My posting schedule has been a little sporadic to say the least lately, so what better way to get back at it than with a WWII graphic novel? Salvia Rubio and Pedro Columo work in perfect harmony to tell the long silent story of Francisco Boix. Gritty, raw, and absolutely enthralling, this baby turned out to be one of my favourite reads in the first half of the year.
Title: The Photographer of Mauthausen
Author: Salvia Rubio
Illustrator: Pedro Columbo
Publisher: Europe Comics
Publication Date: April 18, 2018
Genre: Comics, Graphic Novel, Non Fiction
Themes: WWII, Survival, Concentration Camps, War Crimes
My Rating: 4 / 5
This is a dramatic retelling of true events in the life of Francisco—or François—Boix, a Spanish press photographer and communist who fled to France at the beginning of World War II. But there, he found himself handed over by the French to the Nazis, who sent him to the notorious Mauthausen concentration camp, where he spent the war among thousands of other Spaniards and other prisoners. More than half of them would lose their lives there. Through an odd turn of events, Boix finds himself the confidant of an SS officer who is documenting prisoner deaths at the camp. Boix realizes that he has a chance to prove Nazi war crimes by stealing the negatives of these perverse photos—but only at the risk of his own life, that of a young Spanish boy he has sworn to protect, and, indeed, that of every prisoner in the camp.
I was first turned on to graphic novels as a medium for delivering rich, emotive, nonfiction in the final year of my undergrad when I was introduced to Joe Sacco and comics journalism. And I have to say, I think that the comics medium is perfect for relating WWII and Holocaust stories as the visual nature delivers such an immersive experience. Of course I’ve read Maus, Moving Pictures and We Are On Our Own, but the Photographer of Mauthausen was an entirely different (and amazing) kind of experience!
At just 118 pages, this book packs a big punch. Everything from the artwork to the scripting works together in perfect harmony to balance emotion with story and iconography with imagination. We’ve all heard the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, so when you start putting 7-10 images a page, the impact is compounded. But what killed me the most, was how the pictures that Francisco and his crew worked so hard to protect were never used by the War Tribunal to give the victims a voice. Of all the injustices depicted throughout, that was one of the hardest to swallow.
I love how the book opens and closes at the French-Spanish border. Both nations flags are presented in opposite panels, and the colours of each flag filter down into the images below and periodically punctuate the pages to create a sense of time and place. With the majority of the illustrations are in washes of blue, grey, and brown when other colours are present they cary a whole lot of impact. So to do the facial expression and postures assigned to the characters. We see once jovial and supportive friends become gaunt and brow furrowed with worry. Not only are we told what they are going through, but we can also see the emotional and physical toll that enduring Mauthausen has on each man.
And the panel arrangements! I typically gravitate towards comics with consistent and predictable page layouts, but the creative use of shapes was absolutely divine. The geometry of the irregular shape leads the eye, creates a fractured and frantic reading, and tactfully manipulates time. Panels bleed of the page, images exist free of constraint, and the gutter isn’t the clean meaning-making space that novice readers might be used to. Yet, despite the constant flurry of information the pages are never cluttered or difficult the read.
The story itself was heartfelt and told with tenderness despite the atrocities displayed on the page. You get a real sense for Francisco’s convictions, his national pride, and his determination to not let deaths that he witnessed to be in vain. The balance that had to be made between morality and survival, selfishness and selflessness, protecting others and protecting yourself is unimaginable and yet entirely authentic. To watch their plan come together perfectly, and simultaneously fail catastrophically after the war was the most draining emotional rollercoaster!
Would I recommend this book? I can’t sing it’s praises highly enough! It’s visual, it’s visceral, and it’s one of my favourite WWII reads this year. And more than that, given the struggles that Francisco had telling this story during his life, I think that his story is one that needs to be heard by world now that it’s on the page. If you like graphic novels, WWII Fiction, or nonfiction this one is for you!
Many thanks to Net Galley and Europe Comics for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.