A new look at Anne Frank
Forty years ago, Ernie Colón was drawing Casper the Friendly Ghost. Sid Jacobson was his editor at Harvey Comics. They worked together again at Marvel Comics 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."
In 2010, the authors' created: Anne Frank. It's a graphic biography commissioned by the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and published by Hill and Wang. For Jacobson and Colón, doing justice to the historical and psychological dimensions of the project summoned all their storytelling craft.
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. 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. 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.
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. That's where Anne's mother died, and Bergen-Belsen, where the emaciated Anne and her sister Margot succumbed to typhus in March 1945.
They died just weeks before the camp's liberation by British soldiers. The sole survivor, Otto, soon returned to Amsterdam. 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. He did this by committing himself "to fight for reconciliation and human rights throughout the world," he wrote. He died in 1980, at the age of 91.
In counterpoint to the intimacy of Anne Frank's family life, Jacobson and Colón weave in relevant themes from the larger historical context. By detailing the catastrophic rise and fall of Nazi Germany, they create 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. He is 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. She is grinning sweetly in her high chair as the family prepares to eat supper. It is 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.
With a solemn commitment to accuracy and authenticity, the authors immersed themselves in research. They studied the history right down to the details of military uniforms, period furniture and political posters.
Anne Frank has inspired and fascinated people across generations and national boundaries, a phenomenon that shows little sign of waning. A steady flow of books and articles, films and plays continue. This includes an anime version of the Diary produced in Japan, where Anne is a hugely popular figure.
Objects associated with her have taken on the aura of holy relics. The house at 263 Prinsengracht receives a million visitors a year. More than two-thirds of the visitors are under the age of 30.
In the end, it was Anne Frank the person and-not the larger-than-life symbol, but the individual girl herself-that touched Jacobson and Colón. She made this project unique among the many they have undertaken. "It was amazingly meaningful for both of us," says Jacobson, who was struck by the knowledge that he and Anne were born in the same year, 1929. "That became overwhelming to me," he says. "To know that she died so young, and to think about the rest of the life that I've lived-that made me feel close to her."
Colón remembered reading the Diary when it first came out. "I thought it was very nice and so forth," he says. But this time around was different.
"The impact was just tremendous, because you really get to like this kid," he says. "Here she is, persecuted, forced to hide and share a tiny room with a cranky, middle-aged man. And what was her reaction to all this? She writes a diary, a very witty, really intelligent, easy-to-read diary. So after a while you get not just respect for her, but you really feel a sense of loss."