23 December, 2013Issue 23.6LiteratureThe ArtsVisual Arts

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Maus: A Work of Graphic Sincerity

Edward Still

Art Spiegelman
Maus Volume 1 (1991)
Maus Volume 2 (1992)
Metamaus (2011)

In 1972, Art Spiegelman began regularly interviewing his father, Vladek, about his experiences of Nazi-occupied Poland and Auschwitz, in order to bring the vague images and disjointed stories, told to him by his father in his late childhood, into sharper focus. In 1991, Maus was completed, a 296-page, two-part visual and textual narrative covering both the interviews and the events reported in them. The work has gone on to acquire a seminal status in the pantheon of comix, the term ascribed by numerous exponents of the eighties alternative comics movement to their medium. Indeed, Maus has transcended the world of comix, winning the 1992 Pulitzer Prize, the first comic to achieve the feat, and enduring as one of the most well-known of America’s alternative comic books. Its translation into more than 30 different languages is testament to this success. The richness of the work—its astonishing formal and conceptual profundity—coupled with this reviewer’s deep admiration for the book made the proposition of commenting upon it and its success a singularly tricky task. Where to begin?

metamausThe publication of the detailed compendium MetaMaus, published in 2011, presents an intriguing point of ingress in the form of a particularly striking affirmation made by Spiegelman himself. In one section of the book, interviewer Hillary Chute, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of Chicago, engages Spiegelman in a discussion about the widespread appropriation of the Holocaust as material for representation in film and other comics. The writer, having made his disapproval of “that maudlin sentimentalizing notion of suffering and how it ennobles” perfectly clear, states that:

The kind of Jewishness I was interested in was that querulous, difficult Jew who continues to ask questions, even when it’s a question of exactly how many nozzles are shooting out Zyklon B.

maus1This statement makes apparent one of the major reasons why Maus has been so successful and is so successful as a depiction of the European Jewish experience of Nazi atrocities. Leaving aside Spiegleman’s formal artistry and his iconic deployment of visual metaphor (the Jews are depicted as rats, the Nazis as cats), it is the very particular situation and articulation of his and his father’s narrative that accords Maus true resonance. When one thinks of depictions of the holocaust in popular culture there is an order of the irreal that is omnipresent. One can speculate as to the motivations behind the impulse, but the standard representational mode rarely seeks to complicate its protagonists with conflictual traits or interrogate their subjectivities. Even in those exceptions to this generalisation, these more complex traits are often shown, without nuance, to be direct results of the horrors endured. Furthermore, narratives in this domain are too frequently equipped with discourses of salvation, providing unwarranted succour to their recipients (one thinks, perhaps most readily, of Spielberg’s portrayal).

Maus, however, is on one level a story of dysfunctional lead characters, of an often-uncaring son interviewing his father who, despite his central position in the historical narrative, is portrayed as callous, difficult, infuriatingly tightfisted with his money and even mildly racist in the temporal “present” that frames the work. At the level of the historical narrative, dictated by Vladek and marshaled by Art, there are no overtly heroic representations. We are presented with a personal story of survival that has no climax because it is inextricably linked to, and qualified by, its metanarrative. Furthermore, we are often informed by Art’s outer narrative voice that Vladek’s historical narration is full of discrepancies: chronological anomalies, repetitions, misrememberings. maus3 There is one particularly striking scene in which Art asks his father about the well-documented Auschwitz orchestra that would play as prisoners entered the camp. Vladek tersely denies its existence, thus bringing into question the veracity of his account. Importantly, these discrepancies also highlight the faithfulness of Spiegelman’s reporting and exhibit his unwillingness to even out or add to the depiction. One thus feels a great proximity to the work as it incorporates a humility that is sensitive to the fallibility of historical subjects, valuing their subjective recollection of experience. Spiegelman states, quite clearly, in MetaMaus that “I do like to communicate clearly. It’s a pleasure”. Clarity, Maus demonstrates, is not just a question of intelligibility but also of transparency. It is this desire for transparency that drives Spiegelman’s relentless need to ask questions.

At the beginning of the second chapter of Maus II, the second volume of the comic, a third layer of narrative is introduced that self-consciously fictionalises Spiegelman’s very attempt to write that sequel to the initial comic (Maus I). In a scene in which the fictional Spiegelman is hounded by journalists, one reporter requests that he “tell our viewers what message [he] want[s] them to get from [his] book”; another asks, “why should they (young Germans) feel guilty?” Art, as a writer of comix, does not respond as they wish, eschewing the relevance of his authorial intentionality in interpretations of the text and responding with a simple question: “Who am I to say?” This short section effectively highlights the foundation upon which the success of Maus’ narrative mode rests: the unpretentious quest for knowledge. Art is seeking enlightenment from his father as the reader, in the same narrative process, is enlightened by his work.

maus2This is not to say that Spiegelman’s work, through its layered narrative structure, doesn’t accord solidity to harrowing historical fact—quite the contrary. What one notices in the historical depictions is a subtlety and finesse in its portrayals that again engage its reader. A key example, documented in MetaMaus, comes in the section of historical narrative that deals with the brutality with which the Jewish population was expelled from the ghetto of Srodula. Vladek reports that “[s]ome kids were screaming and screaming. They couldn’t stop. So the Germans swinged (sic) them by the legs against a wall….” The visual depiction consists of three frames culminating in an image of a Nazi soldier, in silhouette, committing the atrocity. However, though the action is given a visual immediacy which stamps the scene with authority, Vladek’s reported speech-frame masks the outcome. The scene is thus chilling while sensitively, but firmly, resistant to any urge to slake a potential thirst for comic-book violence. As Spiegelman puts it, “I was trying not to be coy, and not to be gory.”

Looking back to the quotation which began this review, then, Spiegelman’s interest in the “querulous Jew who continues to ask questions” can be seen to apply not only to his protagonists, but also to himself and ultimately to his reader. Maus succeeds because our interest is never appeased by some satisfactory narrative resolution. Upon finishing the work, the reader is both informed from a position of authorial sincerity, while ultimately free, indeed motivated, to continue posing questions. The answers, it might be argued, are contained within re-readings of Maus.

Edward Still is reading for a DPhil in Medieval and Modern Languages at St Catherine’s College, Oxford.