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Reality Check

Dave Sim’s comic-book history of anti-Semitism

Douglas Wolk
September 25, 2008

When word got around, late last year, that the Canadian cartoonist Dave Sim was publishing a book about the Holocaust, the immediate reaction of some of his readers was to make a joke: “Is he for it or against it?” He’s against it, of course, but Sim is a dedicated contrarian, and as divisive a figure as any working in comics right now—he has passionate admirers and equally passionate detractors. Neither will be disappointed by Judenhass, a slim volume that Sim has published himself under his long-running Aardvark-Vanaheim imprint. It’s bracing and infuriating, a splendid accomplishment with disastrous flaws, a self-aggrandizing mess executed with riveting power.

On its surface, Judenhass is a pretty straightforward project. It’s a very brief history of “Jew hatred” (Sim avoids the term “anti-Semitism,” on the grounds that Semites aren’t necessarily Jews), in the form of a forty-nine-page comic book. Most of it consists of historical quotations of anti-Jewish calumnies (and pen-and-ink portraits of the people who said them), overlying drawings of dead and dying Jews in concentration camps. Often, Sim will draw and re-draw fragments of a single photograph over a few pages, six or thirty or fifty times, to pound the horror home, as if to say, no, look, he’s dead, this part of his face is dead, and this part of his face is dead, and his eyelid is dead, these bastards killed him . . . An afterword identifies most of Sim’s visual sources—largely historical photographs from books such as Gerhard Schoenberner’s The Yellow Star.

Sim, in recent years, has been fascinated with the sort of “photorealism”—his word—practiced by a handful of comic strip artists of the 1950s and 60s, who were essentially trying to reproduce photographs as line drawings. His version of that technique is at the core of Judenhass (as well as his other current project, Glamourpuss, in which he applies it to photos from fashion magazines). For decades, Sim was known as one of the great caricaturists, so it’s peculiar and frustrating to see him abandoning part of what he does best. But he’s also enormously adept at the hyper-detailed, photography-inspired style he uses here, and he’s held on to another one of his gifts: compositions that convey both narrative and ideology. It’s one thing to juxtapose a portrait of Martin Luther, looking thoughtful and serious, with Luther’s call for synagogues to be burned down; it’s quite another to superimpose Luther’s words on the burning Euskirchen synagogue and his face on a pile of emaciated corpses.

Sim is a rhetorician whose chief tool is his pictures, and if there’s one thing he does well, it’s to visually dramatize a point. In a sequence near the beginning of Judenhass, a series of panels shows a journey along railroad tracks, captioned with Sim’s observation that “if there is a chance of systemic Jew hatred being eliminated from our society, it can’t just be Jews who speak out against it”; he decries “non-Jews saying ‘never again’ from behind the sheltering and disingenuous façade of: ‘how could this have happened?’” Finally, he declares that the history of Jew hatred meant that, Nazi Germany or no Nazi Germany, “the Shoah was very much inevitable.” When he gets to the word “inevitable,” it’s the only word on a two-page spread depicting the ARBEIT MACHT FREI gate of Auschwitz. Kaboom.

Except, of course, the Holocaust wasn’t inevitable—that’s the point, for instance, of Nicholson Baker’s recent book Human Smoke, a far more sophisticated variation on the sort of accretion-of-anecdotes technique Sim is using. Baker argues that the catastrophes of World War II were the result of an escalation of military profiteering in which Allied leaders were complicit. His research is also far more meticulous than Sim’s. In the very first quotation in Judenhass, H.G. Wells is cited as saying, “The Jews are clever but not clever enough to conceal their cleverness,” a sentence attributed to a citation from “a letter writer to The National Post.” The actual line, from the narrator of Wells’ 1909 novel Tono-Bungay, is “They are a very clever people, the Jews, but not clever enough to suppress their cleverness.”

A bit later, Sim quotes Winston Churchill saying in 1937, “We seem to be heading toward some hideous catastrophe”; the drawing beneath that caption is another mound of bodies. Did Churchill see the mass slaughter of Jews coming and brush it off? No: the actual quote from Churchill is “We seem to be moving, drifting steadily, against our will, against the will of every race, and every people, and every class, toward some hideous catastrophe. Everyone wishes to stop it, but they do not know how.” He was talking about World War II, not the Holocaust. At best, Sim’s omission of “every race, and every people” is careless (his source seems to be the reference book The Holocaust Chronicle, which includes the sentence “‘We seem to be moving,’ Churchill said, ‘toward some hideous catastrophe’”); at worst, it’s outright deceptive. In his end-notes, Sim mentions that he discarded some Jew-hating “quotes” that turned out to be fakes. Too bad he’s perpetuating the problem.

The meaning of Judenhass is also, unavoidably, shaded by Sim’s own history. He’s best known for his six-thousand-page magnum opus, Cerebus, originally serialized from 1977 to 2004: an overwhelming, sprawling, magisterial story set in a sort of fictionalized medieval Europe. The protagonist, an anthropomorphic aardvark, becomes the prime minister of a city-state, then the pope of a major (also fictional) religion, and after losing everything and spending decades wandering and hanging out in a bar, he’s recognized as a prophet by a trio of Jewish wise men, returns to power, and destroys the fascist matriarchy that’s taken over the continent. (That barely scrapes the surface, but it should give you some idea.) It’s a satirical wonder, a landmark of English-language cartooning, and more talked about than read.

That may have something to do with its imposing bulk, or the fact that Sim self-published the sixteen volumes containing it. It may also have to do with an awful lot of the second half of Cerebus being a tedious and frustrating, if brilliantly drawn, elaboration on Sim’s convictions that women are soul-sucking voids, feminism is the worst thing ever, and the only path of righteousness is his personal mash-up of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and sneering indignation. (Sim was an atheist until he read the Bible in 1996 and the Koran in 1999.) Near the end of the series, he devotes over 150 pages to a close reading of Genesis in tiny type, based on the premise that YHWH (pronounced “Yoohwhoo”) is the vain, evil, female entity that’s trying to usurp the real God’s place. Sim is also witheringly bitter about what he perceives as unfair, ideologically driven neglect by the comics field’s “close-minded Marxist-feminists”; he recently announced that he would henceforth only communicate with people who were willing to sign a statement declaring that they did not believe Sim to be a misogynist.

Since the Holocaust tends to magically confer seriousness on any artistic project that addresses it, it’s easy enough to construe Judenhass as Sim’s play for respect. (His afterword notes that, since Judenhass takes about twenty-five minutes to read, he hopes it can be assigned to teach high school students about “the subject . . . and the on-going significance . . . of the Holocaust,” ellipses his.) Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt: he has probably spent more time staring at and meticulously duplicating these excruciating photographs than anyone else alive. For that alone, his argument deserves a good hearing. And there’s no denying the power of the work itself.

All of that power, though, comes from a relatively small pile of source materials, which raises the inescapable question: what does Judenhass do that, say, The Yellow Star doesn’t? The answer is that it’s art about the calamity: it’s the work of Dave Sim’s hand. It aestheticizes the documentation of unspeakable horror. But its technique actually makes its argument less effective.

“All photographs are deceptive by nature,” Sim writes in the afterword, “so where I was unable to determine the nature of any given element I tried just to imitate the pattern of light and shadows to the best of my ability.” The argument that all photographs are deceptive, though, is sophistry: while photographs aren’t the same as direct experience, and they can be altered or used for deception, they’re generally more reliable than any other form of documentation. That’s why The Yellow Star is a book of photography rather than simply verbal testimony or drawings; photographs bear more-or-less objective witness. Photographs say “this happened.” Drawings say “I saw this—or it could be that I saw a picture of this, or perhaps I made this up.”

The other problem with Sim’s explanation is that cartooning is much more deceptive by nature than photography. A cartoonist expresses style by deliberately distorting his or her perceptions; cartooning is a subjective medium, and it always has a distinct interpretive spin. Art Spiegelman’s drawings in Maus, for instance, are deliberately metaphorical representations of his understanding of his father’s personal experience: disaster made personal. Sim-as-narrator disappears from Judenhass after its first few pages, but as much as he attempts to duplicate these photographs’ “pattern of light and shadows,” every image in the book is distinctly a Dave Sim drawing. Some of them are superb Dave Sim drawings. But, to precisely the extent that Judenhass is the work of Dave Sim’s particular drawing hand, it doesn’t represent reality—or, rather, since its tone is trying to present an objective cross-section of history, it fails to represent reality.

The final sequence of Judenhass, in fact, includes a blatant visual deception. Sim excerpts a passage from Merle Miller’s Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman, describing how Truman was persuaded to have the U.S. officially recognize Israel by the tears of his old business partner Eddie Jacobson, and how Truman himself wept a year later when the chief rabbi of Israel told him that “God put you in your mother’s womb so that you could be the instrument to bring about the rebirth of Israel.” It’s accompanied by several drawings based on photographs of Truman and Jacobson—to which Sim has added the “great tears” rolling down their cheeks that Miller mentions. Sentimental excess? Sure. But it also makes Sim’s technique for the entire project suspect, even though Jacobson and Truman’s tears are a matter of something like historical record. Consider the potential effect of photographs, rather than drawings, in a book about the Holocaust including details—even historically accurate ones—that were obviously Photoshopped or pasted into the actual photos: it would make the reader wonder how true everything else around them was. Sim is trying to claim both representational accuracy and artistic license, and he can’t have it both ways.

Even the Jacobson anecdote itself undermines Sim’s thesis. It wasn’t unstoppable world-historical forces that led Truman to recognize Israel, Miller implies, but one man’s personal intercession that led Truman from saying “I wasn’t going to see anyone who was an extremist for the Zionist cause, and I didn’t care who it was” to championing Israel’s statehood. In the unlikely event that Judenhass becomes a standard high school reading assignment and brings about universal understanding, it will disprove its own argument: that the Holocaust came about not because of historical actors making particular decisions but because of free-floating, implacable loathing of Jews. To say “never again” is to believe that history need not repeat itself; to educate people about the Shoah is to influence the actions of individuals, any of whom can change the world. And to impute literal truth to even a small falsehood perpetrated in the name of art—in a work devoted to repudiating lies perpetrated in the name of ideology—is to surrender the battle.