A New Medium For Holocaust Stories

Part graphic novel, part documentary, ‘motion comics’
help attract viewers to difficult topics.

04/13/2010
Special To The Jewish Week
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The creators of “They Spoke Out: American Voices Against the Holocaust,” a new series of motion comics, can each talk about why that relatively new medium is best suited for telling the stories they chose — those of Americans who helped rescue Jews in the 1930s and ‘40s.

But perhaps no explanation is more compelling than the one offered by Neal Adams, a legend in the comic-book industry and the illustrator of the new series.

Adams, the artist best associated with such characters as Batman, Superman and the Green Lantern, goes back to his childhood to provide the explanation.

It was the early 1950s, Adams was 10 at the time, and he and his family were living in Germany, where his father was stationed with the American forces that occupied the country after World War II.

Now 68, he recalled that he saw “lots of things” that other people would never see, including some of the unedited film footage taken as American soldiers liberated the death camps.

“I got to see three hours of the worst stuff any human being could see,” said Adams, who grew up in Manhattan. “I couldn’t talk to my mother for a week. I couldn’t talk to anyone for a week.”

The footage, of course, showed piles of corpses, as well as the emaciated bodies of death-camp victims who were barely alive. Even hardened reporters and photographers covering the liberation went through trauma witnessing those scenes, Adams said, implying that their effect on a 10-year-old may have been even greater.

“Later on, I got to see those same films as a teenager in the United States,” he said, but he discovered that the most terrible scenes were edited out.

And so years later, Adams, the veteran artist working for companies like Marvel and DC Comics, began weighing how best to convey the history of events so terrible that any normal person would run away. With Holocaust films, he said, people are “pulled both ways,” wanting to head for the door and yet, at the same time, feeling they have an obligation to watch the film.

For all the bias that some people have toward comics, Adams and other artists are gravitating more and more toward graphic novels and motion comics, two related forms, as a powerful, but palatable, means of attracting people to hard subjects.

“With this project,” he said, referring to “They Spoke Out,” “the story we tell introduces the topic in a not-so-horrible way,” but in a manner that also suggests the “much deeper and much more terrible things” that took place. They’re free to watch the episodes and, if they wish, dig deeper into the history of the Holocaust at a later point.

Such concerns over how to introduce the story are especially important in a project like “They Spoke Out,” aimed at young students and their teachers, said Rafael Medoff, founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

The Washington-based institute is collaborating with Adams and Disney Educational Productions to produce the 10-episode series. Written by Medoff and illustrated by Adams, each episode will highlight “a rarely told story” of Americans who helped save Jews, Medoff said, and each will run from five to 10 minutes.

The first of those episodes, “La Guardia’s War Against Hitler,” was screened in Manhattan last weekend at an art festival sponsored by the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. As the title suggests, it concerns Fiorello La Guardia, the feisty mayor of New York from 1934 to 1945 and the forceful stands he took against Nazi Germany.

Narrated by Adams, the episode discusses the political risks posed by those stands, as well as the dangers faced by the mayor’s sister, who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. It also contrasts the mayor’s record with that of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, according to most historians, failed to do as much as he could have to save European Jews.

Other episodes, which Disney plans to release in monthly intervals, will include “Voyage of the Doomed,” focusing on the S.S. St. Louis, the ship that carried more than 900 German-Jewish refugees to North America but was turned away by Cuban authorities and, later, the Roosevelt administration; “Walls of Paper,” concerning the advocacy efforts by some Americans to open the country’s doors to Jewish refugees; and “Rescue Over the Mountains,” telling the story of Varian Fry, a young journalist who led an underground rescue network that smuggled Jewish refugees out of Vichy France.

Among the little-known facts included in those episodes is the role of former First Lady Grace Coolidge, who lobbied for legislation that would have granted a safe haven to Jewish refugees. Also of note was the network led by Fry, which included a former wrestler, a wealthy socialite and a rogue American diplomat. The effort helped save 2,000 refugees, including Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt and Max Ophuls.

Current plans call for offering the episodes free of charge over the Internet, Medoff said. The project’s Web site can be accessed at TheySpokeOut.com.

The medium chosen for the series — motion comics or animatics — combines comic-style drawings with archival film footage, still photographs, narration and voices. One of the best examples in recent years is “Waltz with Bashir,” Israel’s 2009 Oscar nominee for best foreign-language picture.

The project so far seems to be catching people’s attention, with last weekend’s screening drawing the grandson of a St. Louis passenger, Holocaust survivors and artists. In that sense, the collaboration between Medoff and Adams may have been fated.

While Adams and his New York-based firm, Continuity Studios, began pioneering the use of motion comics, Medoff’s interest in using cutting-edge media began to grow, he said.

His institute focuses specifically on teaching the history of America’s response to the Holocaust — work that included creating a traveling exhibit five years ago devoted to political cartoons of the 1930s and ‘40s that tried to raise alarms.

From speaking to teenagers who had come to view the exhibit, Medoff recalled, he discovered the power of “the visual element” and how it “gave kids a new way to look at a very difficult subject area.” He added that, from that point on, he and his colleagues began to think of other ways in which they could use cartoons and comic art to advance the institute’s goal.

For his part, Adams had long since realized the utility of motion comics to tell a story “if you don’t have photos and you don’t have film.” The drawings fill in the gaps, he said.

Medoff’s collaborations with artists have included his work with Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, who illustrated a full-page cartoon history of the St. Louis’ voyage for the Washington Post. Medoff and Adams have also worked together in the past, producing a comic book devoted to the story of Dina Babbitt, an artist and Holocaust survivor whose paintings wound up, against her will, at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Made into a motion comic by Disney, the book helped promote Babbitt’s fight to reclaim her paintings.

Discussing the satisfaction he receives from those projects, Adams said, “kids can tell you everything that happened in the last ‘X-Men’ movie and tell you the names of all the characters. I’d prefer they learn who Joseph Goebbels was” and the horrible deeds he helped carry out.

“I’d like to bring their sensitivity over to the more important stuff.”

 

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Comments

A compelling and sensitive relaying of a nuanced, heartful topic. Thank you!

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