- The Representation of Genocide in Graphic Novels: Considering the Role of Kitschby Laurike in 't Veld
Any book whose title juxtaposes the weight of genocide with the insubstantiality of kitsch signals a provocative intervention into the well-established nexus of comics studies and trauma theory. Laurike in 't Veld's book is indeed a fresh take on these topics, and her readings of both canonical and lesser known graphic novels about genocide is a welcome and accessible contribution to the field. Reading a group of graphic novels (although some are more properly graphic auto/biographies, documentary comics, and comics journalism) about the Holocaust and the genocides in Armenia, Rwanda, and Bosnia, in 't Veld shows how a concept such as kitsch can provide a productive framework for understanding how these texts produce affective responses to the atrocities they depict. But this is not a purely celebratory discussion of the power of comics to overcome compassion fatigue or solicit new empathy for the victims of suffering. Particularly helpful is the author's considerations of the limits of kitsch and anti-kitsch strategies in a perceptive analysis of the aesthetics and politics of graphic representations of genocide.
Chapter one is an introduction that delineates the scope of the study, provides an overview of early representations of genocide in comics, introduces the theoretical framework, and summarizes the chapters. Readers skeptical of in 't Veld's yoking of kitsch aesthetics to genocide narratives will find an in-depth discussion of her methodology here, as the author traces the history of kitsch from the early twentieth century to now in order [End Page 348]to unpack its potential for comics studies. While a richer answer to the question "What is kitsch?" unfolds over the course of the book, its aesthetic qualities of visual excess, narrative tendencies to hyperbole, and historical universalisms are clear from the beginning. Yet, like its close relatives camp and melodrama, the denigration of kitsch often attributed to the Frankfurt School and Clement Greenburg has more recently been overturned by cultural critics recuperating kitsch as a category of potential plurality and cultural resistance. This is where the study's core argument emerges: kitsch is an aesthetic and political category of tensions between excess/restraint, attraction/repulsion, distance/affect, and presence/absence. As such, some kitsch reaches its limits in the representation of atrocity; other versions of it unravel themselves to comment self-reflexively on these limits.
Organized thematically rather than chronologically or by individual works, this book returns to its corpus of texts in each chapter from a slightly different angle. The primary Holocaust graphic narratives are Art Spiegelman's Maus;Eric Heuvel's The Search;Joe Kubert's Yossel, April 19, 1943;Dave Sim's Judenhass;and Pascal Croci's Auschwitz;the Rwandan genocide is represented in Jean-Philippe Stassen's Deogratias, Matteo Casali and Kristian Donaldson's 99 Days, and Rupert Bazambanza's Smile through the Tears;the Bosnian genocide is the focus of Joe Kubert's Fax from Sarajevoand Joe Sacco's Safe Area Goražde;and, the Armenian genocide is represented in Paolo Cossi's Medz Yeghern: il grande male(unavailable in English). Some readers may find it difficult to follow the thread of a single graphic novel's analysis through the whole book, but this organizational approach allows the author deeper comparative analysis and an enlightening set of twists and turns around a set of figures, tropes, and topics.
Chapter two, "(In)human Visual Metaphors: The Animal and the Doll," introduces two common visual tropes in genocide graphic narratives that soften representations of violence, atrocity, and death. The chapter shows how animals and dolls work as signs of innocence and sentimentality in order to heighten affective responses and readerly interaction. The first section on animal representations draws on existing scholarship, particularly on the mouse/cat/pig figures in Mausand the real and surreal dogs in Deogratias, to show how these animal metaphors are not just substitutive, but also allow for self-reflexive commentary on...