Say what you will about Dave Sim—and God knows there’s a lot to be said about him—there are two facts that aren’t up for discussion: The man can draw, and he’s not afraid to marshal that talent to tackle the most controversial topics.
Judenhass is the German word for Anti-Semitism, but it translates literally to “Jew hate,” and it’s that literal meaning that Sim thinks gets to the heart of what we generally refer to as “Anti-Semitism” better than that term does, since Jews aren’t the only Semitic people (so too are Arabs and people living in North Africa and southwestern Asia). And it’s the hatred of Jews that Judenhass addresses, specifically the Holocaust, though Sim more often uses the Jewish term for the WWII era attempted genocide: “The Shoah,” or “calamity.”
Judenhass isn’t really a graphic novel in the common usage of that term, but more of a graphic essay, with Sim himself addressing the reader directly for the first five of the book’s 40 pages, talking about his thought process behind the book, and why it seems an important one for a comic book, since “but for geographic happenstance and the grace of God,” any one of the ordinary men condemned to die in Nazi death camps could have been one the important figures in the birth of the comics medium, like Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Joe Simon, Stan Lee, Sheldon Mayer or Max Gaines or others (In his afterword, he mentions another reason—this is a 25-minute exploration of the subject, which seems to him like a necessary bare minimum of time schools should spend on teaching it to students).
In this passage, he examines the typical non-Jewish response to the holocaust/Shoah, and finds that it seems to imply that it “had been a genuinely unthinkable act without precedent…a one-in-a-million happenstance which could only have happened in Germany and only under the Nazi regime,” rather than something that, given “non-Jewish culture and its tolerance for and embracing of Jew hatred,” was perhaps inevitable.
From there the book transitions into a collection of negative terms for Jews, depressing historical facts about the treatment of Jews, and incredibly negative quotes and statements regarding the Jewish people, some from the usual suspects (Hitler, Himmler), world leaders not normally associated with Anti-Semitism, and some really surprising people (H.G. Wells, Voltaire, Mark Twain, Martin Luther).
These appear in blocks of text, while the pages “below” the boxes are filled by Sim’s meticulous pen and ink reconstructions of photographs from the death camps.
There’s an incredibly elegant—and portentous, given the subject matter—sequence at the beginning showing a train’s-eye-view of the arrival at the camp, but a majority of the pages consist of splashes of drawings of photographs. Many of the pages are split into grids of six to 35 panels, depicting pictures of the same victims, dead or dying (it’s usually impossible to tell which) from slightly different angles, as if viewed from a somewhat twitchy camera.
The narrative and artistic techniques are quite similar to Sim’s Glamourpuss, in which the subject matter is aesthetics, his favorite cartoonists and comics artists and fashion.
Given the controversial nature of the subject matter (remember, there are still folks who refuse to acknowledge the Holocaust really occurred) and the heated passions that revolve around it still, it’s a good thing Sim includes so much information in the back, including a discussion of his process, his sources, the particular photographs drawn from and discussions and context on some of the quoted materials.
Obviously, this isn’t a fun book to read, nor is doing so in anyway an enjoyable experience. It was difficult event to admire or examine Sim’s process much with this one—which was the chief pleasure to be derived from Glamourpuss—as it was hard to divorce myself from what was being drawn long enough think about how it was drawn, beyond wondering how hard it must have been to create.
Simply put, these are hard images to look at, and dragging your eyes across the images for a split-second on the way to the words is nothing compared to the amount of time and energy Sim spent in the meticulous creation of those images. I don’t know how Sim could stand to create this book, although I’m glad he did.