REVIEW: Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler (1971)

A Graphic novel by Shigeru Mizuki

Learning about the life of Adolf Hitler is somewhat of a hard undertaking sometimes. Outright buying certain books on him is generally not favorable to algorithms and special “watch lists”, and unless you are in a college class, some of said information can be hard to come by. Because of this well deserved stigma, many people don’t actually know much about the life of the man that has gone on to epitomize evil incarnate, thus dooming us to relive a similar situation at some point in the future. You hear the jokes about how the entire course of world history could have been altered if a certain Austrian art school director made a few different decisions, and not much else. This fact is what I was excited to come across a graphic novel called Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler from 1971. This is a Japanese manga that goes about the arduous task of creating a fairly detailed biography of the man’s life without trying to make light of anything or downplay any of his deeds.

“A master cartoonist and veteran tells the life story of the man who started the second world war Seventy years after his death, Adolf Hitler remains a mystery. Historians, military tacticians, and psychologists have tried in vain to unravel his complex motivations for leading Germany into the Holocaust and World War II. With Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler, the manga-ka (Kitaro, NonNonba, Showa: A History of Japan) delves deep into the history books to create an absorbing and eloquent portrait of Hitler’s life. Beginning with Hitler’s time in Austria as a starving art student and ending with a Germany in ruins, Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler retraces the path Hitler took in life, coolly examining his charismatic appeal and his calculated political maneuvering. The Munich Beer Putsch, Hitler’s ascent to chancellor, the sudden death of his half-niece Geli, the Battle of Stalingrad, his relationship with Eva Braun, and his eventual demise: all are given equal attention in this thorough and compelling biography. In Mizuki’s signature style, which populates incredibly realistic backgrounds with cartoony people, Japan’s most famous living cartoonist has created an overview of Hitler’s life that is as fascinating as it is informative”

Shigeru Mizuki is one of those legendary manga artists that I have yet to read anything by (until now), largely due to his style being out of favor with the tastes of modern manga fans. It was not until his recent death, I believe, that volumes of his most popular manga, GeGeGe no Kitarō (from the 1960s), got published in English alongside a couple of films. Luckily, there has been a LOT of classic manga, previously deemed “un-releasable”, being released in English in the past decade or so, so times are finally changing. Aside from Kitarō kicking off the whole yokai craze that can be seen as the basis for the popular show Yokai Watch, he is known for military history manga as well, which is pretty interesting considering his “cartoonish” art style.

You see, Mizuki will create scenes with gorgeous, almost photorealistic backgrounds, that are populated by silly caricatures of people. Adolf Hitler, himself, is depicted as a perpetually morose looking man that constantly exhales little puffs of air out of his nose when he’s flustered that flies off on wild bursts of anger or sadness at the drop of a hat. He’s never made to look like some sort of comic relief character, but you can tell Mizuki treads the fine line between poking fun at how much of a child he could be at times and making a book feel comedic in tone. This art style actually reminds me a lot of One Punch Man, surprisingly as that series has the same juxtaposition between lush character designs and an underdeveloped, cartoony, main character.

The story follows Hitler from his life as a vagrant at around eighteen years old, trying to survive on so called “orphan benefits” while perusing his dream of becoming an artist, through his unlikely military career, political career, World War II, and eventual death. It’s an uncompromising look that does surprisingly well to stay somewhat “neutral” despite Japan’s place in World War II. Hitler is not romanticized, in fact the book can be seen as a sobering look at what hatred, poverty, and desire for fame can do to a young man. I learned a lot of information from reading this, as most of his background is pretty much never spoken about casually for fear of being seen as an ally of his in some way.

Perhaps my only real qualm with this book is that The Holocaust is somewhat left in the background of the overall story, perhaps to avoid getting too far “in the weeds” of this being a biographical book. It’s there, but it doesn’t really factor a whole lot into the narrative. Perhaps the author felt that it was too important to try to shoe-horn into this story and do it justice? Who knows? Having some information on the rocky relationship between Hitler and his abusive father may have also been interesting to see, as one could argue his heavy-handed style of parenting directly led to some of Hitler’s more egregious character flaws. Sadly this is nowhere to be seen.

This is a great graphic novel that should be seen as being on par with something like Maus when it comes to understanding World War II and The Holocaust. despite being a FIFTY year old book, it is still refreshing in both style and execution likely due to the author’s separation from Western war scholarship. Aside from slogging through the messy full-book run-on-sentence that is Mein Kampf (of which I have read a bit for a class), this is probably the best book I have read that details Hitler’s life. I feel like I learned a lot and was glad the book did not try to make a wild claim such as many books trying to spitball “hot-takes” into their works that you see nowadays. It’s VERY historically accurate and shows that the author was fascinated on how such a man rose to power, a fact that is echoed in the afterward which was written much later. I went into this with a curiosity on how it would play out, and left with a classic piece of comic history in my collection.

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