Pluralistic: Dave Maass and Patrick Lay's "Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis" (23 January 2024)

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The Dark Horse cover for 'Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis.'

Dave Maass and Patrick Lay's "Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis" (permalink)

"The Emperor of Atlantis," is an opera written by two Nazi concentration camp inmates, the librettist Peter Kien and the composer Viktor Ullmann, while they were interned in Terezin, a show-camp in Czechoslovakia that housed numerous Jewish artists, who were encouraged to make and display their work as a way of proving to the rest of the world that Nazi camps were humane places.

Of course, it was all a sham. Like nearly all of Terezin's inmates, Kien and Ullmann were eventually shipped to Auschwitz to be murdered. "The Emperor" was never performed during their life, but the manuscript, written on scrounged paper (including the backs of other inmates' Auschwitz transfer papers) survived.

In the decades since, "The Emperor" has been mounted a few times, with varying degrees of faithfulness. But those live performances were limited to the people who could attend them during their brief run. Now, a new graphic novel called Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis, brings the work to us all:

Death Strikes was adapted by my EFF colleague Dave Maass, an investigator and muckraker and brilliant writer, who teamed up with illustrator Patrick Lay and character designer Ezra Rose (who worked from Kien and Ullmann's original designs, which survived along with the score and libretto).

The tale is set in the mythical kingdom of Atlantis, where the reclusive emperor has been holed up in an armored tower for decades, directing a forever war, greeting each battlefield report with fresh orders, all the while carefully scheming to maintain his grip on power by prolonging the war footing among his people.

But the Emperor has a problem: he's won the war. Every enemy has fallen. Without endless war, his system of social control will shrivel and he will be vulnerable to his people. So the Emperor declares a new war of all against all, announcing that it is every citizen's duty to make war on their neighbors. Problem solved!

But the Emperor goes too far. In announcing his new war, he directs his messengers – drum-beating automata who march through the streets of Atlantic rapping out his edicts – to claim that Death himself has blessed this new war, and "when the final drum sounds, our old friend DEATH, our flag-bearer, will raise his sword in salute to our great future!"

For Death – a swordbearing skeleton in a soldier's greatcoat and shako – this is too much. The Emperor's endless wars have already tried Death's patience. Death brings mercy, not vengeance, and the endless killing has dismayed him. The Emperor's co-option drives him past the brink, and Death declares a strike, breaking his sword and announcing that henceforth, no one will die.

Needless to say, this puts a crimp in the Emperor's all-out war plan. People get shot and stabbed and drowned and poisoned, but they don't die. They just hang around, embarrassingly alive (there's a great comic subplot of the inability of the Emperor's executioners to kill a captured assassin).

The Emperor will not be denied. He embarks upon a war of wills with Death, to see who will give in first. The surreal tale plays out among the people of Atlantis, the living and the undead, as they struggle to fight a war where no one can die. The tale cuts between these people, the Emperor, and Death, who is in company with Life, a sad harlequin who is even more demoralized than Death by the Emperor's long war.

What follows is a tale of revolution and love and hope snatched from despair.

Maass discovered "The Emperor" through a bargain bin CD of "degenerate music" he found in a suburban Best Buy in the 1990s, which was accompanied by illustrations by Art Spiegelman:

Maass found a six-panel cartoon Kien drew "expressing his frustration with the evolution of his libretto." Over the years, Maass turned this little strip over and over in his head, until he found himself travelling to Prague with Ley, where they were able to handle the surviving manuscript pages. After consulting with experts all over the world, Maass and Lay and their collaborators created this extraordinary graphic novel, updating it, queering it, and lavishly illustrating it.

While this is clearly an adaptation, Kien and Ullmann's spirit of creativity, courage, and bittersweet creative ferment shines through. It's a beautiful book, snatched from death itself.

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

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Colophon (permalink)

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