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Using Comics To Educate About The Holocaust

Legendary comic illustrator Neal Adams and Holocaust historian Rafael Medoff team up on a series of motion comic videos profiling Americans of all faiths who spoke out against the Nazi genocide for a Disney DVD that debuts at San Diego Comic-Con.

For several years, legendary comic illustrator Neil Adams and Holocaust historian Rafael Medoff have partnered on projects that use comics and animation to teach about the Nazi genocide.

Their first DVD—They Spoke Out: American Voices of Protest Against the Holocaust—debuts at San Diego Comic-Con with an exclusive July 19 screening and panel discussion with Adams and Medoff. Episodes can be viewed at TheySpokeOut.com, and the DVD will be on sale at booths 1709 and 1829, where Adams will be signing copies.

"We’re not throwing the Holocaust at you," says Adams. "We’re offering a way to help American kids experience the Holocaust through these videos, so they can make their own decisions as to how deeply they want to go into further study."

Rafael Medoff
Neal Adams

Created by Disney Educational Productions and the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C., it features six 10-minute motion comic episodes illustrated and mostly narrated by Adams—best known for his dynamic style and work on Batman and X-Men—and written by Medoff, the Wyman Institute director and author of 14 books. The episodes blend traditional animation and comic book-style illustrations with newsreel footage, photographs, and historical documents.

"Teens raised on YouTube, video games, and other visual media are likely to be more receptive to comic books about the Holocaust than heavy textbooks about the Holocaust," says Medoff. "This presents today’s educators with a whole new set of challenges."

One episode, Messenger from Hell, is narrated by former Marvel Comics chairman Stan Lee, cocreator of Spider-Man, Hulk, and the Fantastic Four. Messenger tells the story of a Polish courier, Jan Karski, who smuggled himself into the Warsaw Ghetto and the outskirts of the Belzec death camp, then risked his life to bring the news of the Holocaust to the free world. The DVD release coincides with the 70th anniversary of Karski’s meeting at the White House with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Another episode is The Dina Babbitt Story about a teenage cartoonist and future Warner Brothers animator who survived Auschwitz by painting prisoner portraits for Josef Mengele. Before Babbitt died in 2009, Adams and Medoff (along with the late comic legend Joe Kubert) attempted to retrieve her art from The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland, by auctioning original artwork by noted comic illustrators to earn money for her legal bills.

"My work with Neal Adams began when I approached him about Dina Babbitt’s struggle—she was an artist fighting for the return of her original art," says Medoff. "Neal had led the courageous and successful fight in the 1970s to convince comic book publishers to return original art to the artists. As Neal and I were talking about ways to help publicize Dina’s cause, he said, 'Let’s do a comic strip about it.' The strip was called The Last Outrage and was published by Marvel. That brought a tremendous amount of attention to Dina’s plight. Then Disney Educational Productions suggested making’The Last Outrage into a motion comic, which led to the They Spoke Out series."

Increasing engagement

A page from a middle school student’s graphic novel on Josef Mengele

Jeremy Johnson, a PhD student in the University of Minnesota’s Art Education program, observed firsthand the power that comics have in increasing educational involvement, which he discussed at a July 18 Comic-Con panel called Teaching Comics.

Earlier this spring, Johnson consulted on an experimental lesson that had Wisconsin middle school students studying the Holocaust by creating mini graphic novels on the subject, rather than writing research reports.

"We asked them to create narratives around the facts they found," says Johnson. "Ninety-eight percent of them said they learned more by creating comics than by repeating facts they pulled off the Internet or out of a book. They were more interested and emotionally invested."

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