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Monday, July 29, 2019

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. And Here My Troubles Began, Chapter 1 - a Review

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. And Here My Troubles Began (1991)
"Mauschwitz" - Volume 2, Chapter 1
Art Spiegelman

There have been some Holocaust educators with whom I've spoken through the years who dismiss Maus as a valuable teaching resource because of its non-historical elements. I've heard that the portions of the book that deal primarily with Art's relationship to his father, Vladek - or to other familial relationships - detract from the Holocaust narrative. I have to protest in those conversations, as the Holocaust must not be considered as compartmentalized within some arbitrary historical parameters falling inside the Nazi era of 1933-1945. To begin the discussion in 1933 omits centuries of European antisemitism that frames (if not in a more radical sense forecasts...) the events of the Holocaust. To finish in 1945 negates the sometimes-years of tribulations faced by survivors in Displaced Persons camps or in their attempts to emigrate from Europe. Additionally, we now live at a point in history where the children and grandchildren of survivors have become labeled as "2nd-generation" or even "3rd-generation" survivors themselves - recognized now as the caretakers of their ancestral stories.

I think you'll see what I mean as we dive right in.

100-Word Review:
Art Spiegelman and his wife, Francois, are in conversation about Art’s anxiety in continuing the writing of Maus. Art is hesitant and confused about his abilities to accurately depict his parents’ experiences in Auschwitz, and using a comic strip as his vehicle. These discussions are juxtaposed with interactions with Vladek, who has recently been left by his wife, Mala. Vladek’s personality is on full display in these scenes - his miserliness, his OCD tendencies. And as Art meets up with his now needier father, Vladek begins to detail his ordeal in Auschwitz. It’s a story of want, fear, choices, and of survival.

I have to confess: When we began using Maus with our freshmen World History students many years ago, our district would only afford to purchase the first volume. Our students would get to the end, with the Spiegelmans arrival at Auschwitz, and then it was like, "Sorry, kids!" I'm very thankful that a few years later, and since, we've been able to provide them with the full experience.

The Good: Where to begin? Continuing my comments from the introduction, I love this chapter. Perhaps 70% of it deals with familial relationships within the Spiegelman family, and Art's perception of various interactions over the years. For me, this is integral to understanding Vladek Spiegelman and truly appreciating the numerous ordeals he faced and, in most cases, conquered. I think it also speaks to understanding Art's publication of the autobiographical "The Prisoner on Hell Planet" strip. Near the beginning of this chapter, Art goes on a lengthy monologue to Francois concerning his stresses about creating Maus, his childhood dealing with the image of his deceased brother, and of the personality flaws of his aging father. It's an amazingly raw discourse, but one I think the reader is drawn to. A concept he broaches is his guilt at not having gone through the Holocaust with his parents. As some of Vladek's situation can be attributed to survivor guilt as Anja had succumbed to decades of depression - surely due to her wartime experiences - we see Art facing some of the same feelings as a disjointed observer/participant to his parents' hell. It adds another layer to "survivor's guilt" and is worth consideration.

It's a powerful vignette, and due to its nature I might have placed it in my sections below - which in this exploration of Maus are often reserved for the most unsavory elements of the narrative. Yet I find the story of Vladek's friend Mandelbaum so pathetic and useful in showing students the depths that human beings were pushed to. My heart breaks each time I read about Mandelbaum's pants, shoes, bowl, and spoon - and the panel where he prays "My god. Please God... Help me find a piece of string and a shoe that fits!" is such a hammer dropped. I've not had many students over the course of my career who want for life's basics as Mandelbaum was facing. Vladek tells Art that Mandelbaum had been quite well off before the war, yet we see him reduced to tears for pants that stay up. I meditate on that scene each time I am confronted with it. And each time, I am overcome with the magnitude of survival - mentally, physically, spiritually. And just a few pages later, after Vladek has given his friend succor, we find that Mandelbaum met his death. I always feel empty as I turn that page.

This chapter is where we are reminded just how resourceful Vladek Spiegelman was, or could be. Just in the few pages here that deal with his time in Auschwitz, we see Vladek's use of his knowledge of English and Polish, his fearlessness at using rudimentary skills he'd learned in the ghetto, and of his penchant for diplomacy. To step back and examine how events unfolded before him and to see his responses is amazing. Yet, it's also important that Art included Vladek's musings about how Mandelbaum might have met his end - for a guard to just decide to take a prisoner's cap and toss it aside, forcing the prisoner out of line and to a place where he might be shot - this showed the randomness of life (and death) during the Holocaust. I always emphasize to my students that a person could do everything right and be shot on a guard's whim; another could make mistake after mistake, however, and survive. There were no rules.

The Bad: Reading Maus often raises my blood pressure. There is so much stress throughout the story, whether in the wartime vignettes or even in the present scenes. Francois remarked to Art that Vladek was so anxious, always moving, always straightening. She wondered if Auschwitz made him like that, but Art contests that other folks they know - also survivors - aren't like that. But this doesn't dismiss the fact that when Vladek is on the page I am on edge. Don't misinterpret my comments - this is one of the powerful elements of the Maus experience, and it's again why I feel it's such a compelling tool to use in teaching a Holocaust narrative.

Spiegelman does an excellent job of discussing the hierarchy among prisoners, from kapos at the top down through the various ethnic groups imprisoned and on to new inmates (regardless of identity). And speaking of identity, the line where Vladek remarks that his kapo referred to him by his name rather than his prisoner number is worth emphasizing. Prisoners of the Nazi KL (concentration camp) system lost all remnants of their lives before imprisonment. So that anyone of any leadership capacity referred to a prisoner as anything other than the assigned number is noteworthy.


The Ugly: I don't have anything for this section today.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

John Byrne's DC Universe

Back on June 6, we oohed and ahhed over some Marvelcentric sketches and original art by John Byrne. Today we'll visit this master as he does his thing across the DC Universe.

While most Bronze Agers would perhaps associate Byrne with the X-Men, what about his tenure at DC? It's pretty likely that from the mid-80s onward, he illustrated just about every DC character in one place or another. By taking turns on Action Comics when it was a team-up book to the Legends mini-series and beyond, Byrne had quite a sandbox in which to play. I know there are detractors to the Man of Steel reboot; personally, I loved it. I've said many times over the years that for all the love I have for Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, I had next to no love at all for Superman in the Silver and Bronze Ages. I found the character way too powerful, and to borrow a term from, he was... well... you know.

So feast your eyeballs on the commissioned sketches and original art below. I think you'll see why Byrne makes the Top 10 list of illustrators for most fans who grew up in the 1970s-80s. And my continued appreciation to the owners of the images below for making them available on the Web. Those folks of course retain all rights.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Silver Surfer 8 from the IDW Artist Edition - a Review

Silver Surfer #8 (September 1969)
"Now Strikes the Ghost!"
Stan Lee-John Buscema/Dan Adkins

Raise your hand if you have a love/hate relationship with the Silver Age Silver Surfer. He's a cool character - to that we can all agree. But if you've ever sat and read a lengthy stretch of his solo series, you may have needed therapy. It is one of the most annoying, even somewhat depressing, runs of any comic I've ever read. In the hands of Stan Lee, the Surfer is moodily over-written. I think if I'd purchased the books off the spinner racks when they were bi-monthly I could have put up with it. But reading from an Epic Collection, Masterworks, etc. is just too much. Am I wrong?

So what we have here today, friends, is a bit of a twofer. I read from the softcover Silver Surfer Marvel Masterworks, volume 2, and used a few scans from it to place alongside photographs from IDW's John Buscema's Silver Surfer Artist Edition. Who doesn't need a splash of color every now and then? Let's get after it...

100-Word Review:
Always seeking a way to torment the Silver Surfer, Mephisto schemes a new plot to win the hero’s soul. Finding a human through which to create a conduit to Limbo, the demon is able to summon a once-dead ship’s captain from centuries ago: the Flying Dutchman! After hearing how the Dutchman had lived a hateful, self-centered life and had made a deal with the devil, Mephisto imbues him with power enough to battle the Surfer. But will this new Ghost prove up to the task? And what of the Surfer’s continued quest to reunite with his love, Shalla Bal? Will the Ghost ruin that wish?

The Good: I love it when characters behave just as we'd expect them to. But wait, you say - above, it was stated that the Silver Surfer could be a tired character. Yes indeed - and that's not who I am staring with. I want to focus on Mephisto. You know, for most folks the Surfer is so closely associated with Galactus, and then perhaps Dr. Doom. But you know who turns up continually in the Surfer's solo mag? The Prince of Darkness himself. I'd go so far as to say he should get a supporting-actor credit. I'm not sure his whole angle about having to find the devil-worshipper in order to create a gateway to bring the undead back to life (wait...) made sense, but then I suppose the supernatural doesn't have to make sense. Probably better just to roll with it.

The backstory of the Flying Dutchman and the creation of the Ghost was well done. I liked the rationale for the character, growing from his past motivations. The Ghost was enough different - and super-creepy - to be an effective updating of the former ship's captain. I even thought it was interesting that he'd get around on his former watercraft.

John Buscema's splash page as the Dutchman is revived was powerful, both in the original art as well as the colored version. It might have been a bit more effective, however, with more blacks in the background. But what do I know. Buscema did a marvelous job of taking this dead body and reanimating it in such a way that the two characters looked similar.

The half-splash when the Ghost is revealed, with a little Kirby Krackle in the first panel, was also pretty awesome. One can almost smell the brimstone from all that swirling smoke!

Lastly, that the Silver Surfer hardly appeared in his own mag, but it was still a fun issue, was the mark of an effective plot and execution.

The Bad: I don't have much to say here, as usual. I think I'd just reiterate the vibe I was sending above when I remarked that sometimes this series just wore on a reader. If there was one thing we could count on, it was Norrin Radd's incessant pining for Shalla Bal. And guess what? We got a 2-page vignette of just that in this story! Thank goodness Shalla is so beautifully rendered by Big John. In the hands of a lesser artist, I'd have annoying words and a less-pleasing lady to look at.

The Ugly: I don't even know what to call what happened at the end of the story. It's sort of the opposite of the Dreaded Deadline Doom in that we didn't get shorted an original story - instead, we got a cut-in-half tale with the promise of a big finish in the next installment. I tossed this out on Twitter a few weeks ago and asked readers if they thought this was a) crafty marketing or b) a way to draw attention to a magazine with sagging sales. Most respondents scored those choices a tie. I've included all the particulars on the last three art samples, which will enlarge for your perusing enjoyment.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Billy Graham's Power and Energy

Jungle Action was a title I picked up when I could find it back in the Bronze Age. The Rich Buckler and/or Gil Kane covers usually drew my attention, but it was the interiors that cemented the deal. And most often, those interiors were drawn by Billy Graham. While I had had a relationship with the Panther over in the Avengers, I was less in tune with Luke Cage. My encounters with the so-called Hero for Hire tended to focus on his guest appearances in the Defenders or that short little stint in Fantastic Four. So I really didn't get a load of Graham's inking prowess (over the pencils of George Tuska) until later in life. And his work on Vampirella? Forget it! I only just found out about that material in the past few years.

For around a year or so around the release of Marvel's Black Panther film, Graham's family was running a Twitter account. It appears to have gone inactive, but it was nice to have it around and to see the pride they took in honoring his work.

Enjoy today's retrospective, and thanks again to all the fans and dealers who own these works, presented in this space for all our enjoyment.



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