A few days ago, Marcel Walker was interviewed by a Spain-based podcaster. Two weeks earlier, Walker delivered a presentation for the National Library of Israel. During the past year, he’s spoken with reporters, educators and students worldwide.
Although he currently doesn’t have any other international talks scheduled at the moment, Walker — a comic book aficionado, Superman devotee and project coordinator of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s CHUTZ-POW! Series — is OK with that.
“I need a little bit of a mental breather, just to regroup,” he said.
Throughout the pandemic, as offices shuttered and people retreated indoors, the world grew smaller, Walker said, and it became easier to connect with distant audiences. Very quickly, the Pittsburgh-based artist found himself giving presentations about the CHUTZ-POW! project and the narrative power of comic books to audiences not only across the commonwealth, but in California and Texas, as well.
Since the start of the year, in addition to his work at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, Walker has given about eight presentations, each ranging from 60 to 90 minutes, he said.
To prepare for each talk, he reinvestigates connections between the Holocaust and comics, or trauma and art.
His audiences are varied, he said, but they also have a lot in common.
“It’s a big world, and it’s a small world all at once,” Walker said. “There’s certainly variations in audiences, but not as much as one might think.” Whether the audience is comprised of students in a virtual classroom or a group of museum-goers or educators, “the same kind of inquisitiveness exists.”
Regardless of the composition of the audience, Walker often gets similar questions — like why are comics are a good means of teaching about the Holocaust, or, aren’t doodles or and graphic designs just for kids?
His standard response, he said, is that comics are perfectly suited to convey life’s most difficult subjects. Because they can combine literature and art, comics become a double-powered medium. What’s on the page can be accessed immediately and there’s no pretense, delivering “a unique learning opportunity that you only really get when you use comic books.”
Cara Buchalter, school programs manager at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, described the power of comic books prior to introducing Walker at a virtual talk last February. The Jewish illustrators who created many of the most recognizable characters in comics, she said, were able to deliver “a touchstone for those feeling alienated, lost and separated from their true identities.” The art, she continued, became “an anthem for survival, trauma and loss.”
Although Walker and CHUTZ-POW! have received great praise, there have been some people who have denigrated the work. Walker cited several online comments following a Haaretz article, published in July. One post referred to CHUTZ-POW! as “pointless.” Another comment called mixing the Holocaust and the comic book subculture a “particularly repulsive American move.”
Walker said those comments and others, which were made prior to his recent presentation with the National Library of Israel, left him a bit “intimidated.” Even so, the virtual talk went well.
“It was a lovely experience and I’’m very glad that I did it,” he said.
As CHUTZ-POW! has grown from one volume to four, and international attention has increased, Walker understands there will be some people who aren’t necessarily on board with the artistic and educational endeavor. But, as he continues delivering virtual presentations worldwide, he keeps learning more, he said. What’s been most eye-opening, he added, is international audiences are using CHUTZ-POW! as a language learning aid.
When Walker began working on the CHUTZ-POW! series in 2014, he never anticipated people would read stories about upstanders or young survivors as means to better understand the English language. But, that pleasant surprise is in line with the project’s goal, he said.
The aim is getting CHUTZ-POW! in front of readers, “because ultimately, even with all of these programs, the purpose isn’t fulfilled until the books are actually in people’s hands.”
Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, agreed.
Since the start of the pandemic, she has presented alongside Walker in several online fora. And like her colleague, Bairnsfather said the goal is getting materials into people’s hands, but she also credited him and his recent presentations with helping to make that happen.
Walker has a “a deep commitment to keeping the stories of Holocaust survivors alive and engaging for readers of all ages and abilities,” she said. “His presentations about CHUTZ-POW! convey so much heart. Audiences can’t help but be drawn in.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.