Holocaust comic book tells of ghetto youth who fights back

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Many adult readers still have trouble disassociating today’s comic books from the 10-cent numbers featuring Sea Monkey ads, dialogue like “Must throw lever to … save … mankind!” and an eventual resting place in the trash, thanks to your mother.

So, while the term “comic book” may conjure up pleasant nostalgia of Archie hitting up Jughead for a five spot before his big date with Veronica, Joe Kubert’s “Yossel: April 29, 1943” is about as far from the hijinks of Riverdale High as the Crab Nebulae.

“Yossel,” to put it bluntly, is a Holocaust comic book. And it’s also a dark, gripping and magnificently drawn instant classic.

Kubert — a 77-year-old legend who was drawing superheroes such as The Flash and Hawkman by the time he was a young teenager — describes “Yossel” as a “What if?” book. The big “what if” concerns his own family’s luck escaping Poland in the 1920s when he was an infant. “Yossel” imagines what might have become of the Kubert clan if they hadn’t been so fortunate.

The most immediately noticeable aspect of Kubert’s book is that he didn’t finish it — in a manner of speaking. In what turns out to be a masterstroke, Kubert decided not to ink his pencil sketches, which range from crude half-drawn figures to stunningly rendered tanks, soldiers, faces and the ghetto’s foreboding, dark and fetid alleys.

The use of pencil sketches instead of finished, inked or even colored drawings works on a number of levels. It gives the reader an “over the shoulder” kind of feel as the story follows Yossel’s forays throughout the city, sketchbook in hand, recording the grim events that unfold before his eyes.

Hastily drawn images of smoldering buildings or legions of marching soldiers convey a chaotic atmosphere in which death was a ubiquitous presence.

Many of us have wondered what would happen if we were caught in the Nazis’ murderous net. Would we have fought back? We’d like to think that we would not go complacently to our deaths without a fight. Sadly, however, most of us would have died, and died horribly like the millions of innocent victims.

Kubert, for better or for worse, has made his alter-ego, Yossel, a 16-year-old ghetto-fighter. This bit of wishful thinking makes for a compelling story (and offers the wish fulfillment of hurling Molotov cocktails at Nazi stormtroopers) but may not sit especially well with those who believe it is exploitative and improper for a non-survivor to dramatize the Shoah.

While some PR flak has foolishly decided to describe “Yossel” as “a tale of inspiring triumph” on the back cover, Kubert chose his words more intelligently. His dialogue is, thankfully, free of comic-book clichés and as dark and evocative as his fantastic artwork.

Being wholly fictional, Kubert’s storyline does not pack the punch of Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” (the meticulously documented recollections of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek). Yet Spiegelman’s choice of using anthropomorphic animals instead of people was seen by some as (literally) dehumanizing the Shoah. Needless to say, similar objections don’t apply to “Yossel.”

While by no means a substitute for the life-altering first-hand accounts of survivors such as Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, “Yossel” is a superlatively drawn comic book that succeeds in honoring the integrity of the Shoah.

The only thing readers may miss about the old comic books your mother tossed out is the price — “Yossel” will set you back $24.95.

Yossel: April 19, 1943,” by Joe Kubert (128 pages, I Books, $24.95).

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.