Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
“After Auschwitz,” goes the provocative aphorism of Theodor Adorno, “to write a poem is barbaric.”
What, then, would Adorno have made of a biography of Anne Frank in the form of a comic book?
Of course, the tools of the graphic novelist were first applied to the Holocaust as far back as 1986, when Art Spiegelman published the first volume of “Maus,” the only comic book to be honored with a Pulitzer Prize. So we should not be surprised that the life story of Anne Frank is now depicted in comic-book format by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón in “Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography” (Hill and Wang: $16.95), the same team that produced a best-selling comic-book version of the official report on the events of 9/11. It’s a shocking and even more heartbreaking look at the most deeply familiar figure in the history of hte Holocaust.
The style of illustration in “Anne Frank” reminded me more of the immortal Tintin series than, say, the Archie or Superman comics. But it’s more accurate to say that Jacobson and Colón have devised a style of their own, sometimes rendering the scenes and dialogue in the conventional panels of a comic book and sometimes in a harsh documentary presentation that calls to mind the lifelike images of the rotoscope.
By way of example, the authors show us a moment in 1928 when Hitler and the other leaders of the Nazi party gathered to gloat over the first of a series of electoral victories that would elevate them to absolute power in Germany five years later. A bar-maid in the background is rendered in full color, but the Nazi leadership is shown in a monochrome that suggests the moral darkness that they embodied — only their swastika armbands stand out in bright red.
Then, too, “Anne Frank” is not a comic-book version of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” although it certainly draws on the events that Anne Frank described in her own journals. Rather, they also tell the backstory — both in terms of family history and world history — and the aftermath of the more familiar saga. Indeed, the book celebrates the efforts of her father to preserve her memory and publish her diary after his release from Auschwitz.
Above all, the authors remind us that, as Art Spiegelman has already proven, the cartoon panels and dialogue bubbles do not detract from the seriousness of the story that they tell. Certain scenes in “Anne Frank” — the betrayal and arrest of the Frank family, their journey by cattle car into the lower depths of the Nazi hell, and Anne Frank’s death in Bergen-Belsen even as Allied troops were fighting their way toward the Rhine — are not less than shattering as depicted in comic-book images.
The book is sanctioned by the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, as announced in its subtitle, and there is something faintly official about the narrative. The final panel shows the visitors who make a kind of pilgrimage to the site of the Frank family’s hiding place. But it’s also true that the authors have refused to blur the details of the horrific story they tell or avert their gaze at the most disturbing moments. Quite to the contrary, you will see images in “Anne Frank” that are seldom depicted in the visual accounts of the Holocaust.
For precisely that reason, “Anne Frank” is probably too intense for the youngest readers, but it is an ideal starting place for teenagers. Even for those of us who think we know everything there is to know about Anne Frank, it will add a new dimension to our perception of a figure and an episode that may have lost their edge for many readers precisely because Anne Frank was long ago transfigured from a flesh-and-blood human being into an icon.
In that sense, the greatest achievement of Jacobson and Colón is that they have rescued Anne Frank from the lofty perch of a plaster saint and placed her back in the grim and gritty setting in which she lived out the last days of her young life. The fact that they have done so in a comic book is the greatest irony of all.
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