Page 45 Review by Stephen
"It can't get any worse than this."
I'll be recommending it to every school as a set text on The Holocaust or at the very least an essential part of their library. It's not as powerful as JUDENHASS but it's far more accessible for younger readers, being a gripping narrative which whilst fiction is still informed in minute but by no means intrusive detail by historical fact. It was the extensive annotations by Greg Pak in the back that I actually read first, and I'm glad that I did so. For although there are the occasional snatches of perfectly judged narrative anchoring the events in history, the annotations themselves - brief, precise, and well argued with references - show that Greg did everything in his power to ensure that Max Eisenhardt's story fits within historical records in every conceivable way. Moreover I've argued before that most superhero stories involving real-world horrors have a tendency to trivialise those suffering by suggesting solutions unavailable to those concerned, whereas here Pak has done the exact opposite:
"In our story's climax, we wanted our hero to take action. But we felt it was important not to depict him as the actual leader of the Sonderkommando revolt. Real human beings led this revolt -- we didn't want to detract from their almost unthinkable heroism by suggesting that the revolt was only possible because a super hero took charge."
The revolt happened, by the way. Similarly, when discussing the tattooing process and numbering schemes, Greg writes:
"We made the decision not to show Max's actual number in this tattooing scene. The more I read the testimonies of actual survivors, the more uncomfortable I became with the notion of giving our fictional hero a number that a real human being once bore."
Absolutely right, Greg, and if you'd made one up that was never used, that would have broken your record of historical accuracy.
But surely, you're thinking, historical accuracy goes up in smoke the second the future X-Men leader/villain (pick your era) starts using his powers
? Err, what powers? Aside from a school javelin throw and a certain knack for spotting metal where others might not have noticed it, that's it, guys. Even at a key climax halfway through the book, when his family fleeing through the woods is caught by German soldiers and lined up in front of a firing squad, and you just know that Max is finally going to unleash his magnetic power against the bullets flying towards them... And you know that because Greg has encouraged you to expect it by reprising his father's considered exhortation ("Sometimes you get a moment... when everything lines up. When anything is possible. When suddenly... you can make things happen.")... Pak flips that deliberate misdirection around in a manner which is perfectly devastating.
Germany 1935, then, just prior to the Nazi's announcing the Nuremberg Laws, and young Max is already suffering Anti-Semitism at school, but nothing will prepare him, his family, or the young Romany girl called Magda for what lies ahead: Kristallnacht, Poland, the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz. If there's one thing Pak's characters focus on above all others it's weighing the balance about when to fight when the repercussions for every act of defiance were for dozens, hundreds or thousands to pay the price. It's very well argued indeed. Also, for every moment of hope, there is a crushing blow.
Combined with Max Hollingsworth's moody palette which produces more than a little Tim Sale in the final effect, Giandomenico has done an exemplary job of illustrating some very difficult scenes, from the Jewish arrivals stripped of their clothes at Auschwitz to the knock-out, double-page spread of the book in the fourth chapter when Max stumbles upon the room piled almost to the roof with glass spectacles: stunning. The covers by Marko Djurdjevic are pretty haunting too, but just when you thought you'd got as much as you could from this volume, there's a biographical piece in the back on Dina Gottliebova, a woman interned in Auschwitz and forced by Mengele to paint portraits of those undergoing his horrific, nonsensical experiments... brilliantly illustrated by Neal Adams with Joe Kubert. And it's the best Adams art I've seen in decades. Kubert, of course, produced the similarly themed YOSSEL which I praised to the heavens, but can you imagine what Adams could have contributed to this medium if superheroes hadn't been the only form of real bread and butter back then...?