Many would argue (rightly) that the current culture of respectability apparently surrounding comics owes much to Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Speigelman’s comic – a formally sophisticated exploration of the connections and tensions between Speigelman, his father, and the Auschwitz concentration camp – brought a great deal of credibility to comics. Its serious, adult treatment of Auschwitz and its role in both WWII globally, and Speigelman’s family history more locally, demonstrated that comics could tackle significant issues, and could be significant art works in their own right.

 

 

More recently, however, a number of comics have appeared that make light of the Nazi’s, the WWII Jewish experience, or the Holocaust. Some of these are far more successful, and far less offensive, than others, and I will let the reader decide for him- or herself which is which. At the top is a page from French comic artist Pieter de Poortere’s Le Fils d’Hitler – the story of Hitler’s bastard Belgian son (a common ‘urban myth’), and his adventures during WWII (including `humorous’ (!?!) episodes at the concentration camps). To the right is one of the single-panel cartoons included in We Have Ways of Making You Talk, frequent The New Yorker magazine contributor S. Gross’ collection of one-hundred and twenty swastika cartoons. Finally, below we have a cartoon from Argentinean comic artist Gustavo Sala that appeared in Pagina 12, an Argentinean newpaper. The comic strip is titled David Gueto, Concentration Camp DJ in: FieSSta! (a play on well-known French DJ David Guetta), and the text reads (roughly) as follows:

Panel 1:

David Gueto: C’mon bitches, dance. Party, Party!

Jewish Inmates: But we don’t have anything to celebrate, we’re being killed and exterminated.

Panel 2:

Gueto: C’mon guys, don’t be so boring! Let’s dance, party!

Jewish Inmates: But don’t you know that we’re being killed and made into soap?

Panel 3:

Hitler: Hey! David is right, having a little fun will be good for you.

Jewish Inmates: Yes, Mr. Hitler.

Hitler: Yeah, enjoy. Life is short.

Panel 4:

Hitler: Thank you David. When they are relaxed the soap is much better.

Gueto: I can imagine, Ha Ha!

Jewish Inmates: Party, party!

Okay, I lied – I am not going to leave it up to the reader in this case at least. This strip really is just objectively and unquestionably offensive. But it (and others like it) brings up some interesting questions.

The first has to do with aspects of the reception practices of such humor. The group of Argentineans who introduced me to the controversy surrounding the last example (themselves part of Buenos Aires’s roughly 300,000-strong Jewish population) insisted that the real problem was that Sala was not Jewish, and they further insisted that the comic would have been both unobjectionable and uncontroversial had it been drawn by a Jewish artist, and published in a Jewish newspaper. Has Nazi- and Holocaust humor somehow been re-appropriated by the Jewish community in a way similar to how certain slurs have been re-appropriated by the minorities initially targeted?

More specific to Comic Studies, however, is this: Why does it seem like much if not most of this sort of Nazi/Holocaust humor is appearing in comics, rather than other media (stories and observations about these topics do appear in other media, but rarely are they treated in a humorous manner)? Is this connected to the widespread (and of course mistaken) belief that comics are suitable for little more than light-hearted humor (as the term ‘funny-book’ would suggest)? As a result, does this humor appear in comics – rather than in other media – because comics are a ‘safe’ venue, where no one can take things too seriously, regardless of the subject matter? If so, then what does this tell us about the real status of comics?

About roytcook

Roy T Cook is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. He works in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and the aesthetics of comics. He is the co-editor (with Aaron Meskin) of The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012)

2 responses »

  1. Your question about the appropriacy of humor and, perhaps more importantly, the identity of the person who creates the humor, is incisive.

    As a gay man, I am sometimes suspicious of non-LGBTQ persons who try to tell ‘gay’ jokes. This is true of ‘humorous’ columns in media, and especially of sitcoms. (Jokes about prison rape are especially repugnant to me because they invariably revolve around assumptions about gay male sexual practices, especially the denigration of men who have sex with men.)

    Sometimes, though, a non-queer person will demonstrate that he or she is a safe person or an ally, and that person often has license (in the social sciences sense of the term) to engage in those kinds of discourse. One example is Margaret Cho, who identifies as queer. Margaret Cho is not a gay man, but for whatever reason, lots of gay men respect her and give her license to lampoon/critique gay men and behaviors that (stereo)typically are associated with us. Another example is John Leguizamo. As far as I know, John Leguizamo identifies as heterosexual, but because he is a steadfast friend to queer communities, he thus has license to engage in humorous discourse about us. To my understanding, most if not all minority communities feel this way, whether it’s a community that forms around sexual identity, racial identity, ethnicity, religion, political party, or gender.

    Your question about comics is important. Why does it seem that so many of these ‘serious’ subjects (like the Holocaust) can get humorous treatment in comics? I think that there is something about comics that make them a ‘safe space’ for exploration in a way that is very different from stand-up comedy or sit-coms or even movies. On the other hand, it might be as much about the readership of comics that makes this possible and not something about the medium per se.

    Great question, and I look forward to reading others’ responses.

  2. rambo says:

    Hi professor,

    The fact that there’s so much offensive humor in comics might be a testament to the versatility of comics. I feel like the comics medium has more easily accessible tools of expression than other print mediums (e.g., changing fonts for different moods or speakers). More tools of expression can give the artist more ways to communicate that she’s trying to be more humorous than offensive. The comics above (probably unsuccessfully) used things like simple shapes and bright colors or caricature-like styles to portray this. It’s like how stand-up comedians can usually get away with more on stage than when they’re speaking with friends and family who are familiar with their routines. I think comics artists can get away with more because they can more easily set the stage, though there’s much room for tastelessness. So while it can be easy to not take a comic seriously, I think we can still be optimistic about the status of comics as serious art forms.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s