A visually arresting graphic novel reflects on the Holocaust’s long shadow

a visually arresting graphic novel reflects on the holocaust’s long shadow

A visually arresting graphic novel reflects on the Holocaust’s long shadow

It’s 1943 in Brooklyn. Women are working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard while the men are fighting the Nazis in Germany. In between raising her daughter, Eleanor, and her job as a welder, Rose Arensberg finds company in George Finlay, a disabled war veteran. Ruth, a Jewish refugee whom Rose took in as a child, is laid off from her job at the Yard after defending herself from sexual harassment and eventually finds her way into the world of women’s wrestling. Across the Atlantic, Allied soldiers liberate concentration camps, witnessing indescribable horrors. When they come back, they are never the same.

a visually arresting graphic novel reflects on the holocaust’s long shadow

“Victory Parade” is a graphic novel about the intergenerational suffering and personal demons that rise out of the mass trauma of genocide. Love, longing, loneliness and ghosts animate the narrative as the characters slide between reality and dream while moving from Brooklyn to Buchenwald, and briefly to Berlin. Its author and artist, Leela Corman, is descended from a family of Holocaust survivors, and she creates a cast of characters who can go for months without hearing from their families in Europe, only to hear rumors about trains to Warsaw and then nothing. The women — Jewish, immigrants, refugees — often find themselves in marriages where they are abused or cheated on, and in illicit relationships where they find love. But in each other, they find camaraderie.

Corman’s story inhabits the comics medium so fully that its formal ingenuity may not be immediately apparent. “Victory Parade” is meant to unsettle, to convey a semblance of the brutish violence to which the characters are subjected. Visible sketch layers, unerased lines and deliberate unevenness contribute to the ambiance. Splotches of paint metamorphose into silhouettes of battle tanks that bleed, time periods coalesce, trauma spills over across continents, and narrative disintegration mimics the war-torn society. We move from person to person, dream to dream. Corman’s painterly style ebbs and flows, restrained at places and maximalist at others. Visibly textured watercolor with blooms, backruns and crackles made out of ink makes us linger on the physicality of her brushstrokes.

Corman is not concerned with easy legibility. Her symbolism is both obvious and obscure, but deeply evocative either way. Disembodiment becomes a recurring theme. Early in the story, a bath scene disintegrates into a nightmare made up of severed fingers and limbs, followed by a sequence of Rose drowning, being pulled into a nameless abyss.

Yet there is also tenderness, especially in Eleanor’s relationship with Ruth, her not-sister, not-cousin, who has been around for as long as she can remember. Or in the image of a window, lighted with a strikingly luminescent yellow and enveloped by jet-black darkness, which precedes a candid conversation between Rose and George about their feelings for each other, despite the doomed nature of their relationship.

a visually arresting graphic novel reflects on the holocaust’s long shadow

Rose reflects in this panel from “Victory Parade.”

“Victory Parade” is a moving map of war and genocide’s labyrinthine consequences for survivors across generations. In death, there is some measure of release from human cruelty, and even vengeance on those who perpetrated it. When American soldiers liberate Buchenwald, a ghost drives an SS officer (who had used the skull of the specter as a paperweight) from his hiding spot to the yard, where newly freed prisoners hang him in synchronized glee. The sequence is styled after Busby Berkeley’s musicals, with their dancers bursting inward and outward in kaleidoscopic Technicolor. There’s something choreographic about Corman’s use of space and time. Her characters — dead and alive — have tenuously connected stories, but there’s a method to the madness and synchronicity in the chaos. An unnamed German veteran (probably from WWI) on the sidewalks of a busy street in Berlin reminds us of George back home. Those who have been wounded, physically and otherwise, are left to fend for themselves everywhere. There is no closure in “Victory Parade,” no real triumph for the winners or the liberated.

Ruth survives a childhood in Nazi Germany, only to get profiled as a “Kraut” in Brooklyn. Unsure of her place in postwar Brooklyn, little Eleanor wonders what happened to her not-sister, not-cousin, why her parents — always fighting in their war-haunted home — never talk about Ruth. Her questions about Germany and the trains likewise go unanswered, though her father has witnessed the horrors perpetrated at the end of the tracks.

a visually arresting graphic novel reflects on the holocaust’s long shadow

Leela Corman.

For all the trauma that the characters endure, they seldom talk to each other about it. They cope in isolation, and we witness them in their ruins. Corman conjures their tortured interior reality through references to Greek tragedies, homages to 20th-century painters and other intertextual visual allusions. We find out through an Otto Dix painting called “The Skat Players,” for example, that Ruth’s mother was forced into sex work. The original Dix image centers three German military officers with prominent scarring and prosthetics. In Corman’s iteration, there’s a woman, undressed, pouring alcohol for the men.

Elsewhere, Rose and George read Sophocles’ play “Philoctetes” in bed. Philoctetes, while traveling to the Trojan War, is bitten in the leg by a serpent sent by an angry deity. The cursed and unhealable wound leaves him in constant agony and releases an unbearable stench, which causes his fellow Greeks to abandon him on the island where the bite occurs. Eventually the Greeks discover that they need the bow of Heracles, which Philoctetes possesses, to win the war, and return to get it from him, first by trickery and then by pleading. Though originally reluctant, Philoctetes agrees when the now-divine Heracles returns to command him to do so, promising future healing. As is the case for Corman’s characters, though, true restoration is deferred, perhaps indefinitely.

a visually arresting graphic novel reflects on the holocaust’s long shadow

A taxi drives away in this page from “Victory Parade.”

“Victory Parade” is not an easy comic to digest, and perhaps even likely to throw off some readers. But it is one that thoroughly exploits the medium’s potential to visualize the unspeakable. The final scene, where Sam, Rose’s husband (although it could be anybody else), picks up a passenger in his yellow cab, reinforces the isolation of mass trauma. The passenger, a weary veteran from the Pacific theater, asks Sam whether he saw any “real action” during his time in Germany. Sam responds, “Nothing special.” But the exhaust fumes trailing behind the car silently carry the remains of the dead.

Kay Sohini is a writer and cartoonist based in New York. Her graphic novel “This Beautiful, Ridiculous City” is set to be published this year.

Victory Parade

By Leela Corman

Shocken. 173 pp. $29

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