Saturday, 15 March 2008

Judenhass

Yesterday, for the second month in a row, my local comic shop gave me their free preview edition of a new Dave Sim comic, this time Judenhass which comes out in April.

While Judenhass shares with Glamourpuss some elements of style (both are done in black-and-white line art that aspires to the quality of photographs, neither are narrative as such, being more an illustrated essay), it couldn't be more different in tone and subject matter, being a look at possibly the most serious subject it is possible to deal with, the Holocaust.

Of course, any comic dealing with the Holocaust must be compared to Art Spiegelman's Maus, the Great Untouchable Classic that one must not criticise , but this probably owes more to Will Eisner's not-terribly-good The Plot, being as it is an attempt to trace the historical roots of the Holocaust in the anti-semitism that pervaded much of Western culture prior to World War II.

In terms of Sim's other work, this is most similar to Melmoth, being made up as it is of drawings of real
people along with text from primary sources, but unlike Melmoth (still my favourite of Sim's works) this doesn't even attempt to be a narrative.
Rather, Sim lays out his reasons for doing the comic at the beginning (he thinks all artists, especially non-Jews, have a responsibility to deal with the Holocaust, and that this is especially true of comic creators because so much of the industry is based on the work of Jewish creators) and then places images of the terrible suffering in the camps next to pictures of the 'great and the good' (Martin Luther, Mark Twain, Mencken, Pius XI and so on) and quotes from them about 'the Jews'.

Sim places the Holocaust firmly in a historical context, not as an isolated event but as the culmination of centuries of active persecution and, more perniciously, of people saying that the Jews' persecution is not right but still somehow brought on by their own actions somehow. Of course, there is one quote that is conspicuously absent when Sim attacks people for saying the Jews brought their persecution on their own heads:

How many of these off-limits cattle do you suppose your people mutilated and burned trying to please the living thing, the big light and the big fire in the middle of the earth?

Konigsberg:
Once again, I decline to answer on the basis of feeling even more nauseous than I did a few minutes ago. [thinks] Millions, probably

Cerebus:
There's the sad part. Someday, Yoohwhoo is going to demand that that "debt" be paid. And... millions, you said? Millions of your people are going to... um. [Long pause] [clears throat] [another long pause]

Maybe Sim really does think that literally no-one read 'all those pages of tiny little text'...

Having said that, here at least Sim reigns in his madness and his strange views and produces a powerful look at the end result of bigotry. It's a shame that Sim appears not to see that many of his own views lead down the path to Auschwitz just as easily as the quotes from Voltaire or Mohammed he uses, but in this book at least he is on the side of the angels.

Judenhaas is intended primarily as an educational tool for schools, so in some ways it's a little dry, just presenting facts and images of what happened, but that makes it all the more effective. When I first heard that Sim was tackling the Holocaust, given that he's primarily a humorous creator I had a horrible vision of something akin to Life Is Beautiful or (given his recent turn towards the borscht belt) The Day The Clown Died, all mawkish sentimentality and ill-advised humour. In fact the dry, simple presentation, combining the views of Very Important People who had Very Important Lives and pontificated about The Jewish Question with images of the people who suffered and died because of this, is far more effective than any dramatisation could ever be.

Artistically, this is far and away the best thing Sim has ever done. I was expecting to feel the loss of his 20+ year collaborator Gerhard, whose backgrounds were gorgeous even when the comic was at its worst in the last half of Latter Days, but Sim's work here is every bit as good and detailed as Gerhard's was. Sim also makes great use of the potential of computers for reproduction (assisted by Digital Production and Research Assistant Lou Copeland and scanner Sandeep Atwal), having pages be made up of dozens of panels zooming in and pulling out of aspects of the same image, so an almost abstract pattern of lines becomes part of the face of someone who has died in horrible agony.

My only real quibble with this book is a tiny one - in the endnotes Sim dismisses a quote he'd apparently found from Bernard Shaw as a fabrication (he doesn't give the quote) saying Shaw was no anti-semite. Sadly (given that Shaw is a hero of mine) that is not the case - one of the last things he wrote, in fact, was an attempted defence of the holocaust in the explanatory matter for the book version of his play Geneva.

Dave Sim is entirely right that a work of this nature is needed now. Rather worryingly, even some on the progressive left have been showing signs of anti-semitism recently. It is all too easy to go from 'the current Israeli government is in the wrong' to 'Israel is in the wrong' to 'the Jews are evil'. The first statement is defensible and probably right, the last is utterly wrong. Along with this has come a wave of holocaust denial.

The proper response to odious fraudulent scum like David Irving, who deliberately pollute the historical record in an attempt to lend some legitimacy to their repugnant bigotry, is not to lock them up like the Austrian government did but to get the truth out as widely as possible.

For me, the bits that hit home the hardest are the parts where Sim quotes people who refused to allow refugees into their countries - the Canadian government saying "none is too many", the US government saying they should "put every obstacle in their way".

Yesterday I listened to a Doctor Who audio play in which a group of blind, slug-like aliens take over a planet and subjugate the white people humans by claiming refugee status and demanding special treatment as a minority, including banning Christmas, and used 'positive discrimination' to take over. The reviews I read of this online didn't seem to find anything disturbing in this, although a couple of people did find it a cutting satire of what happens when 'political correctness goes too far'.

Today, right after reading Judenhass, I had a look at Andrew Rilstone's blog, to see if he'd read this yet (Rilstone is the most perceptive writer I've read on Sim, seeing his strengths and flaws more clearly than almost anyone). He hadn't, but he had posted about Mehdi Kazemi, a 19-year-old from Iran who the British government, to our eternal shame, want to deport to Iran where he will be executed for his homosexuality as his boyfriend already has been. One of the commenters on that post stated that 'we' can't afford to allow in as many asylum seekers as 'we' do, and so while it's obviously a terrible shame to see a teenager strangled to death for the 'crime' of having a boyfriend it's better to wash our hands of the whole nasty business.

I have now done something I meant to do many years ago. I've joined Amnesty International.

Judenhass is 48 pages, black and white with a colour cover, on glossy stock, and costs $4. It is published in April, but your local comic shop will have a preview copy as of this week unless, like mine, they gave it to their 'Dave Sim customer'. It's published by Aardvark-Vanaheim and will remain in print indefinitely.

16 comments:

Gavin Burrows said...

Rather worryingly, even some on the progressive left have been showing signs of anti-semitism recently. It is all too easy to go from 'the current Israeli government is in the wrong' to 'Israel is in the wrong' to 'the Jews are evil'. The first statement is defensible and probably right, the last is utterly wrong. Along with this has come a wave of holocaust denial.

I certainly agree with this, both that it's utterly wrong and that it's on the rise. What's probably led to this is not only events in Israel but also in America, where the Zionist lobby have formed an unholy marriage of convenience with the Christian Coalition.

However, the problem is perhaps more nuanced than some people recognise. We've all become used to the assumption that the Holocaust was the single worst event in modern history, to the point where it's become the touchstone of evil in the world. Paradoxically this somewhat oversteps the mark while underestimating the scale of the Nazi's murderousness- 3 million non-Jews died in death camps as well.

It's widely thought that the Zionists first used the Holocaust as a scare word in the Sixties as an attempt to counter the Civil Rights movement. Kind of saying "you've only had slavery, we've had the Holocaust."

This is made more complicated because it then becomes in other groups' interests to claim the Holocaust never happened, by always using the Zionist's projection of it rather than any actual research. (I say 'claim' advisedly, I think it's fair to assume David Irving et al know full well the Holocaust happened, they just don't like admitting so in public.) The Zionists can then try to tar others with their brush of denial, and on it goes.

Another point that never seems to get mentioned that the Jewish vote (clearly a much wider thing than the formalised Zionist lobby) is overwhelmingly liberal and Democrat-voting.

Stanley Lieber said...

I've not yet read the book, but the artwork I've seen from it so far has been stunning.

When I first heard about the project my initial thought was that it was a trap of sorts, in that Dave is tackling this "Oscar magnet" topic so he'll have something to complain about when/if his reputation as a crank isn't completely repaired overnight. Perhaps not the most charitable of thoughts, but it was my honest, immediate impression.

It's hard for me not to interpret everything he does these days as an attempt to gain a foothold for his ideas on gender and religion.

Andrew Hickey said...

"Stanley", I wondered about that myself. But it does seem to be a very sincerely meant work (and also from the promotional stuff he seems to think that the Eevul Libruls want everyone to forget the holocaust because it's not touchy-feely enough). It's also far too unflinching to be 'Oscar material' - this is closer to the raw footage of the death camps than it is to a Schindler's List or a Maus.

Stanley Lieber said...

Andrew:

I do think there's a little of both here.

Andrew Hickey said...

I certainly wouldn't rule it out - I don't have a very high opinion of Sim the-person-as-expressed-through-his-prose (I wouldn't want to judge him as a person, having never met him or spoken to him). But the work to me seems to be intended more seriously than that. I *think* that when Judenhass doesn't get the acclaim Sim thinks it deserves (and I suspect that if he won the Pulitzer, the Nobel Prize for Literature, every Eisner, got made Time Man of The Year, got made the world's first ever pre-humous saint and got the Mrs Joyful Prize For Raffia work he'd still not think he'd got the acclaim he deserves) it'll be more likely that he will use it as 'proof' that Evil Liberal Marxist-Feminists Hate The Jews rather than as 'proof' that Evil Liberal Marxist-Feminists Hate Dave Sim.

We shall see...

Gavin Burrows said...

...he thinks all artists, especially non-Jews, have a responsibility to deal with the Holocaust, and that this is especially true of comic creators because so much of the industry is based on the work of Jewish creators

This raises something interesting. When I first read that sentence it made me think of the way popular music has often lent itself to anti-racist campaigns, as a kind of implicit acknowledgement of its continuing debt to black music.

But, while it's certainly numerically true that the comics industry in America was built by Jewish creators, does that mean there's some input from Jewish culture that's made the comics industry what it is today? Or is it more like the roads in Britain, almost all laid by Irish hands but I don't think anyone would start studying them as examples of Irish culture.

I remember a writer called Ivy Garlitz arguing the first option in an old Comics Forum. (Unfortunately not as I know filed on-line.) I wasn't convinced by the specifics of her arguments (and wrote in to say so), but wondered even at the time whether she was onto something in general.

If anyone reading this has any thoughts...

Andrew J said...

Sim places the Holocaust firmly in a historical context, not as an isolated event but as the culmination of centuries of active persecution and, more perniciously, of people saying that the Jews' persecution is not right but still somehow brought on by their own actions somehow.

The interesting thing about looking at the Holocaust in historical context is that one sees how completely logical it all was, compared to what every nation was thinking and saying about Gypsies, Jews, Homosexuals and others regarded as problems. There's a reason it was called the Final Solution.

But what keeps me up at night, when people revisit this and use Hitler and the Nazis as shorthand for "everyone agrees that these, at least, were evil" is the question of whether our society thinks the Nazis were evil because of the things they did, or if we think antisemitism is evil because it's what the guys we were fighting did best.

Anonymous said...

but Sim's work here is every bit as good and detailed as Gerhard's was.

Not even close.
Gerhard didn’t trace.

Stanley Lieber said...

Anonymous:

Gerhard's process involved computer modeling and photography. Even in the '80s he built architectural models to use as reference, as evidenced by the photographs he posed for on the back of issues of CEREBUS.

Prankster said...

"It is all too easy to go from 'the current Israeli government is in the wrong' to 'Israel is in the wrong' to 'the Jews are evil'."

I'm sorry, but I don't think it's "all too easy" to do this at all, if you're a sane person. I understand what you're getting at, and I acknowledge that there are plenty of people who seem to have slid down that road, but the statement kind of makes it sound like criticism of the government of Israel leads inexorably to, well, "Judenhass".

Anonymous said...

It continues to baffle me that some (especially someone as smart as yourself) seem to not comprehend the not-so-subtle differences between referencing and outright tracing.

Looking at something and trying to turn it into a drawing (and hopefully giving it a little artistic life, because outright “photorealism” is boring and entirely pointless) and putting tracing paper *on* the image and making a direct copy…this goes beyond ‘apples and oranges’.

But Greg Land, another tracer, is highly thought of so there is little point in my even bringing it up; Dave would just use it as an excuse to cite a personal attack, or something.

Gavin Burrows said...

Prankster said:
I'm sorry, but I don't think it's "all too easy" to do this at all, if you're a sane person. I understand what you're getting at, and I acknowledge that there are plenty of people who seem to have slid down that road, but the statement kind of makes it sound like criticism of the government of Israel leads inexorably to, well, "Judenhass".

Assuming this is more than a semantic argument, I would like to say that Prankster is right. Unfortunately Andrew is right.

The Israeli government and Zionist lobby play the ‘anti-semitic’ card so often that they’ve effectively pushed a whole lot of people down that slippery slope. Of course the argument is quite an absurd one. The majority of Jewish people don’t even live in Israel, while the majority of Israelis favour dialogue with Hamas. However, they continue to play this card because it’s so chillingly effective.

Let’s remember that back in the 30s Zionists agitated for a kind of unholy alliance with Mussolini on the grounds that the Fascists were “honest anti-semites” who might push more Jewish folk out of Europe and so create pressure for the creation of Israel. I don't think things are so different today...

Earth Pig Born said...

Yhoowhoo is irrational and Evil. She's the one who will be demanding repayment for all the sacrificed cattle, not God. That's not justification for the Holocaust, it's illustrating how it isn't justified.

-Jeff

Andrew Hickey said...

Jeff, it's still saying the Holocaust happened because of *something 'the Jews' did*. It's still fundamentally saying "if you(r ancestors) hadn't done this morally wrong thing, then you wouldn't be punished now".

I get that Dave wasn't saying the Holocaust was a *good* thing or anything, but it's still a fairly tasteless thing to say...

Cédric said...

Dave wasn't saying anything, Cerebus was... Remember the basic rules, guys ;)

Stanley Lieber said...

Cédric:

Dave has said on numerous occasions that in that storyline Cerebus was serving as a mouthpiece for his own beliefs.