by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon.
Hill and Wang, 2010.
So, why does a publisher which doesn’t normally deal in graphic novels / comics decide to put out a book like this?
1) It’s a way to re-publish existing material. This is especially true for The Anne Frank Center whose mission it is to perpetuate her story.
2) They assume – mostly incorrectly – that graphic novels are currently trendy.
3) They assume that kids are too slow / callous to appreciate a prose presentation of the same material.
There seems to be a rash of traditional book publishers jumping into the non-fiction graphic novel game. This one is from Hill and Wang’s “Novel Graphics” (?!) line. In the past it was Classics Illustrated, now it’s this.
For me the benchmarks for these kinds of comics are Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Jack Jaxon’s Los Tejanos, and Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde.
What I like about historical / journalistic comics is that the very fact that the art usually has a “style,” and the very existence of that style announces a subjective point-of-view. A prose writer might read about 10% unemployment, and then write the sentence, “10% of the people were unemployed.” A cartoonist puts that in a caption and then draws jobless poor people on the street, or dumpster diving. OF COURSE, a prose writer can be subjective (i.e. skew the phrasing to suit his own agenda), but with an idiosyncratic cartoonist there is no possibility of even an attempt at subterfuge – the subjectivity is laid bare. It was the cartoonist who drew that expression on the Prime Minister’s face under that caption, “The PM was unhappy.” If the PM is pounding his fist onto his desk, the effect can even be ironic.
The fact that you can’t get as much “factual” information into a comic as you can into prose, means that there is a sort of unoccupied space in the narrative – and I like it when that space is filled up by the subjectivity of the line art. I mean we don’t have to go so far as representing Jews as mice and Nazis as cats, but as R Fiore wrote a while back:
the most important thing we get out of comics is the experience of comics, which is not the tautology it seems. What I mean by the experience of comics is the subjective universe the cartoonist creates, the way he makes it operate, and the way he visually conveys its inner life.
This to me is what is missing from Anne Frank. The art is almost purely “literal.” Competent, but literal. And since you can get more “factual” information into prose than comics, the historical sections of this book are sometimes damningly simplified, with very little that’s rewarding enough (by which I mean, in the art) to counterbalance that. The art is too stiff and stuffy to propel the essential emotional core of the Anne Frank story, which, I feel, is just as important as its historical context.
In fact, sometimes, Anne creates a metaphor and the art illustrates it verbatim!
Colon also seems to struggle to draw a natural range of facial expressions at times. However, the final concentration camp scenes are excellently done. It’s almost like the artist was saving himself for these moments. And I loved the title page below, where the shadowy citizens in the foreground are contrasted against Anne’s sunny family in the middle ground. With the chapter title up top, it’s especially effective, and I wish we could have had more of this.
What’s so confounding to me about all this is that the art is by Ernie Colon, who is an industry veteran. He is normally more capable than this. Did the problem lie with Jacobson’s script?
However, this is – obviously – a book that was intended to introduce kids to the Anne Frank story. It is probably unfair of me to judge it in terms of its Artistic accomplishments especially as compared to cartoonists like Speigelman, Jaxon, and Sacco. In terms of the former criteria, I suppose it does its job well enough. Kids like pictures.
It’s well structured in the way that we see Anne growing up simultaneously with the rise of the Nazi party, but there are no “poetic” counterpoints there – it’s done purely out of necessity so we understand the overall context of why Anne died. There is also an anecdote about Anne’s father at the start which is well-balanced against the book’s ending with his story as well.
There is also some unintentional – I assume – foreshadowing in the way Anne’s father’s captions are used. Often speaking in hindsight, it becomes clear that he will be the only survivor of the family, even if you are unfamiliar with the Anne Frank story.
I want to also point out that the placement of word balloons and captions is occasionally hard to follow, and sometimes downright baffling. This is a bit weird considering that the authors have done two other nonfiction comics previously – Che: A Graphic Biography and The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation. You’d think they would have worked out such problems by now.
I also had a serious problem with the fact that Anne dies mid-page in a caption, while her sister dies on-page, in a stylized panel (a rare occurrence in itself as discussed above). This needed a lot more attention to give it the narrative force it deserved.
This is effectively a textbook. I once read that comics is the only medium that requires both sides of the brain simultaneously because it engages visual and linguistic. I don’t know if I actually believe it, but it sure sounds good, and having to use both sides of the brain would make comics an excellent educational tool. But it has to be a good tool. Anne Frank was a naturally gifted writer and this particular presentation of her story fails to access that. It’s telling that I found the timeline at the back more compelling than most of the illustrated story in the book’s main body.
Kumar Sivasubramanian is the writer of Weird Crime Theater.