Drawn Literature: Graphic Novels and Hannah Arendt’s Hair

Drawn Literature: Graphic Novels and Hannah Arendt’s Hair

With examples from his award-winning book, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, Polity of Literature illustrator Ken Krimstein tells us how graphic novels and comics can strengthen literature’s capacity to host politics.

Book cover: The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt

The initial entry in the Polity of Literature inquiry, “Potatoes or Rice?,” asked: “How can we bring the faces and voices of those in this plurality into view, even in a disembodied realm? How can our bodies—and our lived, collective ‘activity of thinking’—come fully into literature?” One answer is graphic novels. Ken Krimstein, who has been working as “house illustrator” for the Polity of Literature series, published his superb non-fiction graphic novel, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth, in 2018. Browsing through the book, he spoke about the art of comics, narrative, literature, and the unusual power that graphic novels have to convey the embodied human experience of politics.

I wanted, above all, to “scrape the barnacles off of history.” I wanted to reveal, as much as I could, the person behind the reputation, “Hannah” before she was “Hannah Arendt.” I also wanted to explore her creative process. In fact, what drew me to the project was my fascination with how people come up with new things—ideas and philosophies as well as melodies, designs, recipes, you name it. I wanted to show how her personal, even quotidian struggles and day-to-day challenges (like schlepping her mom everywhere with her as she moved from country to country as a stateless person) affected the way her ideas started, stopped, turned, were blunted, deflected, accelerated, propounded. Using the graphic-novel form let me get into her inner dialogue, which dovetailed nicely with something I later learned was a key part of her thinking—the important distinction between being solitary and being alone. The dialogue of “me with myself”—which she calls “the activity of thinking.”

Arendt walks through a dark setting. A man's head is watching her with a furrowed brow.

Using the graphic novel/comics form, I was able to do some really cool things. I could diagram her thought process, and her thinking mistakes. I could bring elements of mystery or even horror to some of the narrative just through the way the pictures combined with the words/narrative. From having spent many years working in advertising and design, as well as from having been a single panel cartoonist (what people think of as “New Yorker magazine” style cartoons) I’ve learned the comics math of 1 + 1 = 3, meaning: when you combine just the right words (or lack of words) with just the right image you achieve a sum that is greater than the parts — also known, in my mind at least, as engaging the reader as the one who puts it all together. And more than one writer of “words-only biography” has told me they envy how, with pictures, I can transition between scenes without the need for any cumbersome transitional devices. Still, the pictures-plus-words technique brings its own challenges—specifically, how does the character look? When we’re reading, we make up an image in our mind, one that is uniquely ours. As a comics creator, I have to commit to an image and share it.

Three repetitions of a portrait of Arendt when she was young, interrupted by a man saying "Jew."

In so many of the photo references I found of HA, even in her teen and college years, she really looked, well, Jewish. Semitic? Jewess-like? I mean, from what I could imagine, she must have been pretty exotic looking in some of those Marburg, Germany, lectures—and without making it a cliché, I thought her (sorry to use the charged word) “kinky” hair expressed something of a celebration of her identity. Like she says, “I was born a Jew and I can’t deny it.”

Photo of Princeton faculty, with Arendt outlined in green.

I think photographic images are like drawings—fake, but still true, in a different way. Photos come off a bit more like “true” artifacts, so when I use them I also try to “violate” that pose. The picture of Hannah on the university steps, the lone woman with dozens of men, when I discovered it, I was amazed. Here was a historical document, evidence, that in so many ways summed up HA’s professional world. But, since photographs are purely visual, they convey meaning without defining it (as HA observed about stories in general). So I asked myself, “why was she sitting in the front row, somewhat off to the left?,” “what is the meaning of her expression?,” “who got to sit next to her? (or had to sit next to her?),” “where was she headed after the photo?” and so on. I tried to do the image by drawing it, by rendering it, and I think it came out well, but it lacked the “messing with verisimilitude” concept I reference above. So, I went back to the photo and tried to mess it up a bit, blur parts of it; then, to bring the message home, I blanketed HA with her ever-present green in a kind of halo (our printing budget limited me to black-and-white with one spot colour; I chose green [see below]).

Two page comic spread of Berlin's Cafe Romanisches.

It’s February 28, 1933, and the Reichstag fire is still smoldering. This is the moment of disruption at Berlin’s Cafe Romanisches, the place that I describe as “the delivery room of the modern world.” Here, despite the fact that the best and brightest and most progressive minds of the era (maybe ever) are gathered, the insanity of the mob psychically, if not physically, breaks through the panes of glass. History is breaking, and smoke from the Reichstag is breaking the frames of the panels. How do they respond and react to the moment? Here I use footnotes to show how some of the luminaries heard the alarms and left, and how others stayed. On page 58 I hope you can recognize at least Einstein and Fritz Lang as they join the rest of the voluble crowd in stunned silence. HA refers to this as her “transformative moment,” when she pretty much gave up on what she sometimes referred to as “the chattering class.” So, it’s a moment in time, but it’s also set in time.

HA spoke about the reality of the “continuous ongoing present.” Which is something like moving forward frame-by-frame when we read comics. Of course, as a cartoonist, I can mediate the reader’s sense of time, hopefully without confusing anyone. If you buy in, you move panel by panel, following time’s arrow. As another aside, a neat thing about comics biopics is that, unlike in a movie, if the reader wants they can stop and flip back and reread a scene, or jump anywhere in the story they want—they can even start at the end. THERE ARE NO RULES!

Portrait of Hannah Arendt smoking and reading a book.

Yes, well, Hannah Arendt’s hair…the squiggles etc., especially coming out of her “brain” so to speak, they kind of animate her thoughts. That powerful, unruly, almost alive quality I guess kind of felt like her thinking to me as she grew.

Portrait of Arendt wearing green jewellry, with two shadowed men superimposed on the left.Again, here I see a lot of the bustling energy coming out, unruly and struggling to be ruled. Also, I used several different kinds of pens, to capture the density with the thicker gray markers, and the angular, jangly quality with the fine-line of a Rapidograph. I guess it was fun to draw too, nice to just scribble and squiggle.

Quick portraits of nine German women in comic panels, with Arendt in the center panel.

When the Nazis took France in 1940, all German women resident in Paris were taken to an old velodrome, the Vel d’Hiv, to be sorted and processed, mostly sent back to Germany. I drew portraits of nine of them, including HA. I see that her living mane contrasts with the others, she’s developing her thoughts about dialogue with herself, her body is in captivity but her brain is ablaze.

Scenes from a dinner party. Title text reads "The Usual Suspects, The Usual Subjects."

HA found her way out of occupied France, ultimately to exile in New York. During and after the war she fell in with a group known as the “New York Intellectuals,” everyone from Irving Howe to Lionel Trilling. I know that from her upbringing in East-Prussian Konigsberg and polyglot interwar/Weimar-era Berlin, Yiddish was always in the air. And although she was proudly German and “lived in the German language,” as friends said of her, she was also part of a highly Yiddish milieu. So, in trying to, as I’ve said, “scrape the barnacles off history,” I gave HA a familiar voice, a tonality that’s a combination of cynicism, hope, irony, humor, arrogance, humility. I know it will sound to some, mostly Americans, like “New York Jewish,” but having just spent some time in Vienna, I think the residents of that city will quickly point out that the New York variety is merely a pale imitation of Viennese vinegar.

Lines from the Kaddish in seperate comic panels, with an English translation at the bottom.

This is the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for mourning (among other things.) I don’t know exactly how “spiritual” or “religious” HA actually was in her life, but it seems that neither did many people who were very close to her. In fact, I just heard from HA’s current biographer, Thomas Meyer, that he uncovered something from Gunther Stern/Anders (HA’s first husband), that upon hearing about HA’s death, he had wondered, above all other things, something along the lines of “was she spiritual?” In any case, this Kaddish prayer is a kind of solemn demarcation of actions in time. One other thing that strikes me about it, it really has nothing in it about death or passing. It’s really a huge BLESSING! But faced with the enormity of the consequences of her actions, I felt that HA, whether she was observant or not, in light of her acknowledgement of her Jewish identity, would have wanted the Kaddish. Well, I could show this kind of otherworldly power of coping with final change by blanketing the spread (so to speak) with the ghosted and strange words of this prayer—in Hebrew, in transliteration, and in English.

HA believes we disclose our thinking in our actions. That is very much how drama works. And, I may be biased, but I think comics/graphic novels are drama. What I mean is, we watch characters do stuff—and by observing their actions we intuit what they were thinking and determine who they are. I found it very interesting that HA takes this so far that, as I understand it, she believes we actually have no idea of who we are ourselves, we only form our identity by piecing a mosaic of ourselves together from the stories we hear people telling about a character called “me.” She follows this down the path of engaging in an active dialogue with oneself—again, action. This also means that words are actions. What we say matters. There was a quote I came across from her great friend and sometime mentor Walter Benjamin which I think HA would have appreciated — “I see truth as a primarily aural/oral phenomenon.” Speaking the Kaddish matters.

Left: Arendt walking on the globe, thinking "To be alive and to think are the same thing." Right: an epilogue about Arendt's posthumous writing.

One of the nice things about being confined to one colour, in this case “spot green,” is that you can turn the very limitations into possibilities. So, having identified green as the colour of HA, and also the colour of birth (or even rebirth, a la Spring, as well as the colour of mortality in flesh) when HA becomes pure thought, so to speak, or when her ideas and thinking begin to transcend her actual moment, I felt that the colour could then spread. But I really wanted to limit it until that moment — and that image of her astride the Earth, well, you’ll note that the green also goes out into galaxies too. But one of the big things I got from HA, especially from The Human Condition, is that we, as humans, are supposed to be on this planet. It’s not fair to “pull an Elon Musk” and when the Earth is a husk just Tesla rocket ourselves to another planet. Nope. Mother Earth is our place, and I hope that HA’s ideas (and maybe the migration of the green colour in my telling her story) show that using agency and creativity to give back to this planet that has given us so much is a fact of being now. I hope.

A hand draws a portrait of Ken Krimstein. His bio appears below the drawing.

After I finished the book on HA, as I was searching about for another character, an amazing story crossed my path—the discovery of a trove of lost autobiographies of Jewish teens from Eastern Europe from before World War II, all in Yiddish, and all searingly true because they were written anonymously for an ethnographic research study. I found them moldering in the basement of a mothballed cathedral in central Vilnius for 70 years. I’m bringing six of these remarkable teenage boys and girls to life in a new comic, a book, currently titled When I Grow Up, coming out in October 2021.

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