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Monday, May 13, 2019

Experiment in Fear - a Review from Eerie 9

We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust
Neal Adams, Rafael Medoff, Craig Yoe
Yoe Books, (c) April 2018

Eerie 9 (May 1967)
"Experiment in Fear"
Archie Goodwin-Gene Colan

Near the beginning of the year, our friend Simon gave us a tour of the 9th issue of Eerie. Today, I want to go a bit more in-depth on one of the stories contained therein.

As you can see from the cover images at top, I have access to this story in the fantastic book We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust. That tome reprints several Holocaust-themed tales, from the Golden Age through the Bronze Age and across publishers. I read it as soon as I received it, back in the spring of 2018 when it was hot off the presses. I'd highly recommend it obviously for its significance, but also for the breadth of content.

I've not yet amassed any copies or compilations of Eerie, Creepy, et al. But I'm very interested. Occasionally the Archives of those magazines come along for cheap, so my eyes are peeled. Not knowing if today's featured story is formulaic, I'm going to just plunge in with my general review format of a synopsis, followed by a Good/Bad/Ugly critique. Step right this way for your...

100-Word Review:
Set in an unnamed concentration camp in 1943 Germany, Dr. Strasser shows Colonel Kolb the results of his experiments with fear. Proud of his work, Strasser has, through isolation and the ongoing and ever-increasing threat of death by starvation, asphyxiation, etc., been able to "prove" that non-Nordic "races" are prone to fear, justifying the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. But... what if the tables were turned, and an Aryan was subjected to the mental and physical torture of Strasser's laboratory? Surely the results would not be the same. Or would they?

The Good: Before I delve into this story, I must again heap praise on We Spoke Out itself. Not only is it an outstanding collection of a comics genre as mentioned previously, but it is enhanced by historically-accurate framing ahead of each story. The book, already brimming with a message, gains weight through the link to the actual history. I have a colleague through my contract work for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum who is fond of saying, "Let the history stand on its own." Here, we're provided that opportunity, followed by artistic interpretation of specific historical trends, events, or personalities. The gestalt is fascinating, and important.

As to the story, where to begin? As I generally land on the art side of comics first, I'll begin with Gene Colan. So many of us are familiar with his color work from Tomb of Dracula to Daredevil to Captain America to Batman. And for those fans who have had the privilege to see Colan's art in black and white through Marvel's Essentials line or the recently-released Artist Edition of Colan's ToD work, we know that Colan was almost made for the B&W page. It's on full display in this story. Gene Colan has always been revered for his darks, his shadows. Here? It's 100% a feast for the eyes. Colan's attention to details on the German uniforms, the setting, the barrenness of the prison area... all aspects create the mood of fear, loathing, apprehension, and power the story demands and emits. In only eight pages, "Experiment in Fear" is a tour de force.

Archie Goodwin's story shines as well. Of course the tale has a twist ending, akin to a Twilight Zone episode. Goodwin shepherds us through the plot with dialogue in which we can believe, and he and Colan pace the story so that it is at once fast moving, yet arduous in its uncertainty as we are spectators to the torture of humans by a so-called Master Race. We cheer for the Jewish prisoner who finds a way to switch places with his tormentor, but we understand that his victory is temporary, and largely forgotten by those who know. The lack of rules, of winners and losers, of empathy and responsibility - Archie Goodwin fits all of those emotions into his plot.

Which leads me right to thoughts on the economy of the story. Again, it runs only eight pages. Yet through efficient use of word balloons - to the eye on a drive-by, the pages seem wordy - and Colan's deft hand at illustrating every panel in such a way as to augment the scripted words, there is some serious bang for the buck. One might think of the gag comics, such as Loony Tunes or Archie where several tales comprise one issue. This is certainly no gag story, and is so much more fleshed out and dynamic that one would have to think a tremendous amount of planning had to occur to make this fit, and work. And does it!

The Bad: The only thing I'd mention here is the subject matter. And I mean that in a historical sense. In the preface to the chapter, the reader is informed of the nature and prevalence of Nazi experiments on prisoners. Jewish prisoners, Roma, homosexuals, women, and on and on. Medical value? Hardly. So who profited? Well, among others you might recognize the names of some companies that financed and/or authorized medical experimentation on inmates, and others who profited from slave labor: Bayer, Siemens, Zeppelin, Shell Oil, Ikon, Daimler Benz, and many more.

The Ugly: This watershed event in human history. As you've learned about me by now, I've studied the Holocaust in depth for the better part of the past 20 years. I've continued to read, encounter survivors, and teach. I constantly have new questions, and deal with the fact that most of those will never have satisfactory answers. Because there is no such thing as any means to explain away these horrible stories. One day maybe we'll figure it out; unfortunately, "Never Again" seems to keep playing out.

If you have come by for the first time today, please click on the label "Holocaust" below to be taken to a few other posts I've written on comics and art as they relate to the Shoah. Specifically, you'll find my chapter-by-chapter reviews of Art Spiegelman's Maus.


  1. Fine review, Doug. Another winner. An excellent story by two of comics' most talented creators. Goodwin never disappoints; and Colan seems to shine brightest in black/white (not to denigrate his stellar color work, but those dark tones really bowl me over as shown here). And the book you've pulled the tale from looks fascinating. Will have to find a copy. Incidentally, as you mentioned "Maus" in your final paragraph, does that graphic novel get any coverage in "We Spoke Out"? Or does the book focus on the more mainstream comics offerings?

    1. Maus is not covered, and there's a reason why. I'll have to try to remember to consult the book's preface and get back to you. I'm thinking that maybe they stopped the reprints around 1980 for some reason.


  2. Thanks for the spotlight review on this story, Doug - and for posting it all here. As I noted back when Simon posted on Eerie #9, this story is something I'd never heard of until then. Yes, there's a lot packed into those 8 pages, and both brutal and effective.
    We Spoke Out definitely looks like an interesting book, and I'll probably be adding it to my over-long want-list. As for why Maus isn't covered, looking over at the listing on Amazon and the table of contents, I'm guessing that the intention was to highlight stories in mainstream (super-hero, horror, war, etc.) that touched on Holocaust themes rather than comics created expressly to deal with the Holocaust.

  3. An excellent review, Doug! As well written and thoughtful as ever. When I posted about this particular story previously I obviously concentrated on the artwork but you've again gone deeper into the subject matter of the story. I often wonder about the justification for using the Holocaust as a subject for "mere" comic books, especially horror comics. Weren't the events themselves horrific enough? Does this kind of work trivialise a subject that should never be down-played? Well, maybe in some cases, but not here - the themes are handled seriously and the feelings of anger and disgust at man's inhumanity to man shine through. It's a tribute to the late Archie Goodwin's talent that this story doesn't become tacky and tasteless but is instead raw and coldly furious.


  4. Alrighty, then - second attempt at a comment. I hit "Preview" on my previous effort and lost a paragraph to Blogger gremlins.

    I checked Rafael Medoff's forward to We Spoke Out, where he states that the comics chosen for the compilation predate the 1990s. His logic is that the Holocaust became pretty widespread in literature and TV/film as that decade dawned. One could mark Schindler's List as a catalyst; I'd argue that the broadcast of Shoah on American television in 1978 was a precursor. While Maus was published in trade paperback in 1986 (with volume 2 coming in 1991), Edo's point that it wholly dealt with the Holocaust seems appropriate. Medoff states that they wanted to include stories where the creators wanted to explore the Holocaust, rather than stories where the Holocaust drove the action/events of the story.

    Cerebus, your comment about horror comics is interesting. Many of the stories included come from the so-called horror books of the pre-Code years. But even Batman 237 plays as a horror story, and it was published in 1971. You're right, and it shows through in almost all of the stories in We Spoke Out - the Holocaust was handled with a seriousness that belied "funny books", and tastefully.



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