Forty years ago, Ernie Colón was drawing Casper the Friendly Ghost and Sid Jacobson was his editor at Harvey Comics, where they also churned out Richie Rich, Baby Huey and dozens of other titles. They worked together again at Marvel Comics (The Amazing Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk) after Jacobson was named executive editor in 1987. Over time, they came to enjoy a close friendship and creative rapport while adhering to a fairly simple modus operandi. “I write the script,” Jacobson says, “and Ernie does the drawing.” Well, it’s not that simple, he adds. “There’s always the proviso that if you have a better way of doing it, please don’t follow what I’ve done.”
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In recent years, their production has turned from the serials to the serious. Jacobson and Colón’s The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, distilled the 9/11 Commission’s 600-page official findings into a more vivid and accessible form; it was a best seller in 2006. While the authors employed such familiar comic book devices as rendering sound effects (“BLAM!” go the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa), the graphic version was anything but kid stuff. It skillfully clarified a complex narrative, earning the enthusiastic blessing of the bipartisan commission’s leaders, Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton. The book has found a niche in school curricula, as well. “It is required reading in many high schools and colleges today,” Jacobson says proudly.
When The 9/11 Report came out, there was “astonishment,” he says, at their groundbreaking use of graphic techniques in nonfiction. “But this was nothing new to us,” Jacobson says. “At Harvey Comics, we had a whole department on educational books. We did work for unions, for cities, we did one on military courtesy, for the Army and Navy. Early on, we saw what comics can be utilized for.”
The authors’ latest work, published by Hill and Wang in September 2010, is similarly ambitious: Anne Frank, a graphic biography commissioned by the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. For Jacobson, 81, and Colón, 79—a pair of politically aware grandfathers who both came of age in New York City in the 1940s—doing justice to the historical and psychological dimensions of the project summoned all their storytelling craft. As an example, Colón points to the challenge of rendering the much-mythologized figure of Anne as a credible, real-life child and adolescent. “I think the biggest problem for me was hoping that I would get her personality right, and that the expressions that I gave her would be natural to what was known of her or what I found out about her,” he says.
Two-thirds of the book takes place before or after the period Frank chronicled in her celebrated World War II diary, beginning with Anne’s parents’ lives before she was born. Their families had lived in Germany for centuries, and Anne’s father, Otto Frank, earned an Iron Cross as a German Army officer during World War I. Still, he was sufficiently alarmed by Hitler’s anti-Jewish fervor to seek safe haven for his family in the Netherlands soon after the Nazis took power in 1933. The refuge proved illusory. In 1940 the country was invaded, and the book’s middle chapters focus on the Franks’ two-year captivity in the secret annex of 263 Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, the crux of Anne’s Diary of a Young Girl (which she herself titled Het Achterhius, or The House Behind).
Unlike the diary, the graphic biography includes the aftermath: the family’s betrayal by a secret informer, their arrest and deportation, and their ordeals in Auschwitz, where Anne’s mother died, and Bergen-Belsen, where the emaciated Anne and her sister Margot succumbed to typhus in March 1945, just weeks before the camp’s liberation by British soldiers. The sole survivor, Otto, soon returned to Amsterdam, where he was given Anne’s journal by Miep Gies, one of the courageous Dutch citizens who had befriended and sheltered the Franks. Gies had placed the book in her desk for safekeeping, hoping to return it to Anne someday.
The biography concludes with material about the publication of the Diary, its popular adaptations for stage and film, and Otto’s lifelong determination to honor his daughter by committing himself “to fight for reconciliation and human rights throughout the world,” he wrote. He died in 1980, at the age of 91. (Miep Gies lived to 100; she died in January 2010.)
In counterpoint to the intimacy of Anne Frank’s family life, Jacobson and Colón weave in relevant themes from the larger historical context—the catastrophic rise and fall of Nazi Germany—creating a powerful narrative tension. Sometimes this is achieved in a single, well-executed stroke. On a two-page spread dwelling on the Franks’ joyous response to Anne’s birth in 1929, readers are confronted with a strongly vertical image of Hitler accepting a tumultuous heil at a mass rally in Nuremberg less than two months later. In a subtle visual touch, Hitler’s boot points directly down toward the much smaller image of the infant Anne, grinning sweetly in her high chair as the family prepares to eat supper—a tableau stretched across a page-wide horizontal panel. On one level, the abrupt intrusion of Hitler simply places the family story within the larger chronology; on another, it foreshadows the trampling of an innocent child’s happiness, and finally, her life. Fifteen years later, Anne would give voice to the dread the family came to feel. “I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too,” she wrote on July 5, 1944, three weeks before the Gestapo finally arrived.