‘I Killed Adolf Hitler’ Review by Daniel Binns, University of Western Sydney, Australia

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‘I Killed Adolf Hitler; Or: what can anthropomorphic cats teach us about time travel?’

Time travel has fascinated humankind for centuries. The earliest stories involving time travel are scattered across Hindu mythology and Japanese folk tales, but far from limited to just those cultures. The concept was popularised in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by writers like Samuel Madden and H.G. Wells. Indeed, Wells’ The Time Machine almost single-handedly drove the genre of science fiction from obscure ramblings into an enormously popular style of speculative writing. Coming back down to earth, none have contributed more to a scientific understanding of the possibility of time travel than Albert Einstein. Einstein’s theory of relativity paved the way for groundbreaking thought experiments about stretching the fabric of time and space, parallel dimensions, and the very origins of the universe itself. Suffice to say that such a topic of wonder as time travel continues to inspire fantastic and spectacular stories. The 2005 re-launch of the long-running television series Doctor Who remains enormously popular, and 2012’s Looper shows that new and interesting narratives can be crafted from the concept of moving through time.Jason is a Norwegian graphic novelist and artist who has only recently come to international prominence through the English publication of his works, beginning with Hey, Wait… in 2001. This earlier work, alongside The Left Bank Gang (2006) and Pocket Full of Rain (2008) allowed a first glimpse at a bold new voice in not just graphic novels, but in visual storytelling. In the style of the exceptional Maus by Art Spiegelman, Jason’s stories are told with anthropomorphic animal characters. His characters speak rarely, and minimally. Action is limited, restrained. The stories tend to explore alienation, inertia, and loss. One summary of Hey, Wait… asks prospective readers to ‘[i]magine a version of Stand By Me in which not all of the kids outrace the train’ (Fantagraphics 2013). Even The Left Bank Gang, with its bizarre premise of literary greats turned burglar-graphic artists, finds time amid the hustle to unpack existential dilemmas. So it is within this domain, this oeuvre — this minimalist, high-philosophical graphic sensibility — that we come to I Killed Adolf Hitler.

Aside from the obvious signifiers of an alternate universe — rarely do we see six-foot talking bipedal cats wandering the streets — I Killed Adolf Hitler takes place in a society radically different from our own. Non-government sanctioned assassinations are not only legal, but the practice is an accepted and popular line of work. The nameless protagonist is one such freelance executioner, whose modus operandi varies from job to job, be it sniper rifle or close-quarters pistol shot. The opening takes us through a number of assignments, each carried out without a great deal of emotion or circumstance. The only hint of dissatisfaction, or disillusionment, is in the character’s nightly visits to the bar. As the hits pile up, Jason builds this dissatisfaction into a critical mass, through a clever visual pacing, which climaxes in an assassination attempt on the protagonist himself. It is after this excitement that our anti-hero is approached by a shady character, and commissioned to travel back in time to kill none other than the Führer himself.

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Jason’s artistic representation of time travel echoes his characters’ attitudes towards an abundance of very public executions: nonchalance. This is a universe where the extraordinary has become mundane. The time machine itself somewhat resembles a submarine; or a naval mine. It can be used once every half-century; it then needs to recharge. Nothing big is made of this detail, either. It is simply the way things are in Jason’s world. Time travel in the same world takes a single frame, in which the traveller is turned upside down amidst a series of concentric circles; also, time is apparently two different shades of blue. The protagonist emerges into the era of the Third Reich, only to have the mission complicated by Hitler himself. Some years later, the only ally our protagonist has is his ex-girlfriend, who is now young enough to be his granddaughter, in a time-paradox/parallel-timeline kind of way. What follows is an unexpected and oddly affecting meditation on the passing of time, where the path not taken can often lead to reflection, if not regret.

Philosophies of time travel tend to become bogged down in the intricacies of the science itself. In examining time travel in I Killed Adolf Hitler, this reviewer turns to Badiou’s radical notions of metaphysics. One dilemma with time travel is the necessity for time to be flexible. Theoretical quantum physics certainly goes some way to providing hypotheses for why this may be so, but for a much more grounded and accessible example, consider Doc Brown’s explanation of why he and Marty McFly have landed in an alternate 1985. Understandably, Marty takes up the opportunity to use the time machine for financial gain. However, his plan is stymied when the central item, Gray’s Sports Almanac, is stolen by Marty’s nemesis Biff Tannen, who uses his newfound riches to transform the quiet neighbourhood of Hilldale into a casino town and haven for criminals, lowlifes, and the unlucky. Doc explains the alternate timelines via a simple diagram – at a key point in one continuum, a new timeline was created, in which Hilldale is Biff’s town. In order to fix things, Marty and Doc must travel back and stop Biff from getting the Almanac.

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The seven or eight timelines explored in the Back to the Future film series go some way towards simplifying the complexities of time travel, paradoxes and alternate universes. Badiou’s slightly more philosophical bent flies in the face of a more traditional Heideggerian notion of the ontological question being dealt with in purely Kantian terms. If we consider ‘ontology’ as being meditations on, or the study of, the question of the nature of being, then Heidegger’s radical notion was that our own consciousness – our own perception of existence – is situated outside or alongside the world as we perceive it. We are conscious of our own temporal relationship to the world – this relationship exists only insofar as time passes. Once our time ends, our existence, our consciousness – everything ends. Badiou’s conception of existence is more forgiving, more hopeful, more poetic, and much more in line with the novel scientific theories of quantum mechanics. Like Heidegger before him, Badiou cuts himself off from a philosophical tradition in Being and Event – he has addressed this severance in other papers. Badiou’s proposal is that existence, consciousness, has multiplicities (Critchley 2009). Moving away from a singular conception of being, Badiou suggests that ‘being’ exists on multiple planes, and hence the philosophical ‘subject’ is at the beckoned call of any number of desires and operational procedures – his ‘theory of the pure multiple’ (Badiou 2005).

Where, then, do Jason and I Killed Adolf Hitler fit on this spectrum of philosophical or quasi-scientific conceptions of time and being? The premise of the graphic novel is that in travelling back in time and killing Adolf Hitler, the protagonist will spawn a peaceful new timeline in which Hitler did not come to power, and in which his acts were not carried out. Thus, Jason buys into the potential for the multiverse – or at least alternate timelines. In terms of ‘being’, the protagonist exists almost solely as a functioning member of society – a cog in the system. This addiction to work affects him personally and externally. The disillusionment is clear, and he pushes away anyone close to him. He is, in a sense, an ideal that Marcuse himself could not deny. However, the resolution of the novel sees the protagonist revisit his priorities, reflecting on the nature of time, self, and life. This can only occur due to the unavoidable passing of time. Having been trapped in the past, the only way the protagonist can return to his time, is to wait for it to occur. Hence, some fifty years passes, and the protagonist must experience his original era as an old man. It is this becoming truly aware of time – by its passing alone – that forces the protagonist to adjust his world-view. The ambivalence of the artist towards time travel is further demonstrated in the novel’s major conflict, in its primary ‘event.’ Interestingly, it is not the intricacies of time travel, nor a paradox, nor quantum mechanics, that foils our protagonist: it is Hitler himself. The purest and most basic human desire is that of survival, and Hitler is forced to act to protect himself. It is this action that traps our hero in the past and irrevocably messes with what Doc Brown calls the ‘space-time continuum.’ The abuse of time – the muddling of chronologies – is a secondary element, a by-product only, of a human conflict. The initial mission itself is not to see if time travel is possible; rather the assignment is to use this existing and accepted technology to try and ‘fix’ history. Being, in Jason’s world, is not dependent on time. Rather it is dependent on us, and on our relationships. These relationships are forged with others, and with our surroundings. The critical relationships for the protagonist are with his work, his girlfriend, and with Hitler. Whether our connections are positive or negative, our actions within these relationships determine who we really are – and give us some sense of what it is to ‘be.’

Jason is a strong, singular voice in the world of graphic art. His purpose may be to show us that we are over-reliant on technology, or to tell us something about the nature of time, or being. I Killed Adolf Hitler could be nothing more than a fable on the dangers of an ambitious work-life balance. Or maybe we are all just losing touch with each other. Or with the bigger picture. Jason’s art is clean. His words are sparse and poetic. His ideas are all-encompassing. Sometimes it is staggering how something so quiet can say so much.

Works Cited:

Back to the Future Part II 1989, motion picture, Universal Pictures, California, USA.

Badiou, A 2005, Being and event, Continuum, London.

Critchley, S 2009, ‘Being and Time part 1: Why Heidegger matters’, The Guardian, 8 June, viewed 18 August 2013 <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/jun/05/heidegger-philosophy>.

Fantagraphics 2013. ‘Hey Wait…’, Fantagraphics Books, Inc, viewed 8 August 2013, <http://www.fantagraphics.com/browse-shop/hey-wait-.-with-free-signed-bookplate.html>.

About

Daniel Binns is a doctoral candidate in the School of Communication Arts at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. His research encompasses many aspects of cinema, and he has written widely on the war film and economies of blockbuster cinema. Dan teaches in film and media studies, and works in the film industry as a writer and producer.