Credit: Ken Krimstein

Ken Krimstein draws wacky gag cartoons—one classic shows two adjacent storefronts: the window sign in the left one reads MEDICAL MARIJUANA DISPENSARY, while the window sign on the right reads MEDICAL CHEEZ DOODLES DISPENSARY—but the artist doesn’t look the least bit demented. He’s more like a cross between a boomer hipster and the favored uncle who shares his best anecdotes at first-night seder. I would never have pegged him as a midcentury philosophy buff.

Yet, after many years as a copywriter and creative director at top advertising and marketing agencies, he’s turned his attention to the most arcane of disciplines. Cartoon sales to the New Yorker, among other places, led him to write his first book, Kvetch as Kvetch Can: Jewish Cartoons, in 2010—”a labor of love, definitely,” he beams. He moved back to the Chicago area in 2011—he currently lives in Evanston and teaches at DePaul—and began delving into philosophy; now he’s published his second book and first graphic novel, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth.

More than three years in the making, the book is a fictionalized biography of one of the 20th century’s towering German-Jewish intellectuals. The “three escapes” refer to seismic upheavals in Arendt’s life. She flees Berlin in 1933 for Paris; eludes the Gestapo in France after escaping from the Gurs internment camp in 1941; and lands in New York, where she becomes a celebrated author, makes the leap from philosopher to political theorist, and reaches closure over her decades-long relationship with the philosopher Martin Heidegger, her mentor and former lover, who, for reasons of political expediency and academic advancement, fell in with the Nazis in 1933. (During her decades in America, she also taught at various universities, including Northwestern and the University of Chicago.)

Krimstein’s book arrives during a resurgence of interest in Arendt across print, film, and digital media. “It’s 75 years, give or take, since World War II,” he says. “There’s a slight shift in the zeitgeist, because the last people who were alive during the war are fading, and so the narrative is changing. We also now live in an age of podcasts, and I listen and am learning a lot, and Hannah started coming up on my radar. A publisher was interested in my work, and basically said, you can do whatever you want; show us some ideas. One of them was to take a complex essay or something like chess and make it accessible through pictures and words. Philosophy was like that; it was a puzzle.” Krimstein says he started reading more modern philosophers, and was drawn to work coming out of the University of Chicago: Leo Strauss, Arendt, and others.

“When I was a kid I loved biopics—like Young Abraham Lincoln, The Life of Louis Pasteur, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet—and, I always say this, the comics cognoscenti have their pantheon of comic books from the 50s. Classics Illustrated is not one of them.”

I tell him, defensively, that I’ve read those.

“So did I! My great uncle gave me plenty of them: The Life of Joan of Arc, The Invention of Atomic Energy, Moby-Dick. I read those a hundred times. I guess in the back of my mind was, ‘I want to do that when I grow up.’ I read a lot of biographies, and find that I’m always drawn to the early days. What made the person? [When] I opened Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, it was like fireworks going off. Every incident grabbed me by the throat, from Hannah’s father having this very virulent type of syphilis that made him hallucinate and not recognize her to her learning ancient Greek at an early age and putting on Greek tragedies. OK, maybe she’s a genius, but what does that mean? Why did she do this? What I tried to connect in the book was the life that led to her thinking.”

It’s remarkable how lively Krimstein makes thought look in the book, with walk-ons by Arendt’s many friends and colleagues, including Strauss, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Herbert Marcuse, and Albert Einstein—there’s even an imaginary encounter with Saint Augustine. He shows how her experiences led to her writing the landmark works The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition. She comes across as a fully rounded person for whom intellectual and sensual passion were often entwined. And her many eccentricities, charming or not, add to her complexity.

“Quirky, and attractive, and audacious,” Krimstein agrees. “She loved life. She loved cooking; she loved food; she smoked too much; she loved her mother, as crazy as her mother was. Hannah was also an elitist, I believe, and a snob. I took some real liberties to make her a living, breathing human being. But I had some ground rules: I wasn’t going to put things out of sequence, and for those panels in the Café Romanisches, I made sure that the people were alive at that time and could have been in Berlin then.”

Those cafe society scenes in Weimar Berlin in particular show how propulsive Krimstein’s style is, how fluidly he conveys freewheeling conversations, how nimbly he switches gears. When he introduces multiple speakers within a frame, sometimes—as when Hannah visits Saint Augustine—dialogue flows down the page in a sort of “she says-he says” volley. At other times he resorts to a collage of captions, rotating the speakers clockwise or counterclockwise. I wonder if the counterclockwise mode was deliberate, or if it has something to do with his being left-handed.

“Yes, it’s totally to do with being left-handed,” he replies. “Counterclockwise is a very comfortable way for me to deal with the world. Upside down and backwards is the way I deal with things. But I broke everything down in terms of what was the point I wanted to make at the end of every scene.” Krimstein also notes his love of print design.

“I love typography,” he says. “I always look at the spread. And we read with rhythm—I’ve learned that from gag cartoons. There’s a flow and a snap. Everything has a little snap to it, if it works.”

Krimstein used a variety of techniques to give that snap. “Due to the nature of cartooning, sometimes my approach could be like reportage; sometimes it could be more traditional, like Classics Illustrated, or the way Charles Schulz did Charlie Brown. And sometimes I lay it out like a textbook. I used mixed media, like the old Rapidograph pen that clogged up; I used washes, and I smudged things. And then I was limited to one color, so what was the color going to be? I read somewhere that she wore green; they called her “the woman in green.” And someone put it to me that green is the color of natality, birth, freshness, which is Hannah’s thing: newness.”

Krimstein’s novel ends with a coda about the postwar chapter of Arendt’s life that, outside the deaths of loved ones, brought her the greatest personal pain.

All of her vast experience, the events of recent world history, and her evolution beyond philosophy had led her to embrace freedom and plurality as essential for an authentic life and world peace. Her earliest qualms about the newly established state of Israel arose from its foundation along ethnic (rather than pluralistic) lines, and its lack of a formal, written constitution guaranteeing freedom for all residents. So when she accepted an assignment from the New Yorker to cover the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Holocaust, she knew she needed to report the proceedings as dispassionately as she could. In a panel showing a long-distance phone call to her husband and soul mate, Heinrich Blücher, Krimstein shows Hannah figuring out her angle: “If we turn Eichmann into a demonic monster, we somehow absolve him of his crime, and all of us of our potential crime, the crime of not thinking things through. The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Her articles provoked outrage over what was perceived as her supercilious dismissal of Eichmann as a boring, pencil-pushing bureaucrat rather than a criminal mastermind, and for her airing the role the Jewish Councils, governing bodies the Nazis appointed to keep tabs on Jewish populations, played in the Holocaust. But after her reports were compiled in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, they reached a much wider readership, and a true maelstrom of vilification descended upon her. She lost friends and writing commissions; she became a pariah. Decades after her death in 1975, her reputation was still tarnished. I asked Krimstein if he felt she was unfairly treated and if it was time for a reappraisal.

“If you look at Eichmann in Jerusalem, and reread it—and some of her many critics were people who had never even read it—it’s almost a satirical piece; it’s very tongue-in-cheek. Yes, the man was horrible, he did terrible things, but the trial is about something else. Let’s try to be reasonable: the guy spoke in cliches. He didn’t think things through. I’m not defending every last thing about [her book], but I’m not knocking it. I think it’s worth reading.”

Krimstein began work on the book in 2015, the year his father, Jordan “Jordie” Krimstein, passed away. I didn’t know this when I first read The Three Escapes, but I was struck by the poignant way the death of Hannah’s father is drawn: across three panels, his outline gradually fades, followed by the caption, “And one day, Poppa is no more.”

After all the research and immersion in Hannah’s life and dark times, I ask, did you go to any dark places you had not expected to go?

“Yes,” he says. “It broke through a lot of internal barriers that I had. It caused me to question, deeply, how courageous of an individual am I, and what I would do if I was faced with making those sorts of decisions [that Hannah made]. What clarity of vision would I have? And how willing am I to be the kind of pariah she became? And then, the sense of loss [over] the destruction of not only humanity, but the cities, and culture—everything just wantonly destroyed.”

Given the growing trend of adult-oriented animation that deals with serious subjects, could he ever envision The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt being adapted as an animated film?

“Yes. That didn’t take me long to answer, did it?”

Has someone bought the rights?

“Not yet,” he whispers.   v