Drawing Evil: Review of Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler by Max Bledstein, Research Fellow
With Art Speigelman’s Holocaust comic Maus a firm fixture in syllabi worldwide and a canonized work even in traditional literary eyes, the thought of another non-fiction comic examining the Holocaust may at first seem like hardly the most welcome addition to North American bookshelves. But Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler, a manga biography of the titular subject (published in Japanese in 1971, and translated into English in 2015), more than justifies its interest for Western readers through both a unique approach to telling the events of World War II and a compelling narrative in its own right.
In fact, the Holocaust goes mostly unmentioned in the book, a move which could perhaps alienate some readers but serves Mizuki’s primary ostensible objective: a compelling portrait of Hitler examining the conditions and attributes which facilitated his rise to power. After a brief prologue showing unnamed Jews hiding in attics, French resisters plotting an attack, and a young German man rebuking his Nazi father, Mizuki turns to the life of Hitler himself. The narration introducing the main story simultaneously calls attention to the book’s focus: “Never in history have the Germans been as rapturous as they are for their Führer. But what kind of human being is this Adolf Hitler…?”
Initially, as has oft been told, he was a starving and floundering artist in Vienna, which is where Mizuki begins telling Hitler’s tale. He rents a room with his friend Gustl Kubizek, who plans to attend a music conservatory while he assumes Hitler will be attending art school; in fact, he had been rejected for two consecutive years on account of low scores on entrance exams. He winds up homeless on the streets of Vienna, until he finally finds a purpose for his life by volunteering for the German army in World War I.
Near the War’s end, he gets sent home to Munich after being caught in a British mustard gas attack, where he begins to explore an interest in politics. This opening section is also the weakest part of Mizuki’s book, as he relies a bit too heavily on obvious foreshadowing (“I am poor and unpopular. This is entirely the fault of the Jews,” says the young Hitler during a period of particular desperation) for the character to really come to life. Mizuki’s dialogue does a good job of establishing the rapport between Hitler and Kubizek, but the book gets weighed down by heavy-handedness.
Nevertheless, Hitler picks up quite a bit as the narrative progresses and Hitler evolves into the monstrous tyrant more familiar to most readers. He joins the DAP, which soon becomes the Nazi party, where he discovers his natural talent as an orator and insatiable hunger for power. Although the other DAP members are skeptical of Hitler’s extremism and unwillingness to compromise, his popularity as a speaker and the corresponding donations he brings in are too much to turn down. Mizuki’s drawings do an excellent job of illustrating Hitler’s rhetorical appeal without endorsing it, as impressive splash panels of cheering crowds wearing swastikas bring the dynamics seen in films such as Triumph of the Will to life within the world of the book.
The attention to historical detail also shines here, with noteworthy figures and events in Hitler’s rise being presented in the comic and fleshed out in more depth in the meticulous footnotes. Mizuki wisely uses the comic itself to focus on characters’ psychological developments and their interactions, allowing the drawings and dialogue to stand on their own and leaving the footnotes as a supplement for readers seeking more historical information.
The artwork and detail only become more of an asset as the story moves on, capturing the failure of Hitler’s blood thirst and megalomania. As he gets further into World War II, Mizuki shows Hitler’s interaction with historical figures such as Neville Chamberlain and Benito Mussolini, and the latter particularly stands out due to Mizuki’s distinct caricature. Mussolini’s flashes of pride and disputes flesh the character out well in spite of his brief appearance, revealing a man who was alternatively Hitler’s rival, friend, and fellow despot. In the case of Chamberlain, Mizuki doesn’t shy away from an ugly part of Western history, highlighting Chamberlain’s reluctance to stop Hitler without overly glorifying Winston Churchill’s eager hawkishness.
These characters are only a few of the many who come to life in Hitler, which contains a “cast of characters” at the beginning with busts of the various figures in the book and brief biographical descriptions of each. Though this section helps as a reference tool, the distinct facial features of the characters make them all remarkably memorable by sight alone. Mizuki draws them in a cartoonish manga style, which contrasts with the detailed realism with which he illustrates cityscapes and battle scenes. The contrast imbues Hitler with a singular approach to historical narrative which brings out the individual characters while also rooting them in the landmarks of the Second World War.
Mizuki likewise presents a deeply humanistic perspective on history, an achievement made all the more remarkable when considered in conjunction with the inhumanity of his subject. Hitler delves into the possibly incestuous relationship between Hitler and his half-niece Geli (he kept her in his Munich apartment and many assume that they slept together), showing a lesser known but nonetheless insightful portrait of his cruelty. Depictions of power struggles between German political figures help to contextualize Hitler’s rise, showing the conditions which precipitated his seizure of power.
The representation of these conditions, and Hitler’s life as a whole, makes Hitler into a compelling and informative read providing insight into its subject’s life without condoning his actions or sympathizing with him in the slightest. Mizuki’s work simply helps readers to understand the figures and factors underlying Hitler’s atrocities, and, in doing so, pulls off a remarkable feat.
Mizuki, Shigeru. Shigeru Mizuki's Hitler. Translated by Zack Davisson, Montreal, QC, Drawn & Quarterly, 2015.
Riefenstahl, Leni, director. Triumph of the Will. Universum Film AG, 1935.
Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus: A Survivor's Tale. London, Penguin Books, 2003.
Suggested Further Reading
Chute, Hillary L. Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form. Harvard University Press, 2016.
LaCapra, Dominick. History and Memory after Auschwitz. Cornell University Press, 1998.
Rothberg, Michael. Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
Smith, Philip. Reading Art Spiegelman. Routledge, 2016.
Williams, Benn E., and Aukje Kluge. Re-Examining the Holocaust through Literature. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.