“Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis,” a new graphic novel endorsed by famed author Neil Gaiman, is based on a one-act opera written by two Jewish prisoners from a Nazi concentration camp in 1943. While the authors of “Der Kaiser von Atlantis” didn’t live to see it performed, now their dystopian satire is getting a new life in a different format.
“This is beautiful and strange, both for what it is and what it isn’t,” Gaiman said in praise of the book. “As a story, it’s fascinating and excellently told. As an artifact, it’s heartbreaking and affecting. More than a footnote in Holocaust literature or a lost libretto given visual shape, it’s a reminder of what art is for, and how it saves and shapes us when everything else is gone.”
The adaptation was written by Electronic Frontier Foundation journalist Dave Maass and illustrated by artist Patrick Lay. The book includes designs from the original opera, photographs and an essay detailing its history.
It began as an artistic collaboration in the Terezín concentration camp before its authors were killed at Auschwitz. But their work survived to be staged in later years and has now been transformed into a graphic novel.
The graphic novel tells the story of a world where Atlantis never sank, but instead became a tyranny whose emperor declares war on the world — leading death itself to go on a labor strike, creating a world with endless war where no one can die.
The book’s version of Atlantis “instead is ruled by the cruel Emperor Overall, who is so obsessed with war that even Death refuses to go along with it,” Maass told TheWrap. “If we did this book right, then it’s filled with defiance and humor in spite of the chaos and cruelty of the world.”
“Peter Kien and Viktor Ullmann’s opera is the truest form of artistic resistance, a middle finger to the Nazis and all authoritarians across history,” Maass said in a separate statement, describing his adaptation. He added that the creative team hopes to introduce the story to new audiences and “challenge the tyrants of today.”
“The history of resistance against oppression and censorship is ingrained in the world” of the book, Lay said in a statement.
“With the frightening rise of antisemitism, book-banning and political condemnation of the ‘other,’ Dave and Patrick’s powerful adaptation of this dark and dramatic satire about the ravages of war and fascism feels as relevant today as when it was created 80 years ago,” editor Karen Berger said in a statement.
Below, read an exclusive excerpt from the forthcoming graphic novel. Artist Lay explained what went into this sequence.
“Emperor Overall lives in a welded-shut cell of his own making, pulling the strings on a war he never sees,” Lay told TheWrap. “To him, people are numbers to be shuffled around until the equation works. In this sequence he receives some news that doesn’t match his calculations. I love Overall’s room, it is so ridiculous. Built entirely for utility but with no forethought put in: the chalkboard is too big to use comfortably, the bed is a camp cot, the chair is hard and unpadded. He wears epaulets that make his shoulders appear broader even though no one sees him. He’s covered the mirror because he can’t even stand to look at himself.”
“Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis” is available from Dark Horse Comics in bookstores Jan. 23 and comic shops on Jan. 24.