Comics tell every possible story,” said Neal Adams, a legend in the comics industry whose illustrations of Superman, Batman, and Green Arrow have defined modern interpretations of those characters. “They can tell history, they can tell physics. We’re just now realizing the value of putting pictures with words.”
Adams knows the value of putting pictures with words, and not just to entertain but also as an educational tool. He has teamed up with Disney Educational Productions and the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies to produce “They Spoke Out: American Voices Against the Holocaust,” a series of 10 motion comics telling the heroic stories of those who stood up against the Nazis during the Holocaust. Adams and Rafael Medoff, director of the Wyman Institute, spoke on a panel at last month’s Big Apple Comic Con in New York City about the project and screened “Messenger from Hell,” which told the story of Jan Karski. A Polish diplomat, Karski risked his life in 1943 by sneaking into the Warsaw Ghetto to tell the world about the horrors befalling Poland’s Jews and then desperately trying to grab the attention of American and British leaders. Narrated by Stan “The Man” Lee, the video mixes Adams’ illustrations with period footage to graphically tell Karski’s story.
“Messenger From Hell” was shown last year at the Warsaw Jewish Film Festival and the Museum of the History of Polish Jewry is developing a Polish-language version of it to show in schools. Adams and Medoff are showing episodes at comic conventions around the country, as well as in synagogues and JCCs to garner interest.
Five videos are online already and five more are in production. One episode focuses on the doomed voyage of the St. Louis, another on New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s crusade against Nazi Germany. The goal, Medoff said, is to get the videos into classrooms, but he and Adams expressed frustration with getting attention for the project, now in its second year.
“If it doesn’t get out there we’ll forget and it’ll happen again,” Adams said. “The problem history has is we forget. I actually know people who think the Holocaust didn’t happen. If we forget, it can happen again.”
“They Spoke Out” is designed for high school students but, addressing a question about the target age, Adams dismissed the idea that comics in general are age-specific. “They Spoke Out” is “too good for kids not to see,” he said.
“We [in the comic book industry] have a chance to make a difference,” he said. “We’re part of the future beyond just flip flip flip.”
This isn’t the first time the Holocaust has made it into comic or graphic books. Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” is perhaps the most famous example, but the issue has appeared in mainstream book titles as well. In 1998 DC put out a three-part Superman series where Superman rescued people from Warsaw.
In a conversation with The Jewish Standard after the panel, Adams said one question he gets a lot is, “Are you Jewish?”
“It has nothing to do with being a Jew,” Adams said. “We all have the responsibility do the things we’re called to do. If it comes by and I know I should do something, I do it. This was something that needed to get done. The idea of not doing it would have been the most insane thing.”
During the 1970s Adams helped lead efforts to get comic book companies to return original artwork to their creators. As a result, Marvel returned original art to him, Jack Kirby, and others in 1987. Aware of Adams’ struggles, Medoff got in touch with him to help efforts to get the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum to return the original artwork of Dina Babbitt to her. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death” of Auschwitz, wanted detailed paintings detailing his theories about the racial inferiority of Gypsies. Babbitt worked as an illustrator for Mengele in exchange for her and her mother’s lives.
“When I learned of Ms. Babbitt’s plight I thought of Neal Adams because I remembered from my adolescence that he had been the leader of the struggle in the comic book world for the return of original artwork for artists,” Medoff told the Standard. “I thought he might see her as a kindred soul because she was struggling for the return of the artwork she created in Auschwitz at gunpoint.”
Together they put together a petition signed by 450 comic artists and writers from around the world demanding that the museum return Babbitt’s work. Medoff then wrote a six-page graphic novel about her, which Adams illustrated. After the “X-Men” movie came out in 2000, Marvel put out a miniseries detailing the villain Magneto’s history as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. The Babbitt story ran at the end of the final issue. Disney later developed that comic strip into a motion comic two years ago and then approached Adams and Medoff to create more.
“Teachers in 35 states are required to teach about the Holocaust and so every year they’re looking for new, cutting-edge ways to discuss a very difficult subject,” Medoff said. “This is a completely new, unusual way to talk about it. In an era of animation movies, video games, and apps, this is exactly the kind of method that teenagers might be more likely to respond to than the traditional textbook.”
Everybody in the studio learned more about the Holocaust while working on “They Spoke Out,” Adams said. “The reason why these videos are important is to know people did fight back and it could happen again,” Adams said, pointing to the Karski story and what he tried to do. “Suddenly it comes down to one man.”
Watch episodes of “They Spoke Out” at www.theyspokeout.com.
Learn more about Dina Babbitt’s artwork and her struggle at www.justicefordina.com.