Perpetrator perspective

In most comics and graphic novels about genocide, the perspective of the perpetrator is missing. There are few narratives made from authors that consider perpetration as part of their own personal or national history. Some comics, such as Stassen’s “Deogratias” (from Belgium) use a combination of a victim and a perpetrator perspective, yet perpetration is always viewed from a safe distance,  authors or illustrators do not explore their own perpetration history, if they have one. Although recently there has been a broadening of the entire idea of perpetrators and perpetration in the genre, it is still very much under- represented

Aesthetics and ethics

The tensions between aesthetics and ethics is clearly palpable in stories about genocide in comics and graphic novels. An artistic approach towards genocide leads to discussions of whether events such as genocide are even able to be presented in this genre or whether there are ethical boundaries on the aesthetic depictions of this. The genre is perceived by the general public as a “childish” medium, and as such the question arises whether the medium is suitable for the depictions of such a serious topic such as genocide. The “childish” image, in which graphic art is deemed more important than text, has the consequence that it is perceived as limited useful for serious topics and this unfortunately defines the scope and limit of certain topics and styles.

A suitable tool for education?

But how does one conclude whether a medium is acceptable to represent gruesome topics? Is it justifiable to genocide survivors that their stories are ficitionalised? Are comics effective and useful in genocide education? An artistic representation of history will most probably never be completely accurate, but to what extent is this a problem?

The debate around the topic is formed by questions about artistic freedom and the representation of atrocity. Authors make different choices. In the American series “Magneto” by Marvel, the authors depicts the limits or perhaps the impossibility of Holocaust representation in a visual medium by replacing drawings by black areas when telling the story about the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz. The Polish “Episodes from Auschwitz” for educative purposes, poses the question whether these incidents are useful for uses in the classroom. Supporters of these sort of comics think that the use of comics and graphic novels in schools “offers the change to better understand tragic events and that they contribute to a better historical understanding”. Others doubt the educational effect of the medium.

Can comics and humor go together?

Comics and graphic novels about genocide confront us with the moral limits of the genre. Can genocide ever be perceived as “funny”, as the term comic suggests? Can humor ever be a fitting reaction to genocide? What are the ethic limits that should be followed in art? Or can we speak of satire? Other episodes from history have been represented in comic form, in which there was room for humor and entertainment. The question here is whether this can also happen when speaking about mass murder and genocide. The history of the Holocaust is still fresh in the collective memory and the commemoration of the genocide has a large emotional and symbolic worth. The association with art and entertainment is therefore also seen by many as inappropriate. The graphic novel “Hitler-SS” tests the boundary between what can be conceived as satire but can also be perceived as tending towards anti-Semitism. Thereby we must ask ourselves what the possibilities and limits are about the representation of genocide in comics and graphic novels. Finally, the impact of graphic stories on readers who are more familiar with the visual representation of these tragic historical events must be researched.

M. Galek & M. Nowakowski (2009). Episodes From Auschwitz: Love in the Shadow of Death, p. 37. Miłość w cieniu zagłady © Wydawnictwo K&L Press, 2009
G. Pack, C. Di Giandomenico & M. Hollingsworth (2008). X-Men: Magneto Testament #4. X-Men: Magneto © Marvel Publishing, 2008.
J-M Gourio, P Vuillemin, Gondot, (1987) Hitler = SS, p.51. Hitler = SS © éditions EPCO, 1987