Five years ago, veteran comic book artist Joe Kubert visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He expected to be moved, but since he and his parents had escaped from Poland before the Nazi genocide began, he assumed his emotional reaction would be relatively contained. Then, he saw something that struck him profoundly: “Yzeran,” the name of the shtetl where he had been born, etched on a wall filled with names of towns that had been completely obliterated in World War II.
This one word began a creative odyssey that found its completion this month, with the publication of “Yossel — April 19, 1943,” Kubert’s graphic novel about Jewish resistance during the Holocaust — artistic, as well as physical — with the date in the subtitle referring to the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
While many will likely draw parallels to Art Speigelman’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus,” “Yossel” actually mines what is nearly a century-old tradition. Will Eisner, who is popularly credited with the creation of the modern graphic novel, addressed the effects of the Holocaust on an immigrant Bronx family in his comic strip “The Spirit,” which was serialized in newspapers in the 1940s and 1950s; the villains in Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s “Superman” have been viewed as stand-ins for Nazis; and the Escapist, a character in Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Adventures of Kavalier & Klay,” is a superhero dedicated to fighting Nazism. But whereas each of these mainstream superheroes carried a subtle message of Jewish strength in the face of oppression, Kubert chose to make this not just a theme but the very substance of his story.
“I feel that if I had lived under the circumstances of the Holocaust, I would have used any scrap of paper I could get my hands on to draw what I would have experienced,” said the 77-year-old Kubert, who at age 11 started working in the comics industry as an inker and eventually moved on to edit and draw DC Comics heroes Tarzan, the Flash and Batman.
Indeed, everything about the book’s protagonist is synonymous with the writer — including his name, Yossel, a Yiddishized version of Joe. “Yossel” is a first-person account of the radicalization of a previously ordinary Jewish teenager, the same boy that Kubert believes he would have become had he stayed in Poland. Early in the story, readers are presented with Yossel as a child in Yzeran, the same village where Kubert was born two months before his parents immigrated to the United States in 1926. The drama begins shortly after his family is forced into the Warsaw Ghetto. At first, Yossel’s resistance is artistic, as he sets out to sketch his grim surroundings. But when his parents and sister are sent to Auschwitz, his resistance becomes physical, as he and fellow members of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising reclaim one last shred of humanity by fighting back against their oppressors, despite the revolt’s inherent futility.
The seeds of Yossel’s personal rebellion are first planted when Nazi soldiers stationed in the Warsaw Ghetto take notice of his drawings and mistake his loving depictions of muscled superheroes for sketches of Reich leaders. From then on, Yossel is asked to draw for his captors’ amusement, thrown a few extra scraps of food and subsequently spared the fate of his parents and sister — deportation to Auschwitz — because of his art. Orphaned and hopeless, he is soon infected by the revolutionary spirit of the now-famous resistance movement in Warsaw.
For his research, Kubert scoured dozens of books about the uprising, though he never actually visited the city. He recalled that during his research he was struck by images of Jews being pulled out of cellar windows and Nazis pulling the last remaining Jews out of the ghetto — images that are clearly re-created in the book.
“I wanted readers to feel as if they were actually there, watching the events unfold,” Kubert said of his drawing style. Unlike “Maus” — which, like most graphic novels, was drawn in ink with story boxes fit into uniform squares — Kubert’s images blend into one another. His trademark pencil drawings give the pages a raw, impressionistic style. Kubert also selected a heavy gray stock for the book’s pages, because he wanted the paper to feel like something someone could have used at that time, under those circumstances.
Kubert also had a large role in the design of the book’s cover, the image of an outstretched arm, sleeve rolled up to reveal tattooed numbers reaching out against a striped background. “The cover drawing to me is indicative of the entire Holocaust,” he said. “This graphic vision just hits me. There is something about the scrawny arm that says to me more about what happened during the Holocaust than a drawing of a gas chamber.”
Despite his skill as a draftsman, Kubert said that he finds text more evocative than drawings.
“I don’t think anything is more powerful than the written word,” he said. “However, graphic novels are what I do best. If I were to keep a diary, I would do it in sketch form.”