Behind the Issue – Interview w/ Charlotte F. Werbe

Retroactive Continuity, Holocaust Testimony, and X-Men’s Magneto is Charlotte F. Werbe’s latest article published in the most recent issue of JHR. Dr. Werbe was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about her article which, “examines retroactive continuity (or retcon), a fundamental feature of serialized comics, in which a character’s backstory can be effectively rewritten, in order to shed light on the complex question of testimonial production and reception.” 

Specifically, Dr. Werbe analyzes, “how the Jewish identity of X- Men villain Magneto has been overwritten. While Magneto first appeared in Uncanny X-Men 1 (1963), his origins as a survivor of Auschwitz were only written into the story much later, in Uncanny X-Men 150 (1981). More recently, Greg Pak’s X-Men: Magneto Testament (2008), a five-issue origin story, confirmed Magneto’s Jewish background. Retconning reveals how comics are constantly reinvented to meet new market demands, but it is also a feature that challenges the internal logic of a text while being an extension of it. Magneto is repeatedly retconned (i.e. the number on his arm tattoo, his given name), as is Holocaust discourse at large. How, then, are we to read (into) his pasts? In the case of Magneto, retroactive continuity calls attention to the relations between the character, the story world, and cultural and political contexts by generating multiple, parallel stories. Rather than undermining or deforming the ‘truth,’ to read retroactive continuity back into testimony is to allow for the relations that necessarily condition the ‘truth’ in the first place to come to the fore.”

Dr. Charlotte F. Werbe is an Assistant Professor of French at Gettysburg College. Her academic interests are on Visual Studies, Cinema, Comics, Testimony, Holocaust Literature, Yiddish, 20th + 21st century French Literature, & Translation.

JHR– Comic books analysis within the field of Holocaust Studies is starting to emerge as a niche but also trendy topic. Where does your inspiration to research this topic stem from?

CFWComics make readers work. Too often, we expect people who have experienced violence to perform all the work when they tell their stories. This seems to make sense; the victim is the only person who can account for and give narrative shape to their own experience. But the tools—linguistic, mediatic, and so on—that eyewitnesses have at their disposal to transmit their testimonies emerge from power structures that determine how these stories can be told in the first place. On one hand, testimony is therefore never fully in the hands of the eyewitness. On the other hand, testimony in order to function as such must convey authority. Survivors of the extermination and concentration camps have found themselves charged with authenticating the historical record and re-establishing the severed channels of communication with society. But communication is a two-way street, and readers have an obligation to work toward bridging the gap. In the case of comics, this burden is increased by virtue of the fragmentary nature of the form. Comics emphasize dislocations of all kind and therefore seem to negate what testimony seeks to prioritize, i.e. authority, consistency, coherency, and so on. As a result, comics compel readers to become better readers of testimony, making readers more attuned to the complexities of what it means to testify.

JHR– In your article, does the conception of the term, “testimony” encompass all forms of Holocaust recollection, or, in the context of retcon, should one make a distinction between memoir and “traditional” testimony?

CFWI conceive of testimony as a sophisticated speech act. It can be spoken in a courtroom, written in a memoir, or told through a video recording. This is not to overlook the fact that different sets of demands condition the production and reception of each instance of testimony. However, I am interested in how testimony is an incredibly flexible form of communication, capable of bending itself to whatever its social, mediatic, historical, or political context may be.

JHR– While Magneto Testament aspires to teach its young readers about the Holocaust and is rooted in historical accuracy, its counterparts in other series are largely fictional. From an academic point of view, would you say that there are some potential conflicts for readers by having them all under the same character series?

CFWThere could certainly be conflicts. For young readers, it may not be clear where fiction ends and reality begins. But, the line is blurred. And the very mention of this blurring of fact and fiction within the field of Holocaust Studies naturally makes me very uncomfortable, in part due to the persistence and virulence of Holocaust negationism. While I avoid making the claim that the camp experiences are unimaginable—there is a tremendous gap that testimony seeks to bridge, a gap between the inside and the outside of the camp. This has been one of the central tasks that memoirists have faced: how best to transmit these experiences? Jorge Semprún, a French resistance member and camp survivor, argues that it is literary artifice that can best transmit documentary truths. For Semprún, the reader’s imagination must be activated. Didi-Huberman strikes a similar chord when he writes: “in order to know, we must imagine for ourselves.” Since truth and knowledge are tied to the imagination, having a faux-testimony and superhero story combine is not necessarily problematic in my view. I think the rewritings of Magneto force readers to accommodate multiple stories side-by-side, to put in conversation the multiple, ever-shifting stories that belong to individuals. I believe this skill is especially useful today: to learn how to listen to testimonies of all kinds, to understand that their discrepancies are generative, and that these disagreements do not undermine the historical record.

Charlotte F. Werbe’s full article Retroactive Continuity, Holocaust Testimony, and X-Men’s Magneto can be accessed here.

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