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:
David Gueto: C’mon bitches, dance. Party, Party!
Jewish Inmates: But we don’t have anything to celebrate, we’re being killed and exterminated.
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?
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.
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?