Nazi genocide—through a graphic medium that interests them much more than ordinary text books.
CRAIG YOE: Fascistic tendencies are rising around the world. We even hear such rumblings in our own country. Some politicians and their extremist supporters are starting to say things that are reminiscent of a dark era that we had thought was over. It’s inspiring to see how comic book creators spoke out, and hopefully that will inspire today’s generation to speak out, too.
FOG!: If there was one story that you would consider a must read within the book, which one would it be, and why?
MEDOFF: “The Mad Master of the Murder Maze,” a Captain Marvel story by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane from 1969, is a fascinating look at how people can be manipulated to blindly follow a leader. It was apparently inspired by Stanley Milligram’s famous “obedience to authority” experiments, in which people followed orders to administer what they thought were extremely painful and potentially lethal electric shocks.
I’ll let Craig have the last word. I bet I know which story he’ll cite!
YOE: You know me! Of course Neal’s Batman story, “Night of the Reaper,” is amazing and has always moved me greatly!
However, Neal, Rafi and I all hold in very high regard “Master Race,” by writer Al Feldstein and artist Bernard Krigstein, a 1955 EC story.
It’s one of the most famous comic book stories of all time, because of its extraordinary, innovative, cinematic style of storytelling.
The fact that it has a compelling message about the Holocaust made it even more unforgettable, so we lead off We Spoke Out with this powerful masterpiece and it sets the tone for the whole book.
We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust is available now.