I had seen the cover of Yossel several times in my local library before finally deciding to take it out. An emaciated arm with an upturned hand, the cuff of striped pyjamas and an unmistakable tattoo. A holocaust comic. I avoided this comic again and again because I could not believe that there was really anything the comic book genre can add to the vast spectrum of works that continue to respond to the holocaust. There is Maus. What is left to say after Maus?
I have a habit of always reading a book first, and then if I enjoyed it, returning to read the introduction later. The in and outs of how a writer formed his work only really becomes interesting to me after I have finished the piece. This habit was to have a strong influence on my view of this comic.
Yossel is both written and illustrated by Joe Kubert. I find it is often the case that when a writer illustrates his own work it creates a cohesive flow that can be otherwise lacking. Yossel is an excellent example of this.
The comic details the life of Yossel, a young Jewish boy with an extraordinary ability to draw. Living in the Warsaw ghetto of Nazi occupied Poland, the boys talents are noted by the overseeing officers.
His American style comic book drawings of superheroes tickle the soldiers, who see themselves in his Supermen – or Ubermensch. It is for this reason he is spared the camps. Throughout all of Yossels experiences, he draws. It is these drawings that illustrate the pages, a unique and for the most part successful device.
Instead of finely lined and inked colour drawings, Yossel is a comic of hastily scribbled sketches, with corners unfinished and parts unfilled. Yossel hears about the death camps through the words of an escaped survivor.
He draws all that he hears, painfully creating for himself a sketched gallery of unseen horrors. It is through this gallery of his mind that we come to see the final destiny of Yossel’s family. The hasty lines, the smudged charcoal become a prism through which we are able to glimpse Auschwitz and its gas chambers.
Something I am always aware of when it comes to any art or writing relating to the holocaust is how quickly descriptions can become voyeuristic. Like looking at a car crash, we shudder in horror but also savour the gruesome nature of the scene. It creates a specific sort of problem. How can we think and talk about atrocities, without indulging our desire to be tantalised by horror?
Yossel manages this problem with great delicacy. Its sketches to do not strive to recreate in full multi colour the myriad of human sufferings its story centres upon. The dark black sketches, highlighted in white and grey are like shadows upon a wall. The brightness of the true event is so strong it would burn our eyes, but these shadows allow us a glimpse of insight.
I read the comic with the assumption that it was autobiographical. When I reached the end though, and flicked back to the beginning to read the intro, I discovered that Joe Kubert had in fact escaped the holocaust. His family had managed to make it to America, and he had grown up a happy boy free to draw much pleasanter things.
He had created the comic as a ‘what if’. What if Joe Kubert’s family was denied access onto that fleeing ship to the New Country? What if, instead of flourishing in East New York, he was trapped in the Warsaw ghettos, sketching for a crust? I can understand to a degree how haunting that possibility must be. The random chaotic chance that you were saved when so many other perished.
But it gave the whole piece a somewhat self indulgent slant. I feel that by writing and drawing ‘Yossel’, Joe has managed to purge himself of the phantom of his ‘what if’ life. I can imagine him laying down his pen on its completion with a gratifying ‘ahhhhh’, and setting his work aside to attend to his real life. I don’t like that thought.
I feel that anything written about the holocaust should be motivated by more than the personal purging of guilt. To discover that personal catharsis was the driving force behind the work lowered its value in my eye. Whether that was fair or not I cannot say, it was a gut reaction to what I was reading.
Ultimately, Yossel tells us stories we are all now familiar with. The ghetto resistance, the camps, the Nazis. Stories that nonetheless, still feel like a kick in the stomach every time they are heard. There are far better written accounts of the holocaust, both fictional and non-fictional. I would not recommend Yossel for it’s writing – it’s the art. Joe Kubert is a talented artist, and the stark sketched lines of this comic vibrate across the page. They are extraordinary.