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Tuesday, 17 November 2015

OUT TODAY: Shigeru Mizuki's Hitler

Mizuki fans have had a lot to be excited about this fall: first we got the fourth volume of his Showa: A History of Japan series, and now we have a newly translated standalone graphic novel simply titled Hitler! Both titles are published by Drawn & Quarterly, and translated from the Japanese by Zack Davisson.


At first I was surprised by the subject matter of this work, originally published in Japanese in 1971. But then I realized that it makes perfect sense. As Frederik L. Schodt remarks in his introduction, "Who better...to deconstruct the monster Hitler, than a monster expert?" Schodt refers, of course, to Mizuki's famed re-imaginings of the Yokai, Japan's supernatural creatures, as seen in Nonnonba and Kitaro, particularly, and with appearances in practically all his work. Plus, having served as a soldier in World War II, Mizuki, now 93, has a personal interest in the man who started the whole thing. If it weren't for Hitler and his rise to power, Mizuki would never have joined the Japanese army, and would still have the arm he lost in combat.


The early chapters cover a young Hitler's failure to make it as an artist, his boiling rage at what he decided was a Jewish plot to overtake Germany, and his time as a soldier during the First World War, during which his patriotism and antisemitism increased. There's no sympathy here—Mizuki draws a portrait of a young man who uses his hardships to justify his racist and misogynist hatred of people whom he imagines have it easier than he does (women, Jews, etc.).


Hitler finds work after the war in German intelligence, and is sent to infiltrate the D.A.P, a short-lived workers' party that he ends up joining and bringing to prominence, thanks to his fervour for "saving Germany" and his oratory skills. In 1920, the D.A.P. becomes the Nazi Party, and Hitler's circuitous rise to power begins.


After leading a failed popular revolution in Munich, Hitler is sentenced to five years in prison. It is during this time that he writes the infamous Mein Kampf, in which he gives free reign to his fantasies of European domination. Released in 1924, and banned from public speaking, he retreats to the country house of his sister to write the next volume of Mein Kampf. The ban eventually lifts, Hitler's bloodthirsty speeches capture a population that faces great economic hardship, and by 1928, the Nazi Party is on its way to power.


In 1933, after many changes of fortune, some political maneuvering, some coalition-building, Hitler is appointed Chancellor of Germany. Working on the public's fear of the Communists, the Nazis win 44% of the Reichstag. Soon after, Hitler abolishes all political parties and withdraws Germany from the League of Nations. Then, once President Hindenburg dies in 1934, Hitler establishes himself as dictator. This is a terrifying point for readers, halfway through the book, because we know what's coming.


Mizuki's drawing prowess is really showcased in many of these full-page and double-page spreads. It is strange, in a way, to appreciate these gorgeous images of horror. Mizuki doesn't shy away from the ugliness of history, to be sure. Once Hitler has declared war, the history is probably more familiar to readers. At the same time, it is a rare opportunity to experience it through the eyes and pen of a non-Western artist. And because it's a biography of Hitler, and not a more general history, Mizuki presents us with countless details of the man's life, including his personal relationships, his endless political scheming, and, sometimes, his emotional turmoil.


In the end, as we know, Hitler and Nazi Germany are defeated. Hitler commits suicide at the news of the approaching Soviet army. Germany is in ruins. The devastating effects of the Holocaust reverberate into our present day.


Mizuki once again reveals himself to be a master cartoonist, able to produce a compelling and clear-eyed biography of one of the most reviled figures in world history.  Hitler has already earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly: "Impossible to put down, this is a candidate for the year’s best graphic novel."

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