First Second brings us Hidden, out today. By Loïc Dauvillier, translated from its original French, with art from Marc Lizano and inks by Greg Salsedo, it is a Holocaust education story for younger children. Hidden follows the story of Dounia, who tells her granddaughter the story of her experience during the Holocaust as a little girl. A story that has been told to no one else. Thanks to this framing device, we have three stories in one: 1) the story of Dounia’s youth, 2) the story of how and exactly what she tells Elsa—sometimes she’ll include elements we know she didn’t witness, but can a grown woman pretend not to know that police must have been violent towards her Jewish father during his nighttime arrest?—and 3) the repercussions this storytelling has within the family, during Dounia’s old age. It’s a story that ultimately plays with time, telling how events like the holocaust can not only affect one’s past, present, and future but also the generations that follow.
Marc Lizano doesn’t always draw people with such outsize heads—this choice of style goes a long way to making a war story palatable for its young intended audience. It also magnifies a lot of the emotional content. Eyes are dots, hair is scribbly, and fingers are clumpy and boneless. In the introductory pages, modern child Elsa is comforting her grandmother, hands on her face. Suddenly the apparently arbitrary, scratchy age lines on Dounia’s cheeks melt into precious truth—think of an old, old person you know, and how their skin is elastic and soft. It will only respond in a localised fashion when you touch it. Look at how this skin lies there against this child’s love. Dounia has lived long and seen a lot, but she is still living.
Some way into the story, Dounia is hiding from the police who are taking away her mother and father. She’s curled like a fetus, head larger than ever; there’s much more space in the image than there is linework, but the gesture and impression are unmistakable. She’s reaching a detached understanding, she’s filling up with emptiness— her body is present, but it’s useless, detrimental in its noticeability, and must be (we have title!) hidden. Legs are drawn bent closer to her body than they need to be to fit the space in the drawer, toes are hastily looped in—Salsedo’s inked lines are never smooth, which supports both the “old person telling a story” and “unbearable tension” angles present in the book. There’s great use of panel structure, two examples in particular come to mind: when Dounia’s neighbour comes up to retrieve Dounia after her parents have been taken, they go down a staircase that curves around the four panels on the page. Dounia and Mrs. Paricard are making their descent in each panel, with the stairs representing the only thing fixed—physically, and in time or memory. Fast forward to Mrs. Paricard and Dounia being smuggled out to safety as they’re hidden in a cabinet, clinging to each other. This image takes up the page but is broken up into seven panels. This has the opposite effect of the staircase: Dounia and Mrs. Paricard are now the ones fixed on the page, mostly featured in the panel at the center, where their surroundings play with the motion of their journey and their emotional flux. Is there any status less secure than “fugitive”? The art supports and encourages your assumptions about what that must be like. The breaking down of the larger image simulates the luggage and furniture around them as the panels encircle them.
Turn to page 66. A powerful image of Dounia’s mother post-camp against a white background with the bare essentials of the table and chair, a metaphor for being emotionally stripped to exhaustion. The face matters here, a lot, but the smallness of her body (as per the style that we’ve grown used to throughout the book) hides gesture and detail just well enough here that for me, as an adult reader, noticing them becomes active. It’s affecting, emotionally cutting. The way her limbs lie and her fingers curl, the tiredness in her posture that she’s trying to hide for her daughter—and it probably works, at the time, but the old lady looking back understands her mother more fully. Adults in the audience understand too.
This graphic novel’s goal was to use simplicity as a way of dealing with and conveying big themes and emotions. Its art is simple, its target audience is young and its story telling is tight. If nothing else, its virtue is in its restraint—using the simplistic style to form blunt truth, without forfeiting the enormity of the situation. It will appeal to the young but also to the much older. It’s a book that can be passed down from father to daughter, from grandmother to grandson, and friend to friend.