(George Gene Gustines)
As all-star comic-book team-ups go, this one beats the first meeting of Superman and Spider-Man. Three of the elder statesmen of comic books — Neal Adams, Joe Kubert and Stan Lee — have joined forces to combat what they see as a real-world injustice.
The men are lending their talents to tell the tale of Dina Gottliebova Babbitt, who survived two years at the Auschwitz concentration camp by painting watercolor portraits for the infamous Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele. Some of the artwork also survived, but it is in the possession of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland. Now 85 and living in California, Mrs. Babbitt wants the artwork back, but the museum has steadfastly refused to return it.
“I’m at a total loss,” Mrs. Babbitt wrote in an e-mail message. “I feel just as helpless as I did when I was at camp. Totally disempowered.”
Now Mrs. Babbitt’s story has been captured in a six-page comic-book story illustrated by Mr. Adams, who helped take Batman back to his dark roots after the ’60s television show made him seem campy; inked partly by Mr. Kubert, whose comics career stretches back to the 1940s and who has drawn everyone from Hawkman to Sergeant Rock; and featuring an introduction by Mr. Lee, a co-creator of the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and many other Marvel heroes.
The text was written by Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which has championed Mrs. Babbitt’s cause. Mr. Medoff and Mr. Adams have offered the story to DC Comics and Marvel Entertainment in the hopes of getting it published, but no deal is yet in place.
The men first joined forces in 2006, when 450 cartoonists, artists and comic-book creators signed a petition asking the museum to return the art. “Rafael was in my studio and talking about this project, and the signatures, and what could be done,” said Mr. Adams, 67.
Mr. Adams read Mr. Medoff’s summary but thought it was something more. “It told a story with economy and sincerity,” he said. “I realized this was a perfect script for a six-page story.” Choosing the artist was relatively easy. “I couldn’t think of anyone better or crazy enough to do it,” he explained. “So I decided to draw it.”
The story, mainly in black and white but using splashes of color whenever Mrs. Babbitt’s work is shown, moves quickly from her childhood — when she drew Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck on paper sacks — to her arrival, with her mother, Johanna, at Auschwitz in September 1943, when she was about 20.
It depicts the colorful mural that Mrs. Babbitt painted in the children’s barracks there. She started with Walt Disney’s version of Snow White, but her audience clamored for the Seven Dwarfs as well, and some farm animals. The original mural is believed to have been destroyed, and the story uses a re-creation Mrs. Babbitt painted last year.
Mrs. Babbitt recently returned to her home in Felton, Calif., where she is recovering from surgery for abdominal cancer. “I think I could have done the dwarfs a lot better then because I was young and can’t paint as I used to,” she wrote by e-mail. “These were the only times that I was comfortable at camp, with my painting, you know. I felt human when I was painting.”
By February 1944, Mrs. Babbitt had come to the attention of Mengele, who was dissatisfied with the photographs he had taken of the Gypsy, or Romany, prisoners in his effort to prove their genetic inferiority. He asked Mrs. Babbitt to paint their portraits to capture their skin tones better. She agreed, but only after insisting that her mother be spared from death. (The story reproduces five of the portraits.)
The final two pages move from the liberation by Allied troops in 1945 to her life in the United States, where she worked for 17 years as an assistant animator for many Hollywood studios, including MGM and Warner Brothers, working on the likes of Daffy Duck and Speedy Gonzalez.
Auschwitz museum officials, in a statement issued in 2001, indicated that they had bought six of Mrs. Babbitt’s watercolors in 1963 from an Auschwitz survivor and acquired a seventh in 1977. In 1973 the museum asked her to verify her work but did not offer to return the items. The museum has argued that the artwork is important evidence of the Nazi genocide and part of the cultural heritage of the world. (The museum did not respond to telephone calls and an e-mail message requesting comment.)
Others have come to Mrs. Babbitt’s defense, including Representative Shelley Berkley, Democrat of Nevada. In 2002 she sponsored a resolution in the House of Representatives urging State Department involvement. In 2006 she also pleaded the artist’s case before Congress.
Nevertheless, Mr. Medoff, 48, said Mrs. Babbitt’s story was especially resonant in the world of comic books. “Comic-book artists waged a long struggle, led by Neal Adams, for the right to have their original art returned,” he said. He was referring to comic-book companies’ standard practice of not giving artists back their work after publication, a trend that lasted into the 1970s.
But Mr. Adams played down any similarities between his struggle and Mrs. Babbitt’s, calling her situation “tragic” and “an atrocity.” He said he approached the six pages as if they were a documentary, avoiding the melodrama of, say, a superhero comic.
“You’re not looking at me trying to make a big play for emotion,” he said. “When you read the whole way through and realize what has happened to this person, you can’t help but feel horrified and perhaps sickened by this nuttiness.”
Mr. Adams recalled the time he was 10 and living in Germany, where his father was stationed with the United States Army. At school, his fellow students were shown footage of the concentration camps. “It was too much for me,” he said. “It was staggering and awful. I couldn’t believe human beings could treat other human beings like that.”
One of the more horrific panels in the comic, which has the working title “The Last Outrage,” depicts a forced march of the prisoners out of the camp as Soviet troops approached. Many died on the journey to the Ravensbrück camp, which Allied troops liberated in 1945. The image was penciled by Mr. Adams and inked by Mr. Kubert, 81.
“Neal asked me to do some of it, and I was more than pleased to work on it,” Mr. Kubert said.
Mrs. Babbitt’s story is similar to that of Mr. Kubert’s 2003 graphic novel, “Yossel: April 19, 1943,” which imagines what life would have been like if the Kubert family had not left Poland in 1926. In the book Yossel (Mr. Kubert’s alter ego), and his family face life in the Warsaw ghetto. Yossel, a gifted artist, earns special treatment from the Germans.
The graphic novel was critically acclaimed, but Mr. Kubert says it doesn’t compare to Mrs. Babbitt’s real-life ordeal. “Her ability to paint and draw literally saved her life and her mother’s life,” he said. “Absolutely incredible.”
Mr. Medoff said he hoped that people would read the comic and agree. “There’s a certain amount of ongoing pressure, but it’s been so far not efficient to make the authorities bow,” he said. “This comic strip will open a whole new battlefront.”
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company