Thankfully firmly rooted in the past, there was a time when serious subjects were antithetical to comic books. All this appeared to change when Maus, Art Spiegelman’s tale of his father’s experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, told with animals, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, the first graphic novel to do so. Spiegelman had begun publishing these stories in his magazine RAW, back in 1980.
Thanks to the newly published We Spoke Out from Yoe Books, we now know that this difficult subject matter was covered as early as 1951. Coauthored by Neal Adams, Rafael Medoff and Craig Yoe, with an brief introduction and afterward by Stan Lee, Adams notes, “Some stories are stronger than others. But that’s not the point. This isn’t a Greatest Hits album. It’s a slice of history…. This is how we tried, in our own modest way, to teach American kids about something very important that they weren’t learning about in school.”
While Hitler made his first comic book appearance being slugged by Captain America in 1941, and war comics as a genre began soon after the war, the Holocaust was hardly mentioned. However, according to coauthor, Dr. Medoff , Holocaust and Jewish historian, and founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, “During the 1950s, when the Nazis were fresh in the public’s mind and there was no Comics Code Authority to restrict what comics creators wrote and drew, a number of comic books featured starkly gory tales of Nazi concentration camp commandants engaging in torture and other atrocities. Often the victims would return from beyond the grave to give the Germans a taste of their own medicine.”
This began with EC comics, first in Frontline Combat #3 with the telling of Rommel, and Nazi atrocities, in “Desert Fox,” by writer Harvey Kurtzman and artist Wally Wood, and again in 1955 in Impact #1 with “Master Race,” by writer Al Feldstein and artist Bernie Krigstein. The later, which heralded “A ‘New Direction’ in magazines on the cover, is a masterpiece of comic storytelling, stark, painfully honest and passionately told.
Other publishers followed suit. Included here are “Escape from Maidenek,” from Stamps Comics #4 in 1952 from Youthful Magazines and “The Tattooed Heart!” from Beware! Terror Tales #4, published in 1953 by Fawcett Comics. All are still hard to read some 6 plus decades later.
The book jumps ahead to the late 60s, and through the 70s and 80s, with the most recent entry from 2008. There are detailed essays for each comic story. I will let others be the judge as to how successful the stories are when brought into the superhero genre. There is no question that this is an important work, and the authors are to be commended. During these turbulent times, this should stand as a reminder to all, “Never Again.”