I started my MA at UBC back in September and have so far written three papers, all focusing on the medium of comic books. Below is a paper that explores metaphor in Art Spiegelman's Maus. I've read the book a couple of times over the years, but didn't really understand just how deeply Spiegelman maps metaphor to the narrative.
The Case for Maus
Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus is credited with elevating the once denigrated medium of the comic book to a level of artistic legitimacy and respect within literary and art circles. Maus represents Spiegelman’s “lasting contribution to Western comics… to redefine the medium as suitable to convey issue-based themes” (Adams 2008, pp.18-19). It won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1992, is studied in high schools and universities and Spiegelman’s original artwork is curated in gallery shows around the world.
Many readers are familiar with the basic story in Maus: it is a 300 page comic book, or graphic novel, depicting the true story of the artist’s parents’ survival in Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. In contrast with the veracity of the story, an unusual aspect of Maus is that the main characters are drawn as mouse-headed humans living in a world of anthropomorphized animals. However, this is no ordinary “funny animal” comic book for kids. A topic as serious as the Holocaust had never been addressed in the comics before and protestations that Spiegelman was belittling the importance of Shoah by telling a story about it in animal cartoons grew when the first book, Maus: A Survivor's Tale was released in 1986. In a 2011 New York Times interview, Spiegelman recalls an incident in Germany in 1987, when a reporter barked at him, “Don’t you think that a comic book about the Holocaust is in bad taste?” The author responded, “No, I thought Auschwitz was in bad taste.” (Garner 2011, para. 17)
In the story, Germans are portrayed as cats and Jews as mice (Fig. 1), and an analogy can be drawn that the Holocaust was like a cruel game of cat and mouse; however, the metaphors in Maus run deeper than that. Spiegelman’s choice to represent humans as animals, a format typically used for light entertainment, is in stark contrast with the gravity of the subject matter, suggesting an underlying conceptual theme. Indeed, Maus is a metaphor that tells us that identity is a mask, and the artist is in crisis.
Since its inception in 1934, the comic book medium steadily increased in popularity among children and youth, reaching a 90% readership rate by the mid-1940’s. However, not all comics were meant for children and serious allegations arose that adult-themed publications were getting into the hands of kids and creating a generation of juvenile delinquents. By 1955, comic books were under strict controls from the Comics Code Authority censorship board and as a result became aimed squarely at children, limited to portrayals of funny animals, benign romances and weak superheroes. In his book Breakdowns (2008), Spiegelman recalls the childhood revelation in 1961, when his father unwittingly came home with a load of old adult-themed comics for his comics-obsessed son (Fig. 2). After decades of Comics Code Authority censorship, the idea of comics for adults became absurd and remained so until Art Spiegelman’s Maus won the Pulitzer in 1992. Spiegelman showed that the vilified medium of the comic book was the perfect voice for telling the story of a vilified people.
Fig. 2. In his book Breakdowns, Spiegelman explains the impact adult-themed comics had on him.
The Story in Maus
Maus I opens with a brief two-page sequence introducing Art and his father, Vladek - a pair of mouse-headed humans - living in a middle class neighbourhood in Queens, New York, in 1958. From the first panel, it is apparent that the entire community is made up of animal-headed humans (Spiegelman 1986, p. 5). Anthropomorphizing animals is a common cartooning trope dating back thousands of years, from satirical Egyptian papyri to Sir Thomas Rowlandson's 18th-century newspaper strips to Carl Barks’ comic book adventures of Donald Duck and his family in Duckburg. However, this technique is primarily used for comedic purposes, whereas the tone (words and pictures) in the panels of Maus does not suggest anything humourous.
The story jumps forward to the late 1970s with Art telling his father he wants to create a comic book on Vladek’s experiences during the War. Spiegelman slips a signifier into the fifth panel on page 12 - a tattooed serial number on Vladek’s forearm – to inform the reader that Vladek is a Holocaust survivor (Fig. 3). Over the course of the next 250 pages, a harrowing tale unfolds of survival, determination and the ultimate futility of life. Spiegelman documents this through illustrated adaptations of his father’s tape-recorded memories rendered in the panels and pages of this graphic memoir, but this is not just Vladek’s story, it is also Art Spiegelman’s attempt to come to terms with the relationship he had with his father and his own personal and internalized Holocaust of identity.
Fig. 3. Vladek’s identity tattoo is revealed to the reader.
In between Vladek’s narrations about the War, Spiegelman again jumps forward in time to portray the moments he shares with his father during their interviews or just helping around the house. Spiegelman also illustrates conversations with other mouse-headed characters such as Vladek’s second wife, Mala, and his own wife, Françoise. These conversations and narrations are not sequential, and they appear to take place in four distinctive time periods. The first is 1958, which occurs in the brief two-pager before chapter 1 in Maus I. The second is the late 1970’s, when Spiegelman portrays himself with Vladek and the other members of his family. The third are the flashbacks to Vladek and his first wife Anja’s struggles during the 1930s and 40s. The fourth time period takes place in present day (1987 at that time) and occurs in chapter 2 of Maus II. In it, Spiegelman draws himself as a human being sitting at a drawing table perched high atop a pile of dead and rotting mouse-headed human bodies (Fig. 3). The reader is informed by Art’s narrative that “Vladek died of congestive heart failure on August 18, 1982…” (Spiegelman 1991, p. 201). There are intriguing motif changes in this sequence. Spiegelman no longer portrays himself as a mouse-headed human, he is now a human wearing a mouse mask. He also breaks the fourth wall by staring directly out and talking to the reader in the fourth panel.
The next four pages depict a therapy session between Art and his “shrink” (who also wears a mouse mask) where they discuss Art’s difficult relationship with his father and the struggles he’s having with making Maus II. As Art leaves, he remarks on how much better he feels and grows up back to his normal size. He returns to the studio to listen to his taped conversations with his father (p. 207). Spiegelman then jumps back between the second and third time periods for the rest of the book detailing his parents’ survival of the war and the artist’s attempts to reconcile his feelings for his father.
The History of Maus
Maus did not appear on the literary stage fully formed in one day, making the artist an overnight success. Cartoon characters, like human beings, begin embryonically and over the years, mature into developed and refined personalities. The origins of Maus are chronicled in Spiegelman’s book, Breakdowns.
In 1971, he sat in on his friend Ken Jacobs’ cinema class. Jacobs was comparing the animated Mickey Mouse cartoons from the 1920s and 30s to the racist portrayal of African-Americans in film at that time. A light went off in Spiegelman’s head and he exclaimed:
Eureka! My strip for Funny Aminals (sic) - Race in America! Cats with burning crosses! Lynched mice! Ku Klux Kats! Shit! I know bupkis about being black in America! Bupkis. Then Hitler’s notion of Jews as vermin offered a metaphor closer to home. (Spiegelman 2008, p. 13)
Spiegelman had been looking for a story idea to submit to a new underground comic book called Funny Aminals (sic). The theme of the book was to parody, update and otherwise subvert the genre of “funny animal” comics and cartoons. Underground cartoonist Robert Crumb had already set a precedent for this several years earlier in his Fritz the Cat comics of the mid-60s. Crumb’s anthropomorphized animals misbehaved and played in ways Mickey Mouse never would (Crumb 1993, p. 10). Crumb also used linguistic metaphors visually by portraying the police as pigs (p. 24) and African-Americans as crows (p. 21).
Spiegelman’s first attempt at creating Maus is a three-page story that begins with a father mouse telling his son Mickey a bedtime story about his years spent in prison camps operated by cats during the war. The story’s punchline “they sent us to Mauschwitz” (Spiegelman 2008, p. 30) is tempered by a series of accompanying panels: cats pointing guns at mice, a dead mouse being dragged to the incinerators, and a close-up of the father mouse crying. In retrospect, this three-pager serves as an abstract summary for the Maus graphic novels that followed; however, there is no mention of the mice being Jews or the cats being Germans, it’s only implied through inference with the term “Mauschwitz” and the father mouse’s Polish accent in the dialogue.
The drawing style is also completely different from the approach Spiegelman takes in the long-form version: finely detailed crosshatching and gray tones are applied around the limited areas of black in the first version, as well as crafting a more Disney-fied look to the character designs (Fig. 5). This contrasts with his art in Maus I and II where embellishments such as cross-hatching are still present, but less detailed. The line work in the graphic novels is thicker and appears less polished so that the “murkiness acts as a metaphor for the hopelessness and futility of the Holocaust” (Adams, p. 171).
Fig. 5. Spiegelman’s first version of Maus reprinted in Breakdowns.
Maus and Metaphor
As he describes in Breakdowns, Spiegelman was aware of the metaphoric possibilities in Maus from the very beginning, even when the comic was just a concept in his head. The pictorial metaphor of mice as Jews is revealed near the beginning of chapter 1 and in chapter 2, a four-panel sequence introduces Germans as cats by showing them abusing the mice in front of a backdrop of a large swastika (Spiegelman 1986, p. 33). As the story progresses, other animals are introduced: Poles portrayed as pigs, Americans as dogs, French as frogs, the English as wet fish, etc.
Spiegelman justifies his metaphors in the epigraph to Maus I, a passage from Hitler’s inflammatory speech: “the Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human”. It dawned on Spiegelman that mouse was a perfect metaphor for Jews as well – in conjunction with Kafka’s story, Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk. (Ma 1997, pp. 116-117)
A survey of German propaganda from the time also shows that comparisons were drawn between Jews and vermin needing extermination (Ewart 2000, p. 92), but Spiegelman’s metaphor is fragile because not all mice are Jews in the comic. In fact, within the context of the story, some mice are actually just mice. For instance, while hiding in a cellar, Anja expresses her fear of rats (Fig. 6) and Vladek reassures her that what she felt were only mice (Spiegelman 1986, p. 147). Not all dogs are Americans either (p. 11), and not all cats are Germans (Spiegelman 1991, p. 203).
Fig. 6. In Maus, not all mice are Jews.
Spiegelman's usage of animal masks in addition to animal-headed humans (Spiegelman 1986, pp. 136–146; Spiegelman 1991, pp. 201–207) adds to the fragility of the mouse is Jew metaphor, and raises questions as to what the real underlying conceptual metaphor is at play.
In Metaphor, a Practical Introduction, Zoltan Kovecses writes:
In order to be able to suggest the existence of conceptual metaphors, we need to know which linguistic metaphors point to their existence. In other words, we have to be able to distinguish linguistic metaphors from non-metaphorical (i.e. literal) items. (Kovecses 2010, pp.4-5)
Using the Pragglejaz Group’s metaphor identification procedure (MIP) (p. 5) the following can be suggested:
c) The metaphor “identity is a mask” in Maus has “current-contemporary meaning in other contexts than the given context” (Kovecses, p. 5) especially when read within the context of some of Spiegelman’s other works such as Breakdowns and In the Shadow of No Towers. The identity metaphor also contrasts with the contextual pictorial/text metaphor of mice as Jews but is understood beside it, especially when considered with the observation:
(w)hat fascist ideology does is to reduce the complexity of identity to “one-drop” theory and then to equate this simplification (really a fabrication) with the disease carrying vermin.” (Ma, p.117).
Like the mask, identity is also a constructed and fabricated object. In 1986, in an interview with the New York Times, Spiegelman said: “Comics is a language of signs, and by using these masklike faces on top of what are real people, the metaphor remains useful, and adds to the story a resonance it wouldn't have otherwise.'' (Tucker 1985)
The contextual metaphor of identity is a mask is the theme of Maus, but the entire project also serves a metaphorical purpose in the artist’s life: it is a monument to his father and an exploration of the artist’s confusion over his own sense of identity (Fig. 7).
Fig. 7. In MetaMaus the artist finally rids himself of the imposed mask of identity.
Maus is Therapy
In his book Breakdowns, Spiegelman draws a story entitled Pop Art (a pun on depicting his father in a comic) where the artist tries to escape from the long shadow of an enormous statue of Vladek the papa mouse. Spiegelman runs and complains:
It's no use… No matter how much I run I can't seem to get out of that mouse’s shadow! No choice – gotta keep moving!... Hey! See that thing back there? It’s a monument I built to my father… I never dreamed it would get so big! (Spiegelman 2008, pp. 11-12)
A few years later Spiegelman writes in MetaMaus: “the book (Maus) seems to loom over me like my father once did.” (Spiegelman 2011, p. 8). Marilyn Reizbaum observes that “his is a guilt, typical of survivor children, for living and for not suffering as have the parents” (Silberstein 2000, p. 131). Maus appears to be a form of therapy for Spiegelman as he attempts to understand his own identity. Spiegelman’s admission that: “I don’t tend to confuse Art and Therapy” (Spiegelman 2008, pp. 11-12) is puzzling as it contradicts much of what his work is about. For instance, in his early autobiographical piece Prisoner on the Hell Planet, which he reprints in Maus I (pp. 100-103), Spiegelman depicts his difficulties in coming to terms with his mother’s suicide.
Another identity conflict Spiegelman has is with is the ghost of his older brother Richieu, who died during the War, before Art was born. In interviews, Spiegelman has spoken of the spirit of his dead brother being kept alive by parents forever mourning his death. Spiegelman believes that he could never compete with this perfect, idealized older brother who would never disappoint his parents. He drives this point home in Maus when portraying Vladek’s last words, he says to Art: “I’m tired from talking, Richieu, and it’s enough stories for now.” (Spiegelman 1991, p. 296)
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