Tyranny and resistance in "Death Strikes," the graphic novel adaptation of a concentration camp opera

In 1943, writer Peter Kien and composer Viktor Ullmann were rehearsing their opera, Der Kaiser von Atlantis. They had created this work while imprisoned in the Terezín concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Terezín was somewhat unique among concentration camps. The Nazis gave its inmates more freedom of movement and allowed them to engage in cultural activities. The camp imprisoned many artists, musicians, writers, and other creatives and intellectuals.

The Nazis used Terezín as a propaganda tool to convince the world they weren't the monsters they were increasingly being accused of. Spoiler alert. They were. In a bit of heartbreaking irony, in Ullmann and Kien's opera, Death goes on strike. Disgusted by the constant carnage he is called upon to manage in the war-mongering dystopian world of "Atlantis," he decides to stop reaping people.

All image from Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis. Used with permission. Berger Books/Dark Horse.

It was perhaps the desperate hope of Ullmann and Kien that Death might go on strike in our world, too. But it was not to be. As they rehearsed their opera in Terezín, the two of them were loaded onto a train to Auschwitz where they were gassed a few days later.

In the late 90s, a defiant teenage punk rocker, Dave Maass (who would go on to become the Director of Investigations at the EFF), found a record of Nazi-suppressed "degenerate" music at a Best Buy. It was there that he was introduced to Der Kaiser von Atlantis.

Teaming up with artist Patrick Lay, Maass' decades-long infatuation with the opera has now given birth to Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis, a gorgeously produced, gut-wrenching, and heart-stirring graphic novel.

In Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis, the people of Atlantis live under the jackboot of a mad and capricious ruler, Emperor Overall, who lives by himself in a fortress tower where he engineers war for his own sport and treats the atrocities as blackboard math problems. As Death goes on strike (picketing with signs that read "No Peace, No Death" and "Unfair Killing Conditions"), and the Emperor declares total war, Death Strikes turns into zombie apocalypse horror where everyone's killin', but nobody's dyin'.

In the midst of all this mayhem, a Pierrot character acts as Death's tragi-comic foil and a soldier and a worker find friendship among the ruins. All of the intensity, horror, and moments of poignant humanity are compressed into 100 meticulously-drawn B&W pages. The book is made even more affecting by an additional section in the back with historical material, color drawings and photos of Peter Kien's cartoons, sketches, and libretto, pages of Viktor Ullmann's score, and an essay by Dave Maass.

Maass and Lay's transformation of "Der Kaiser von Atlantis" into Death Strikes is not merely a retelling of the opera's narrative, but a moving tribute to the resilience of art, humor, and the human spirit in the face of unimaginable horror. Through beautiful, evocative art and narrative, this graphic novel serves as a sobering reminder of the power of creativity to challenge, to commemorate, and to inspire hope even under the darkest of circumstances.

Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis is a must-read homage to every voice that Nazis (old and new) ever sought to silence, but which continue to defiantly resonate through time.