Well, what do we mean when we say that a story (a book or movie or play) is “graphic”? Do we refer to the mode of depiction or to the matter depicted? Does it describe a work of art that is especially vivid or particularly morbid? These days, the term is both a warning label and a genre marker. It is designed to signify horror, which, distinct from terror, details rather than insinuates violence. When applied to print media, it signals a superior kind of picture story, something set apart from the comic by virtue of its mature themes or adult language (regardless of how immature “adult” language may often be).
The first picture book I came across that warrants the label “graphic” in both respects is Art Spiegelman’s Maus. It is a biographical account of Jewish life in fascist Germany, the horrors of the concentration camps, and a storyteller’s struggle to grapple with such memories as recalled by a close relative.
To depict the Holocaust in drawings of half-human animal figures is a daring project to begin with. It takes on the tradition of the fable and renders concrete what constitutes the dehumanization suffered under totalitarianism. On the one hand, Maus de-Disneyfies the fable, which, for centuries, had served as a coded moral tale not restricted to children or petty lessons in table manners. On the other, more bloody hand, it takes the figures of the fable out of their abstract realm and places them into concrete historical settings.
I was reminded of Spiegelman’s Maus last night when I went to see Die Fälscher (2007), a German film set in a concentration camp. Die Fälscher (translated as The Counterfeiters, tells the story of Jews forced by the Nazis to forge foreign currencies in an attempt to ruin the enemy’s economy and finance the ruinous Wirtschaft at home. For the conscripted Jews, foremost among them a highly talented criminal, it means survival and relative safety as well as an act aiding the system that has isolated, degraded and singled them out for extinction . . .
Like Maus, Die Fälscher deals with the guilt of those who forge a future for themselves in a world that insists on their pastness; it is a graphic story of craftsmanship drawn upon for the art of survival. The pen is mightier then the sword, Bulwer-Lytton famously remarked; its true test, however, lies in countering an army of erasers . . .