They Were Only Grey, Slow Moving Ghosts
Travis Hedge Coke
Joe Kubert's Yossel is the greatest comic of the last ten years.
Oh, sure, there are funner comics, sweeter comics, more exciting, slicker comics. There are comics that are equally emotive, just as inventive or intuitive, as well-drawn or implacably paced. But, for total package, Yossel is the best. The greatest comic of the last ten years.
I don't mean "greatest" only to imply it's swell, that it is a quality comic. I mean that it is more great than greater, that it is an immensity of quality, a giant of accomplishment and affect and meaning. A beautiful song in words and pictures and arrangement that fights to draw tears from me, with every page, that makes me feel both miniscule and heroic just for reading it.
Yossel doesn't sell significant numbers. I'm not sure that it is, just now, in print. (It is. -Duy) And when I have seen it discussed it is almost as an addendum to the more widely-known and critically lauded Maus. Not the same author, same tone, same techniques, but they share a period of history and they are both, in their way, a remembrance and celebration of family.
I don't like Maus. The subtitle, My Father Bleeds History? Makes me want to shout down at the pages, "Fuck you. My mom bleeds history. My grandparents bleed history. The guy who bags groceries stone drunk on Thursday evenings even though he's well past retirement age, he bleeds history."
I've never felt talked down to by Yossel, by Kubert in general, an exceptional man and magnificent talent. An exploration of how the author and his family might have fared had they not been able to leave Poland for America before the Nazi invasion, Yossel is a humble work executed with such integrity and bravado it lionizes no one and makes so many seem so immense, as if their integrity, their potential towers, and that towering is the more important kind.
In it, men and women are brutalized, coerced, corrupted. Children are confused, manipulated, starved. People are often scared, often cruel. It is people on all sides of every human engagement, after all. While often easier to think of history as something merely done to those who suffer, it is right that we acknowledge no genetic difference worth appreciating, between humans who are used and those who make you march. It's a stupidly simple precept, but we can never easily hold onto it.
Joe Kubert — who my autocorrect is determined to call "Joe Liberty" — is not going in for handwashy or waggling varieties of "moral relativism," nor is he indulging in the myths of "that is just how people thought back then." But Yossel is drawn in quick pencil, often rough, mostly first draft,and then shot high contrast so that flaws in the paper crinkled up and white out is glaringly brilliant, and that, too, is how he characterizes his people.
Even the purest, smoothest human being is flawed, if you look, our roughs and tentative first ideas are always happening, always there. Whitewash shows. Shadows are made of elements just as limbs and eyes and old comics are resultant from their parts. And, in sharp contrast to life, to motion and agitation and soul, perhaps also to highlight all that, sometimes there are fired shots.
Yossel is a love letter and a thank you to countless human beings. I think it's unlikely anyone could read it and think, "this is a man who doesn't love his family," but Kubert hammers on his mother, his father and sister, as hard as he gives to anyone. He doesn't saint them, simply because they are of his blood, or because he knows their birthdays. Kubert is intensely fair, in Yossel, and it is the horror of what some of the characters accomplish, horror reflective of true history, that can condemn them, not a blanket dismissal.
Good and bad are not genetic. There is no wicked gene to be inherited. As the narrator himself points out, as a child, those inflicting suffering on his family were, some of them, once his neighbors.
The rape scene, about halfway through, is the most unsalacious abuse. The sex is off-panel. The primary image is of a shamed, young but horribly aged woman, clutching her belly and staring to the dirt, while two uniformed men stand by looking at her, not noticeably cruelly or with cartoon sadism in their eyes, just sort of smiling. Which, frankly, is what most rapists probably look like. It's why it's so easy to say "he's young and immature" or "boys will be boys." "He doesn't look like that sort."
I am in awe of what Kubert can evoke with even his simplest drawings, with his flowing layouts that don't seem genuinely paced or planned because they're not six panel grids. He knew entirely what he was doing with Yossel, with each image, every panel, every page and scenario. There is, in this hundred and twenty page comic, a lifetime of perception, a lifetime of sketching everything, of paring details and highlighting beauty. In this comic there is perpetual "why?" and "what if?" like a kid doodling along the side of their notebook in a boring afternoon class. There is the directness and commitment of a child, tempered always, but never curtailed by well-earned and adult awareness.