How do you create empathy? The power of good history, good art, and good storytelling is in their ability to open a door into another life. They show the forces that shape people’s lives and the things that matter to them. They create channels of connection that draw people into another consciousness or another time. Although often dismissed as “low art,” comics and graphic novels have the power to foster those connections.
Superhero comics in the 1940s pioneered a new storytelling form, drawing the line between good and evil on the page as well as in the real battles of World War II. These artists, primarily immigrants (and often European Jewish immigrants), created characters and conflicts that reflected the war and their own personal struggles to carve out a place in American society. The Jewish Museum highlighted 15 Jewish comic book artists and writers in their 2006-2007 exhibition, “Superheroes: Good and Evil in American Comics”:
The young comic book creators, often keenly aware of their own sense of cultural marginalization, struggled to define themselves in terms of mainstream American culture. By extension, they created characters whose identities largely reflected this aspect of the immigrant experience. 
The result was an extraordinarily popular visual genre that swept across geographical and social boundaries.
Four decades after the war, another comic artist gave the subject matter a new treatment. Art Spiegelman’s shattering graphic novel, Maus, was serialized from 1980 to 1991. Maus begins as a universal story: a son learning about his parents’ past. Spiegelman is the son, and his father, Vladek, is a Polish Jew who survived World War II and the concentration camp Auschwitz. The focus is not just on Vladek’s narrative of life during the war, but also on Spiegelman’s own identity as a Holocaust survivor’s son and his struggle to deal with this heritage.
Much of Maus’s power and beauty come from the dialogue between characters, who squabble, joke, and pause to correct details of the story, breaking the narrative and making it seem all the more real and intimate. In one scene, Vladek asks that the information about his former lover, Lucia, be excluded from the story out of respect for privacy. “But Pop,” Spiegelman says, “it’s great material. It makes everything more real—more human.”
Comic books and graphic novels offer a unique means of storytelling. The pairing of words and images sets them apart, requiring the artist to assign a visual accompaniment to even their more abstract ideas. Graphics can double as symbols with powerful results, as demonstrated in a recent art group’s activist work to plaster images of the new Muslim Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, over anti-Islam hate ads in buses.
In Spiegelman’s illustrations, Jewish people are portrayed as mice, Germans are cats, and Poles are pigs. This concrete graphic representation of identity has stirred up controversy.
Spiegelman addresses this decision in a 2011 interview with BBC News. He points out that he has never thought of his characters as actual mice, but rather as having mouse heads, or masks. The animalization that critics accuse him of—daring to represent Jews as mice—is precisely his point. The Nazi policy towards Jews was one of extermination. The language is precise, and associated with vermin.
“My father was a collaborator on the book, but then so was Hitler,” Spiegelman said. “And it involved taking that rhetoric and turning this notion of the subhuman back on itself, and letting these mice stand on their hind legs and insist on their humanity.”
The Jewish Museum celebrated Art Spiegleman’s work in a 2013-2014 exhibit, “Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective.” The exhibit focused on his career and creative process, from his early exploration of 1960s and 70s counterculture through his work as an artist and editor in “underground comix” to Maus and his later work. “As he matured as an artist,” the museum explained, “he also began exploring themes that dominate his work to this day: intimate personal expression, memory, and history.”
No one who did not live through the Holocaust can truly understand the experience—not even first-hand witnesses. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s permanent exhibition opens with the voice of an American GI describing what it was like to see his first concentration camp:
The patrol leader called in by radio and said that we have come across something that we are not sure what it is. It’s a big prison of some kind, and there are people running all over. Sick, dying, starved people. And you take to an American, uh, such a sight as that, you… you can’t imagine it. You, you just… things like that don’t happen.
What could be better than a graphic novel, born in the world of superheroes and fantasy, to make people understand things that don’t happen?
 Jewish Museum. “Superheroes: Good and Evil in American Comics.” http://thejewishmuseum.org/exhibitions/superheroes-good-and-evil-in-american-comics
 BBC News. “Art Spiegelman discusses Maus & MetaMaus.”
 Jewish Museum. “Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective.” http://thejewishmuseum.org/exhibitions/art-spiegelmans-co-mix-a-retrospective
 Linenthal, Edward. Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum. 1995. 167.