The aim of the makers of the exhibition ‘Genocide Getekend’ was to give an overview of the variety and scope of ways in which comic designers and creative image makers have given shape and content to the representation of the Holocaust and other genocides since 1945.
The comic as a form of expression
Comics, if we call them comics, bandes dessinées, manga or graphic novels, form a diverse but coherent medium. A medium which is based on a sequence of drawn images, which may or may not be complemented with text. Comics have existed as a recognisable graphic medium since the late nineteenth century. The cartoon as we know it today is actually more than a century old. However the acceptance of the medium and its potential to be taken seriously is still an ongoing process.
A few weeks ago, the prestigious Library of Congress in Washington DC for the first time named a comic designer, Gene Luen Yang as US National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Although comics have since the late 80s and early 90s been viewed as a mainstream phenomenon in the United States, Their ability to transmit serious and enlightening stories to new generations is still highly underappreciated and to many, unknown.
The Holocaust and other genocides
Thus an overarching theme that connects the various comics displayed in the exhibition is a struggle for acceptance as a legitimate medium for the discussion and representation of serious and traumatic history. Art Spiegelman’s highly personal Holocaust graphic novel Maus is now widely praised, but when this intriguing work was first published in book-form, in the second half of the 1980’s, publishers and reviewers struggled to determine not just whether the Holocaust could be successfully depicted in comics form, but whether it should be. Auschwitz as a comic, could that be? The prevailing idea that comics were an inherently childish medium, combined with Spiegalman’s use of animal characters as metaphors led to a questioning of whether the Holocaust was an acceptable or appropriate topic for such a graphic art form.
A similar discussion unfolded in Europe in the early 21st century. The educational comics that the Anne Frank Foundation and comic designer Eric Heuvel published, designed to acquaint young readers with the Second World War and the Holocaust, initially also met with raised eyebrows. German media wondered ‘Darf man so etwas in Comic?’ Can a inky tragedy be conceivable without falling into clichés? In the past few years however, this use of comics and graphic novels in an educational capacity has started to gain a certain respect among educators, historians, students and parents.
An increasing supply
Educational institutes such as museums and memorial centers appear to be increasingly involved in developing new comics and graphic novels about painful histories. This has on the one hand forced us to narrow our exhibition to only a few select examples. However the broadening and growth of the genre has made it possible to show comics and graphic novels about other black pages in the history of the 20th century. The genocides and massacres which have left deep scars in Turkey and Armenia, in Rwanda and in the Former Yugoslavia, in Bosnia.
With the simultaneous expansion of the subject of genocide as a theme in comic books, and the unfortunate increase of real world genocides, the differing perspectives on genocide that are represented have also grown. Shortly after the liberation, Ton van Tast (Anton van der Valk) limited his representation of the persecution of the Jews to casual illustrations of anti-Jewish measures and the possibilities of going into hiding without using one single image of a Jewish citizen. This is no longer the case, although at the moment, there is lots more attention on the role of victims and bystanders in the genre, stories from the perspective of perpetrators or genocidares are growing. These stories have become more personal, showing both sympathetic protagonists, but also in many cases re-characterizing perpetrators as normal, not merely as inhuman monsters. The broadening of the genre has also seen a broad development in the variety of aesthetic and graphic styles used by artists and designers.