Shanghai Dream review – a rarely examined subject in WWII comics

The latest release from Humanoid’s Life Drawn imprint is a poignant examination of the trials German Jews faced at the beginning of World War II.  In 1938 Berlin, aspiring filmmaker Bernard Hersch works at the UFA studios and dreams of one day directing the screenplay he and his wife are writing. But as a Jew in Hitler’s Germany, Bernard faces increasing danger and discrimination, and is soon forced to accept deportation to Japan as his only hope. At the last minute, Bernard’s wife is killed by the Nazis and he is rerouted to China. Heartbroken, he struggles through grief and vows to bring his wife’s screenplay to life.

World War II is a subject that has been explored in plenty of comics, so it is tricky to bring something new to the genre. Philippe Thirault and Jorge Miguel get around this by examining a subject that isn’t typically looked at when discussing the exile of Jewish people from Germany – that being those who sought refuge in settlements in Asian countries such as China. It makes for an interesting scenario that presents the all too real struggles Jewish citizens of Germany faced as the Nazi Party seized power.

There are no punches pulled as Thirault quickly establishes how quickly antisemitism spread in Germany. People who spent most of their life in Germany are suddenly deemed subhuman and friendships are quickly cast aside. Bernard and his family come face to face with this when Bernard is unable to present his wife Illo’s script to his former boss at UFA studios (who is now keeping himself in good favour by making Nazi propaganda films) whilst Illo’s father is forced out of his business and threatened by a former comrade whom he saved during WWI.

It’s when the action moves to Shanghai following Bernard and Illo’s tumultuous impromptu attempt to escape Germany that the real meat of the story shines through. Bernard attempts to piece together a life following his separation from Illo and her subsequent death. Not only must he try to fulfil his dream of getting Illo’s script made into a film in a place where film studios are scarce, but he must navigate the political powder keg that is Shanghai following its ravaging at the hands of Japanese invaders. It is a harrowing reminder that those who escaped Nazi Germany didn’t necessarily see an end to their troubles.

Thirault once again hold nothing back in his depiction of this scenario with citizens being arrested and beaten to a pulp for forgetting to bow to Japanese militia. There is a sense of optimism though that keeps you reading though, with Bernard finding a way to break into Shanghai’s almost completely dead film industry – helped along the way by his lodger’s daughter Lin Lin who also tries to bring him some closure over Illo’s memory.

Miguel’s art is well informed, managing to present accurate pictures of both Shanghai and Germany at the time. He also does a terrific job of conveying the horrors that Jewish people faced in this situation whilst at the same time playing up to a cinematic style that fits in with Bernard’s film aspirations.

Shanghai Dream is another strong addition to Humanoid’s Life Drawn imprint and a powerful look at a rarely covered aspect of World War II. Anyone looking for something new in this genre will be pleasantly surprised.

Shanghai Dream is out 30 July from Life Drawn

9781643378510 – P/B – £12.99

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