Comics, Atrocities and Literary Parallels

A few days ago I finished Autobiography of Barefoot Gen, a book about Hiroshima written by survivor Nakazawa Keiji.  His survival, as a child, was miraculous–he had stood behind a cement wall, which somehow protected him, which then fell against a tree, which then prevented the wall from crushing him. Despite everything he went through, from poverty to shame to stigma, he went on to depict the horrors of the atomic bomb in manga-form.

The author’s baby sister born during the atomic bomb. Autobiography of Barefoot Gen, Nakazawa Keiji

Sometimes I marvel at humanity’s incredible capacity for cruelty. It isn’t to say that all of humanity’s terrible–that isn’t true, there is a lot of kindness and goodness–but at the same time, just, well, wow. Trips down history lane tend to reinforce this belief. Ironic, since history’s written by its victors and you’d think they’d want to portray themselves in the best light possible. But between these moments of kindness, of peace and progress and beauty, are undeniable pockets of cruelty you couldn’t even begin to imagine. From mass genocide to strangely cruel punishments to war to sheer greed, it’s alarming what people are capable of. And this cruelty–it’s from the ground up, too, it’s not just victors from high-up who wield power that are evil, but neighbors, too–family, friends, people you thought you could trust.

I think of Art Spiegelman, author of MAUS, who depicted his father’s survival of the Holocaust in comics form. As a child, Art had fallen down and his friends had left him behind. Upon telling his father, his father says that until he’s spent five days locked up in a room with others with no food, driven to the brink of desperation, he does not know the meaning of “friends”. When I read this, one of the first pages of the book, I was confused. Then it quickly dawned on me–ah, yes, the Lord of the Rings-esque brutality that brews beneath the surface of humanity: that’s what he’s referring to.

spiegelman maus comics friends fall

“Then you can see what it is, friends!” MAUS (pg. 3), Art Spiegelman

If I were in some sort of literature class on comics–and I was, but I no longer am–I’d start drawing parallels between Spiegelman’s MAUS and Nakazawa Autobiography of Barefoot Gen. I will anyways. Both depict the horrors during World War II, with one taking place in Germany, the other taking place in Japan. Both stories are told with a combination of text and visual form–in this case, comics. But whereas MAUS is Art’s depiction of his father’s stories, Nakazawa’s stories are his–he had gone through the horrors first-hand. Even so, both descend into depression after writing their stories.

There aren’t many ways you can effectively communicate these experiences without alienating the audience. With most people, they cannot stomach reliving–if only as a third party–the reality of these atrocities. Even with the removal provided by time, space, distance, mental-acrobats, glass museum displays, it can be difficult to (literally) face history. But that’s what makes their use of comics genius. It’s easy, as a viewer, to look at comics, to listen to a story ballooned through speech-bubbles. Comics offer a cartoonish version of reality, where things are distilled into visual and mental palatability. Possible downsides: it doesn’t accurately convey the horror, waters down the experience. But I’d say that Spiegelman and Keiji succeed in toeing the balance between depicting their experiences while keeping the stories, well, “audience-friendly.” Relatively, at least–they’re still horrific.

From a personal bookish perspective, both are really good reads. Not sure if the Autobiography of Barefoot Gen is online, but MAUS I and MAUS II are (I’ve linked to the pdf for MAUS). If you ever get a chance to read any of them, I’d recommend it, especially if you’re interested in history, WWII, comics or memoirs. Or if you’d like to get a glimpse of the realities of those who lived through these atrocities, hear the stories of these survivors.

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