The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

Speaking the Unspeakable and Seeing the Unseeable: The Role of Fantastika in Visualising the Holocaust, or, More Than Just Maus

Glyn Morgan


Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed... Healthy emotions tell every independent young man and every honourable youth that the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal... Away with the Jewish brutalization of the people! Down with Mickey Mouse! Wear the Swastika Cross!

Newspaper article, Pomerania, Germany, mid-1930s. Quoted in Spiegelman, The Complete Maus, 164.

Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel has famously denied the possibility of creating art about the Holocaust.1 Wiesel’s doctrine of the inapproachable nature of the Holocaust can be found throughout his considerable oeuvre, but his essay “Art and the Holocaust” (1989) provides a condensed taste of the thesis: “Auschwitz represents the negation and failure of human progress; [...] it defeated culture; later, it defeated art, because just as no one could imagine Auschwitz before Auschwitz, no one can now retell Auschwitz after Auschwitz.” Wiesel pours particular ire over visual representations such as The Night Porter, Seven Beauties, and American mini-series Holocaust. He continues:

Why this determination to show ''everything'' in pictures? […] the Holocaust is not a subject like all the others. It imposes certain limits. There are techniques that one may not use, even if they are commercially effective. In order not to betray the dead and humiliate the living, this particular subject demands a special sensibility, a different approach, a rigor strengthened by respect and reverence and, above all, faithfulness to memory.

The targets of Wiesel’s essay are televisual, cinematic, and theatrical productions, yet the reference to showing things in pictures also calls to mind an art form which Wiesel doesn’t reference in this essay (likely more out of neglect than implicit approval), the ninth art: comics.2 This article will examine a selection of Holocaust representations from different periods of representation, paying particular attention to their use of the tools of fantastika to convey meaning and represent the Holocaust in a manner which is uniquely suited to the comic book form.


Despite Wiesel’s objections, art and the Holocaust have been intertwined from the beginning. Just as survivors performed plays in the Displaced Persons camps, comics find their roots at the earliest moments in the history of the Holocaust.3 One of the earliest surviving examples of a comic from the Holocaust is Mickey au camp de Gurs [Mickey in Gurs Camp] (1942) by Horst Rosenthal, a Polish Jew who was living in Paris when the Second World War broke out. After Germany invaded France he was captured and initially held at Le Stade Buffalo at Montrouge, before being moved between numerous French camps including the camp of Gurs, near Pau on the French-Spanish border. His journey would ultimately lead him to be deported to Auschwitz on 11 September 1942 where he was killed (“Plus qu’un nom dans une liste: Horst Rosenthal”). Rosenthal created three comics (that we know of) during his internment at Gurs. They survived by being donated to the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine (CDJC, Centre for Contemporary Jewish Documentation), Paris, in 1978 by Rabbi Max Ansbacher who had served as camp chaplain at Gurs during Rosenthal’s internment. It is not known whether he created other pieces whilst at any other camps, if he did then they were not preserved. Of the three pieces, what makes Mickey in Gurs particularly fascinating, aside from the miracle of its survival, is its use of a fantastic trope to illustrate daily life in a concentration camp. The short comic depicts Mickey Mouse as he travels in France and is arrested for not having any papers. He is taken to Gurs where from the point of view of a newcomer and outsider he describes the bureaucracy, poor conditions, miniscule rations, and inmates. The art style is somewhere between Disney and Herge, but the subject matter belies the cute drawings, as one exchange demonstrates:

Apres quelques minutes d'attente, une tete emergeait du tas. After waiting a few minutes, a head emerged from the heap.

Vote nom? demandait la tete. Your name? asked the head


Le nom de votre pere? The name of your father?

Walt Disney

Le nom de votre mere? The name of your mother?

Ma mere? Je n'ai pas de mere! My mother? I have no mother!

Comment? Vous n'avez pas de mere? Vous vous Foutre de ma gueule!! How? You do not have a mother? You’re fucking with me!!

Non, vraiment, je n'ai pas de mere!! No, really, I have no mother!!

Sans blague! J'ai comme des types, qui n'avaient pas de peres, mais pas de meres... Eu fin, passons - vous etes juif? No kidding! I know guys who do not have fathers, but not mothers ... In the end - you're Jewish?

Plait -il? Pardon Me?

Je vous demande si vous etes juif!! I asked you if you are Jewish!

Honteusement, j'avouais ma complete ignorance à ce sujet. Shamefully, I confessed my complete ignorance of the subject


Quelle nationalité? What nationality?

Heuh . . . Je suis né en Amérique, mais je suis international!! Huh... I was born in America, but I’m international!!!

International! INTERNATIONAL!! Alors, vous étes commun...... Et avec une grimace horrible, la tête retrait dans son tas de papiers. International! INTERNATIONALL!!! So, you are common..... And with a horrible grimace, the head withdraws into its pile of papers. (Mickey à Gurs 13-15)4

The comedic outlandishness of a camp official literally being buried in paperwork is typical of the black humour that permeates the piece. There are layers of irony in this discussion being centred on Mickey Mouse: as a symbol of America, albeit an ‘international’ one, Mickey’s ‘complete ignorance’ of the possibility of his Jewish heritage could reflect America’s seeming ignorance of the suffering of Jews and others in Europe (or so it must have appeared to someone trapped in a camp such as Gurs). At the same time, the suggestion of Mickey’s Jewishness has an added irony due to the reported anti-Semitic views of Walt Disney, his ‘father’, a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an anti-communist, anti-Semitic organisation. Lisa Naomi Mulman writes:

In traditionally Jewish terms, Mickey’s paternity would not matter since Jewish identity is determined matrilineally. In terms of Mickey’s physical appearance, and how can he be anything other than Jewish, being that he appears to be a mouse (in other words, not human)? From Mickey’s/Rosenthal’s perspective, this must be some kind of mistake; he is not a mouse, he is Mickey Mouse, and thus his central identity is American, not Jewish. In reality, he is a work of imagination that mobilizes a vast constellation of overlapping and contradictory ideologies. (Modern Orthodoxies 97) [Emphases in original]

Mulman’s point highlights the discrepancy between a possible perceived central self-identity (American, French, Polish) and that imposed from the external force of the Nazi racial system (Jewish), which over-rides any other factors. Similarly, whilst traditional or orthodox Jewish religious identity is passed matrilineally, the Nuremburg laws disregard Jewish custom and focus only on their perceived ethnicity. Furthermore, whilst it was probably not Walt Disney’s intention to create a Jewish character who would come to represent his company and legacy, by choosing a mouse he overlaps with the Nazi perception of Jews as vermin, although it is worth noting that dehumanisation was not limited to Jews, and the Nazis extended similar forms of non-human status to other groups which they targeted for eradication including gypsies, homosexuals, and the physically and mentally disabled.

Dehumanisation is an essential strategy and marker in the process of genocide, part of a wider system of humiliation and, as Adam Jones notes, “it is difficult to find a historical or contemporary case of genocide in which humiliation is not a key motivating force” (394-395). Just as Tutsis in Rwanda were referred to as Inyezi, or cockroaches, so were Jews labelled by the Nazis as rats and vermin before them (Straus 158). Rosenthal harnesses this imagery, with all of its intrinsic fears of contamination and impurity, and ties it to one of the most sanitised images of a mouse it is possible to find.


The literalising of the metaphor of dehumanisation through the juxtaposition of words and images which is intrinsic to the comic book form is only possible through the deployment of fantastika. As Mulman suggests, Mickey can be read as a symbol of many things in the text, but he is more than simple allegory, he remains a walking, talking, whistling rodent. Fantastic, non-realist, techniques such as inserting a cartoon character into everyday life, allow Rosenthal to make more nuanced comments about Gurs than either of the surviving more realist comics he produced, comments given significant additional impact by the juxtaposition of non-realist imagery (not just Mickey, but also the cartoonish supporting characters) with the very real[ist] existence of Gurs and the reality of the Holocaust. Indeed, this is made explicit by Rosenthal employing a small photograph of the camp within the book which Mickey reacts to with shock as he describes the living conditions, “only a fictional character could even begin to cope with such a bitter reality” (13).


Metafictional fantastika is also employed with great effect in the final panel of the comic. Mickey is able to escape from Gurs, which he chooses to do because the air no longer suits him, “so since I’m only a cartoon, I removed myself at the stroke of an eraser. The police can always come and look for me in the land of liberty, equality, and fraternity. I’m talking about America!” (23). Mickey’s removal of himself by the stroke of an eraser mirrors the ease with which the Germans were seemingly able to erase Jews with the stroke of a pen. Above all, though, how tragic, this final sentiment of appreciation and admiration for a country which Rosenthal is clearly influenced by (his Mickey looks, after all, the perfect facsimile of the Disney original), yet will never see.


Ultimately, by employing fantastic techniques, Rosenthal is able to exploit a view-point which would otherwise be unavailable to him, especially in so small a space as a thirteen panel comic. Mickey is able to embody both the states of the Jewish inmate and the American outsider, simultaneously he is an intrinsically metatextual being and thus able to interact with the text and the situation in a manner unobtainable to a realist protagonist. This allows Rosenthal avenues of critique and darkly-comic parody which give Micky à Gurs a unique feel and importance, even amongst his other work, let alone the work of other contemporary chroniclers of life in a concentration camp.


Whilst occupying a significant position in the timeline of Holocaust comics for having been produced by a camp internee during the Holocaust itself, the work of Horst Rosenthal has had minimal impact on the medium of comics due to its relatively late discovery and status as unpublished and untranslated (until recently). Nonetheless, the spectre of the Holocaust looms over subsequent comics, as indeed does Walt Disney. Created by a trio of artists and writers led by Edmond-François Calvo, La Bete est Morte! Or The Beast is Dead was published in Paris in 1944. Worked on secretly during the occupation, it has an astonishingly high quality of artwork and detail and, as with Mickey in Gurs, it also uses anthropomorphic animals to tell its story.5 Unlike Rosenthal’s booklets, Calvo’s work has been known since its creation, at least in French speaking countries, and is nominally treated as a children’s book. As with Rosenthal’s work, the art has as much to do with this classification as the subject matter or the writing. The French are cast as rabbits, Americans as Buffalo, and the British as Bulldogs, whilst the Germans are wolves, the Italians are hyenas, the Japanese are yellow monkeys, and Calvo uses the mechanics of the barnyard fable to tell the story of French history during the Second World War. It also replicates the moral naivety of the barnyard fable with its clear predator-prey dynamic and all sources of evil coming from outside of the borders of France; the issues of collaboration or sympathy for Nazi causes are not at all touched upon (Tufts 44). Incidentally, The Hitler-wolf was considered to bare such a strong resemblance to Disney’s own Big Bad Wolf that the corporation began a lawsuit against Calvo which was only resolved when the design of the wolf was changed to distinguish him from the Disney counterpart.6


Whilst not ostensibly a Holocaust comic, The Beast is Dead contains an unflinching depiction of military occupation by a foreign power and its links to the genocide. With reference to “l'anéantissement total de ces foules inoffensives [the total annihilation of harmless crowds]” a single page has two panels, the first heart wrenching, the second gruesome. The first panel shows a child (a baby rabbit) being forcibly separated from its mother as she is bundled into a train freight wagon with other cowering rabbits, stars are visible sewn onto some of their clothes. The wagon is labelled “via Berlin” dispelling any possibility of blame being misappropriated by the animal imagery. The wolf carrying the child overlaps slightly, breaching the gutter (white border) of the panel, and so links the image of the child inexorably with the second panel. The second panel shows the gruesome execution of the “foules inoffensives”, with rabbits and squirrels being machine-gunned down by laughing wolves, blood splattering into the air and onto the floor. On the wall to the right of the dead and dying mammals is a poster showing a yellow star (25).


Whilst a morally simplistic “jubilatory fantasy”, The Beast is Dead is capable of moments of revulsion amidst the beautifully painted, large-format pages (Gravatt 58). When theytouch on the crimes of the Nazis, Calvo’s are non-flinching depictions which belie the cartoonish nature of the artwork and must be close to the limits of representation possible for the average Frenchman in 1944, considering that the true horrors of the camps were yet to be revealed to the general population or fully understood by the West until the liberation of Buchenwald and particularly Bergen-Belsen in April 1945. Certainly, the text’s immortality in the Francophone world owes a measure of its longevity to its status as a work which is at times brutal but still, thanks to the barnyard animals, child appropriate.


The use of animal substitutes for human victims, and particularly the assigning of animal species based on nationalism, pre-empts Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a crucial pinnacle text which sets the high mark for comic book representations of the Holocaust, and indeed comic book memoirs and biographies more widely. Without a doubt, it is the most written about Holocaust comic, if not the most written about comic of any genre or topic, and for good reason. Maus redefined the boundaries of what a comic was perceived to be capable of. It was serialised in Raw from 1980 before being picked up by Pantheon books and published, volume one in 1986, volume two in 1991, and later as The Complete Maus. From the beginning readers and critics have struggled with categorising the text. The New York Times initially placed it in the fiction bestseller’s list, something which Spiegelman himself resisted, writing to the paper: “As an author I believe I might have lopped several years off the 13 I devoted to my two-volume project if I could only have taken a novelist’s license while searching for novelistic structure.” (MetaMaus 150) The Times ultimately acquiesced to Spiegelman’s protest, admitting that both the publishers and US Library of Congress categorised the book as nonfiction, but notbefore one editor commented “Let's go out to Spiegelman's house and if a giant mouse answers the door, we'll move it to the nonfiction side of the list!” (MetaMaus 150). Incidentally, the Pulitzer Prize committee sidestepped the issue by awarding Maus a “Special Award” rather than an award for fiction or nonfiction.


The issue of Maus’s fictionality comes, not from anxiety about the authenticity of the narrative regarding the relationship between two generations of Spiegelman which forms one thread of the book, nor from questions about the authenticity of Vladek’s Holocaust experience, which forms the second thread, neither is it the postmodern, non-linear intertwining of these two narrative streams; the problem of Maus’s fictionality comes from its mode of expression not just as comic, but as a comic with anthropomorphic animal characters. As in The Beast is Dead, Spiegelman adopts zoological ciphers to depict characters of differing races. Rather than following the principles of the barnyard fable, Spiegelman begins by literalising the Nazi propaganda about Jews and then works from there. Thus, the Jews are mice, and the Germans as their exterminators must become cats. The relationships become more complex when Poles are added as Pigs, and then Americans as dogs, by the time we reach British fish (driving jeeps) the animal allegory has perhaps run its course. Nonetheless, at least in its initial incarnations of Mice, Cats, and Pigs, the artwork of Maus presents Spiegelman’s literal take on the dehumanisation process.


We are left, then, with the seemingly oxymoronic status of fantastical non-fiction, at the very least we have a text which employs a complex and layered fantastic allegory in its non-fictional narrative – for the cat-mouse (et al.) dynamic is taken further than simply animal fable. Unlike Calvo, if we were to substitute the animals for people the text would no longer function, at least not in the same manner. For example, Spiegelman weaves a meta-textual present-day narrative amidst the Holocaust story, he maintains the animal imagery in the present but it is weaker, prone to breaking down, most notably the scene in which he is interrogated by the press about the success of volume one of Maus (201-203). This scene, and the subsequent visit to the psychiatrist (himself a Czech Jew and a survivor of both Terezin and Auschwitz), show Spiegelman using fantastic, or non-mimetic, imagery to express his emotional state. In a written narrative this might be a metaphor: he’s built his fame and career on the bodies of Holocaust victims, after the death of his father and his unexpected attention and success he feels vulnerable and uncertain. But by drawing these things into the panels, Spiegelman is making them literally real: his artist’s drawing table and chair are at the summit of a mound of emaciated mouse-headed human corpses (201); he shrinks to the proportions and size of a child, only growing again once the psychiatrist has helped him to gain new resolve and confidence (202, 206). In these ways, and others like them, the very form of the comic book enable these crucial and emotive moments of fantastika without detracting from the non-fictional narrative. We understand, as readers, that these things are not real, in the same way we understand that Mickey Mouse didn’t really visit Gurs, nor does Art Spiegelman really have a mouse’s head. These diversions from the “real”, or the mimetic, allow Maus to access an emotional register denied to more conventional texts, even those which share the medium of comics:

[The Holocaust] is too vast to be limited to my one book, of course, but some of these projects strike me as if they were trying to set my work right by smoothing down the rough edges, by making a more didactic, more sentimental, more slickly drawn Holocaust comic book. […] This means they re-enter that maudlin sentimentalizing notion of suffering and how it ennobles and often insists on the primacy of Jewish suffering over other suffering, and so on. Some of them seemed to suggest, “Well, we’ll do it with humans so we get rid of that whole stupid baggage of the animal masks.” But I think it’s those animal masks that allowed me to approach otherwise unsayable things. What makes Maus thorny is actually what allows it to be useful as a real “teaching tool,” despite the non-didactic intent of my own book. (MetaMaus 127)

Spiegelman considers “the whole stupid baggage of the animal masks” to be fundamental to the narrative he is telling. Maus is not necessarily able to tell us anything new about the Holocaust itself, but instead it gives us a unique insight into the people it involved and its effects on them and their families for generations to come. Just as the barnyard allegory allows Calvo to create distance in one respect (these are no longer human fighters and victims), but brings us closer in another (through the ability to depict otherwise too-graphic images of suffering, as well as its ability to reach a younger audience), so too by removing the human from Maus, Spiegelman has allowed us to actually get closer to the humanity of the victims. As Caroline Wiedmer points out, the use of the cat and mouse imagery in Maus “have a twofold effect: they circumvent the treacheries of Holocaust representation by purely mimetic means and thereby offer a solution that appeals to and indeed relies on the reader’s interpretive involvement in the text” (14) [emphasis mine]. Thus, Spiegelman employs non-mimetic, or fantastic, techniques within what is ostensibly a realist, or non-fiction, narrative in order to cause us to re-evaluate not the fact of the Holocaust, but the wider issues of the way in which we understand history, the effect it has upon its participants (either perpetrators or victims), and the nature of relationships – particularly familial.

For example, Spiegelman explicitly makes clear that Vladek, his father, is not an easy man to live with. In a conversation with his father’s second wife, Mala, Art remarks: “I used to think the war made him that way,” which elicits a scoff from Mala who replies “I went through the camps . . . All our friends went through the camps. Nobody is like him” (Maus 134). On another occasion, Art, Francoise and Vladek are driving back from buying groceries when Francoise stops the car to give a lift to a hitchhiker (a black dog, thus a black American), Vladek complains about giving lifts to “a coloured guy, a shvartser,” and that he “had the whole time to watch out that this shvartser doesn’t steal us the groceries from the back seat.” Francoise angrily condemns him for this racist stereotyping: “how can you, of all people, be such a racist! You talk about the Blacks the way the Nazis talked about the Jews.” Vladek simply replies that he had thought Francoise smarter than this, and that “it’s not even to compare the shvartsers and the Jews!” (Maus 259). Spiegelman’s notebooks reveal that he was tempted with making the episode still more impactful by portraying the black man as a crow or a monkey, externalising the dehumanisation of blacks in the same manner in which the mouse motif realises the Nazi depiction of Jews (MetaMaus 36). That he withdraws from this, depicting the man as a black dog instead, is itself a commentary on race relations in the US, suggesting perhaps that the image of the crow or the monkey retains a power and impact which would have been harmful to the message of the book whereas the Jew-mouse is now a much more impotent by comparison.


Regardless, Spiegelman felt it important to include the moment which exposed his father’s racism: “It is part of Vladek’s impossible nature. It is also, though, what festered into becoming the Final Solution; and it is what allows our current immigration debates to take certain kinds of appalling coloration now […] it seems to be a basic aspect of how tribes organize themselves.” (MetaMaus 36-37) Importantly, however, by presenting an honest depiction of Vladek both in Poland, and afterwards in America, “just trying to portray [his] father accurately” (Maus 134), Spiegelman is able to complicate the moral simplicity of texts such as The Beast is Dead. Vladek is an “impossible character”, he’s flawed, and generally difficult. Being a Holocaust survivor does not imbue him with a saintliness, profundity, or greater insight into life, the world, or the difficulties of others. To all intents and purposes, Maus shows Vladek to simply be an old man with an interesting, if horrifying, story to tell.


It is ironic that by dehumanising the characters of Maus into animals, Spiegelman has simultaneously managed to expose their humanity. This is not to say that non-fantastic, mimetic comics are lacking in their humanity, but rather that by deploying fantastic tools, or ciphers, Spiegelman is able to approach the problem of the Holocaust and its representation from another angle. This is an avenue denied to other works such as Joe Kubert’s Yossel, April 19, 1943 (2003) which borders on alternate history, centring around what might have happened to Kubert’s family had they not left Poland in 1926, but is otherwise completely mimetic; or Pascal Croci’s Auschwitz (2000), which uses mimetic, realist black and white art to powerfully place in parallel the Jewish experience in the titular camp with the Bosnian War. Most significantly in its portrayal of Vladek, the mouse imagery helps to ameliorate some of the harmful impact of “the racist caricature of the miserly old Jew” which Art fears his father is too close to for comfort (133). At the same time, it allows him to employ narrative techniques which give the text more of the emotional “balance” that he confesses to be anxious about given the absence of his mother’s side of the story (134).


An interesting comparison to Vladek can be found in a very different fantastic comic book source, and one which is certainly fictional: the X-Men, and particularly their some-time nemesis Magneto. For whilst the Holocaust has gradually become a greater thematic touchstone for post-war superhero comics as they develop, no major title has been so heavily influenced by it as the X-Men. Created in 1963 by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee for Marvel Comics, the X-Men are a team of mutants; genetically different from the rest of humanity which manifests as a superpower. Unlike most other super powered heroes the X-Men and other mutants are generally portrayed as societal outcasts who frequently have to battle not just evil mutants and supervillains but daily discrimination and constraints on their civil rights. Not for nothing did their slogan become “sworn to protect a world that hates and fears them.” Despite being heroes, the X-Men have a long history of being read as a cipher for persecuted groups, including ethnic minority communities in America as well as gay communities, with some mutants preferring to hide their powers and remain “closeted” in order to attempt to live a “normal” life.


A significant example of the Holocaust’s influence on the X-Men are the plotlines for Days of Future Past, published in Uncanny X-Men issues #141 “Days of Future Past”, and #142“Mind out of Time!” (1981) written by long-standing X-Men writer Chris Claremont. Days of Future Past, from which the 2014 film draws inspiration, is a time-travel narrative which begins in a dystopian future where mutants, and their supporters and sympathisers, are being systematically incarcerated in concentration camps across North America, with the aim being to eliminate the mutant gene. Set in the futuristic year 2013, survivors must wear one of three letters on their clothing:

“H”, for baseline human – clean of mutant genes, allowed to breed.

“A”, for anamolous human – a normal person possessing mutant genetic potential … Forbidden to breed.

“M”, for mutant. The bottom of the heap, made pariahs and outcasts by the mutant control act of 1988. Hunted down and with a few rare exceptions – killed without mercy. In the quarter century since the act’s passage, millions have died.

They were the lucky ones. (Uncanny X-Men #141)

Amongst the rubble of a ruined Manhattan, we are shown a world where Nuremberg-style laws have come into effect. In an effort to eradicate the mutant gene, humans have built and activated giant robot Sentinels with “an open-ended program, with fatally broad parameters, to ‘eliminate’ the mutant menace once and for all. The Sentinels concluded that the best way to do that would be to take over the country.” (#141). Fearing the spread of the robots to their own nations, we’re told the other powers of the world are preparing a nuclear strike on North America to contain the destruction, and it is in this nuclear context that the word “holocaust” finds its sole usage. Yet, with its categorisation of peoples, eugenics program, extreme destruction and mechanised extermination (the Sentinels are super-modern machines for a super-powered problem), there can be no doubts that Claremont, himself a Jewish writer, is evoking the historic Holocaust more than he is evoking contemporary fears of nuclear war. The X-Men and other mutants in the Marvel Universe are constantly under threat from fascist registration laws, but the Days of Future Past storyline realises these laws and depicts their genocidal consequences. Ultimately, this possible future is undone when an adult (and, incidentally, Jewish) Kitty Pryde transfers her mind psychically into her younger contemporary-era body in order to prevent the assassination of a US Senator by a mutant, a crucial landmark on the road to the imagined dystopia which mirrors the shooting of Ernst vom Rath, the German diplomat in Paris, whose shooting in 1938 by Polish-Jew Herschel Grynszpan was one of the pretexts for Kristallnacht.7

The leader of the resistance in the nightmarish 2013 of Days of Future Past is Magneto, the mutant with the most explicit Holocaust connection. Magneto was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as the arch-nemesis to the X-Men and features as such in their very first issue in 1963. Like most comic book villains, particularly of the era, he began as a two-dimensional villain, even leading a team of mutants who called themselves “The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants”, a moniker which defies moral ambiguity. Yet, over the decades, Magneto has become a rare thing in superhero comics, he is a character who has actually grown and developed, he has become a less straightforward villain, more of an anti-hero, often now in uneasy alliance with the X-Men, at times even leading them; and this is largely because of the retrofitting of the Holocaust into his backstory.

Professor Xavier, the leader of the X-Men, and Magneto have a complicated on-again-off-again status as friends and nemeses. A flashback in a 1982 issue of Uncanny X-Men #161 (1982) shows their first encounter being when Xavier visited a hospital for recovering Holocaust victims in Haifa, Israel, and found Magneto there as a patient (Claremont, “Gold Rush”). Over the years, Magneto’s story is expanded and added to, we learn that he survived Auschwitz where he “learned first-hand of man’s utter inhumanity to man – and it shrivelled [his] soul as surely as acute hunger ravaged [his] body” (Macchio, “…That I Be Bound in a Nutshell”). Indeed, as Sean Howe asserts, Magneto’s backstory makes explicit what was only implicit about the X-Men comics: “The shocking revelation that [Magneto] had been a child prisoner at Auschwitz ramped up the title’s long-present themes of bigotry and persecution […] in which discrimination toward mutant characters was put explicitly in the contexts of racism and homophobia. (Marvel Comics 242) Whilst Grant Morrison highlights the character’s growth into a new level of complexity: “Claremont’s Magneto was a tragic, essentially noble survivor of the death camps, a man who had witnessed more than his fair share of sorrow and hardship and knew how to make hard choices. He had depth and dignity.” (Supergods 357) Nowhere is this more obvious than in the origin story prequel comic, Magneto: Testament (2008). Whilst Magneto is often seen as Malcolm X to Xavier’s Martin Luther King, Magneto: Testament supplants the American Civil Rights analogy with an explicit origin rooted in internment in Auschwitz (Baron 48). Written by Greg Pak, It’s a gruesome and dark tale, as you’d expect, and despite being an X-Men comic the young Magneto’s powers are still latent and only emerge on a handful of occasions, often accidentally and subtly. Originally published in five issues, since collected into a single volume, the first two issues show the struggles of young “Max” trying to live normal lives in Nuremberg despite government sanctioned Anti-Semitism. Max’s father is a veteran of the First World War and mistakenly believes that this will protect him and his family from the worst. When it becomes obvious that life is no longer tolerable the family flee to Poland where they are trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto after the German invasion. The final two issues show Max’s existence in Auschwitz which he ultimately survives by escaping during the 1944 uprising of sonderkommandos.

As with many post-Maus holocaust comics, Pak includes paratextual material to reassure the reader that the comic is heavily rooted in factual accounts insisting that ‘we deal with this unfathomably harrowing material in a way that’s honest, unflinching, human, and humane’ (Pak, “Afterword”). Some find the comic problematic not because of its faithfulness to history, but because it casts a villain (although he is rarely so cleanly distinguished as such these days) as a Holocaust survivor. Robert G. Weiner and Lynne Fallwell, for example, suggest it “crosses into anti-Semitic territory” by using “a Jewish Holocaust victim as a villainous character” (466). This is a questionable criticism because it not only denies Magneto the growth he has experienced over fifty years, but also implies that everyone who survived the Holocaust is by default destined to live a good and just life. In questioning this logic when applied to Magneto, Testament shares surprising ground with the honest and flawed portrayal of Vladek in Maus.

Whilst this article has presented a very select view of the fantastic and the Holocaust in comics, it has touched on texts from varying backgrounds, decades, and genres. In doing so, it has attempted to highlight a specific thread of reasoning, one which applies more broadly to interactions of the fantastic and traumatic events such as the Holocaust both within and beyond comics, but which is particularly prevalent in the comic book form: they normalise the Holocaust without diminishing it, by which I mean they allow the Holocaust to be placed on a scale of suffering and made comparable to other atrocities, rather than separate from it. At the same time, they allow narratives to be told in such a way that “unsayable things” can be expressed, normally complex emotional issues which are difficult to articulate.


Fantastic or non-mimetic Holocaust fiction, by its very nature, is in opposition to statements made by critics and scholars such as Alvin Rosenfeld in the introduction to his otherwise excellent book on Holocaust fiction – purely realist and mimetic Holocaust fiction, it should be noted – he theorises that Holocaust literature “occupies another sphere of study” compared to other topical literatures about “the family, of slavery, of the environment, of World War I or World War II” continuing that Holocaust literature “force[s] us to contemplate what may be fundamental changes in our modes of perception and expression” (12).


Mickey a Gurs uses Fantastika to explore the disconnect between American society and the camps, whilst also poking fun at the bureaucratic nature of the genocide, all from within the jaws of the beast itself. La Bete est Morte portrays a level of violence and brutality that would never have been acceptable were it humans being slaughtered, and certainly would not be treated a text for children, and thus encourages a search for empathy and understanding that would otherwise be denied to us. Maus asks questions our moral simplicity whilst also allowing for a far more visceral and nuanced insight into issues of race, segregation, and discrimination than an animal-less version would. These are narratives which employ the fantastic as a tool to better understand the Holocaust. The X-Men, particularly Magneto and Magneto: Testament is the inverse, it is the fantastic utilising the Holocaust to add depth and gravitas to its original universe. Like Maus, Testament normalises Holocaust survivors by suggesting that a Holocaust survivor is just as capable of repeating the crimes of his perpetrator as any other victim. Similarly, through their associations with other persecuted groups, the X-Men as a whole align the Holocaust with a wider history of discrimination and bigotry, reminding us that the Holocaust was not only a Jewish catastrophe, and that it is not only Jews who need to be mindful of its lessons.

During Spiegelman’s previously referred to conversation with his psychiatrist, the psychiatrist muses that “the victims who died can never tell their side of the story, so maybe it’s better not to have any more stories.” Spiegelman replies: “Samuel Beckett once said: “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.” [...] On the other hand, he said it.” (204). Elie Wiesel insists that “silence itself communicates more and better”, yet as our connections with survivors loosen inevitably over time, we find ourselves less able to properly relate the silence to the event in a meaningful manner. We, like Spiegelman, yearn to fill that silence and attempt to bridge the impossible gap to understanding the trauma of the Holocaust. We can use every tool in our imaginative arsenal in this attempt at retrieving lost memories and all we can amount to is a whisper. It is, however, a necessary whisper that offers a better chance of being related to the horrifying truth of the Holocaust than an anonymous silence. Comics are a particularly potent tool because they “[force] the contemplation of the events into a transgressive real or medium, by calling for the unfamiliar, the unsettling” (Lipman 161), and this effect is only amplified by the inclusion of the fantastic. Neither the fantastic, nor comics, and certainly not the two combined, should be overlooked or underestimated in their potential to interrogate, examine, and explain aspects of history or the Holocaust.


1 This despite being himself the author of Holocaust fiction, in addition to his memoirs. Wiesel is of course to a certain extent responding to the oft quoted line from Theodore Adorno’s Negative Dialectics (Trans. E. B. Ashton. 1973) that ‘poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’.

2 Claude Beylie labelled comics the ninth art (after architecture, sculpture, painting, music, dance, poetry, and film and television), building on the original classifications of art by Ricciotto. See: Letters and Doctors, Mar 1964.

3 For an account of theatrical performances by Holocaust survivors in DP camps see: Feinstein, Margarete Myers. “Re-Imagining the Unimaginable: Theater, memory, and rehabilitation in the Displaced Persons camps” After the Holocaust: Challenging the Myth of Silence. Eds. David Cesarani and Eric J. Sundquist. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012. pp. 39-54.

4 Translation (in bold) my own. The original pamphlet of Mickey in Gurs is held by the CDJC, Paris. It has been published for the first time, along with Rosenthal’s other two comics, in Kotek, Joël and Didier Pasamonik. Mickey à Gurs: Les Carnets de dessins de Horst Rosenthal. Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 2014. All page references made are to this edition. Samples from the pamphlet, including the page containing this exchange, ‘In the Camp’s Office’, can be found among the references of Rosenberg, Pnina. “Mickey Mouse in Gurs – Humour, Irony and Criticism in Works of Art Produced in the Gurs Internment Camp.” Rethinking History 6. 3 (2002) : 273-292

5 The remaining two credits go to Victor Dancette and Jacques Zimmermann, but all editions of the comic give over-riding prominence to Calvo, the primary artist.

6 The irony continues, given that the Big Bad Wolf is often cited as evidence of Disney’s anti-Semitic tendencies after he appears dressed as a stereotyped Jewish peddler, complete with Yiddish accent, in the short film Three Little Pigs (1933, part of the Silly Symphonies) in an attempt to force his way into the brick house of the titular swine.

7 According to the German press of the time, controlled by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, the Kristallnacht pogrom was a spontaneous reaction to the killing. However, post-war documentary evidence shows that the violence was organised by Nazi officials including Reinhard Heydrich. See: Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. 430-435.


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