Unrealised Potential: We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust
Compiled by Neal Adams, Rafael Medoff and Craig Yoe
Available: March 2018
A collection of comics charting the Holocaust’s depiction in comics should work. You can have the X-men, Captain America and, you know, comics about the Holocaust itself. Mix those with a commentary that places them in their historical context, and you should have a brilliant read.
However, finishing We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust left me feeling lukewarm. Actually, the word “lukewarm” makes my reaction seem stronger and more definite than it really was. Mildly disappointed mixed with bits of real interest captures the mood better. That’s because the problem I have with the project isn’t with an aspect of it, but with the project itself.
The book presents its project as a showcase of Holocaust depictions in classic comics before it was publicly discussed. From the mid-forties to the Civil Rights era, Jews kept quiet about the Holocaust. Everyone had to conform to idea of the American citizen, so they played down their ethnic differences, including their history. It was only after African Americans brought their history into the public sphere that Jews felt able to do the same. During this period the Holocaust only really existed in comics.
We Spoke Out curates a selection of these comics: In We Spoke Out, you’ll see how these amazing comics creators helped introduce an entire generation to a compelling and important subject—a topic as relevant today as ever. It’s an anthology with each piece framed by a historical commentary that also includes quotations from the artists and writers.
That sounds so cool. The history of comics is fascinating and it deserves proper attention. We Spoke Out could help continue the recognition of comics as something more than juvenile nonsense. The book promised the chance to read classics like Master Race and Desert Fox and see the emergence of the Holocaust in superhero comics.
And, to give the book credit, it does attempt to balance the history with the anthology. For instance, I hadn’t noticed beforehand, but Captain America didn’t liberate any concentration camps in his WWII stories. Rather, he only visited a concentration camp in a flashback. Unfortunately, We Spoke Out rarely goes any further than this. The historical commentary uses the comics as a springboard to talk about the Holocaust, rather than its history in comics.
Often the divergence between the comics and the history widens too far. In the introduction Batman: Night of the Reaper, Rafael Medoff writes about a Nazi who managed to settle in America. The historical context is interesting, but it doesn’t add to the Batman story. The Batman story is fun, but its Nazi doesn’t constitute much of the story. And the Holocaust survivor only plays out the usual Batman question of “can justice justify murder.” So the Batman story doesn’t do more than illustrate that people saw Nazis as villains and Holocaust survivors as tragic. It doesn’t add to the story of the Holocaust’s depiction in comics.
The disconnect between comics that depict or mention the Holocaust and a history of the Holocaust runs throughout the book. We Spoke Out reads as a history on various aspects of the Holocaust punctuated by comics. This disconnect in the whole disappointed me, even though the parts themselves were interesting.
I decided not to give the usual writing and art ratings, as it’s an anthology. Instead, I have selected three that I would recommend reading to those who don’t feel like going through the whole anthology.
Writer: Al Feldstein
Artist: Bernie Krigstein
Released: March–April 1955
Master Race is a classic masterpiece of sequential art influencing the likes of Frank Miller and Jim Steranko. It’s quite possibly the best of the comics in the anthology.
Experiment in Fear!
Writer: Archie Goodwin
Artist: Gene Colan
This beautifully illustrated story engages the reader with a thriller-ish tale about a Nazi scientist trying to prove his racial superiority. It has the trappings of a classic horror comic, but manages not shed the genre’s unbearable cliches.
Captain Marvel: THE MAD MASTER OF THE MURDER MAZE!
Writer: Roy Thomas
Artists: Gil Kane and Dan Adkins
Released: December 1969
This one is just fun. I must admit I probably liked it because its villain, Cornelius Webb, spews delightful sarcasm and smugness.