After two and half years of research, discussion, drawing and writing my thesis in comics and education is here.
McLuhan posits 4 laws to help us determine a medium.
1. What does the medium enhance?
2. What does the medium make obsolete?
3. What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
4. What does the medium reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes?
McLuhan used different words to describe the figure/ground relationship, sometimes using content for figure and environment or, more often, medium for ground.
1- Enhancement (figure): What the medium amplifies or intensifies.
Webcomics amplify distribution.
2- Obsolescence (ground): What the medium drives out of prominence.
Webcomics obsolesce print comics.
3- Retrieval (figure): What the medium recovers which was previously lost.
Webcomics retrieve mechanical type.
4- Reversal (ground): What the medium does when pushed to its limits.
Webcomics flip into audio-visual TV.
The medium of webcomics is different to the comics medium.
I'm in Washington DC at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) presenting a research project I worked on with two colleagues: Rita Irwin and Ching-Chiu Lin.
Over the last year, we have been conducting research on new teacher experiences in rural British Columbia communities. We presented at a roundtable discussion along with four other arts-based researchers from across North America, and an audience from around the world. Below is a four-page handout we distributed summarizing some of our research.
What’s Your Story? Helping Grade Four Elementary Bilingual Students Shape Narratives Of Identity Through The Creation Of Autobiographical Comic Books
Over the last year, I have been working on a research project entitled What's Your Story. I will be posting developments as I analyze and compile the data into a comics thesis. I would like to thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for their generous support of this research program.
SUMMARY OF STUDY AND RECRUITMENT
The proposed study, entitled “What’s Your Story”, poses this research question: In what ways can the medium of autographics (or autobiographical comic books) help shape narratives of identity in grade four bilingual English/French students in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada? The project involves teaching one class of twenty-six grade four bilingual students how to write and draw autobiographical comic books. Data such as student-generated artwork and audio interviews will be collected and analyzed from five participants. By learning to draw comics autobiographically, students discover new ways to tell their own stories and discover a little more about themselves.
This study proposes researching the ways in which comic books can help improve conceptions of identity in grade four bilingual students. Through a series of six one-hour cartooning lessons, twenty-six anonymous participants will learn to draw autobiographical comic books. The student–generated artwork from 5 participants, along with additional data such as audio interviews with the same 5 participants and observations/field notes will be analyzed for themes and patterns. Careful study of the data may provide understandings in the ways bilingual students create identity by drawing autobiographical narratives through the third visual language of cartooning, comic books and graphic novels.
A review of the literature indicates language is an important factor in creating subjective identity. Bilingual students have been selected for this research because they are examples of difference within the community and as such, already have perceived distinct identities.
Bilingual students from a grade 4 French school will be selected to participate. The study proposes to research student identity through comics. Bilingual students in a French school within a predominantly English-speaking community have a perceived difference. The study will involve the participation of five grade four students: either two boys and three girls, or vice-versa. These five will be selected randomly based on the following developments:
- The participant’s parent/guardian has signed and completed a consent form allowing their child to participate anonymously
- The participants are willing to participate
- Attendance at all four 10-minute interviews, as well as completing a one or two-page autobiographical comic
Students who will be excluded as participants in the study include:
- Those who's parent/guardian does not sign and complete a consent form
- Students who indicate an unwillingness to participate in interviews
- Students who are absent for an interview session
- Students who don't complete an autobiographical comic
Nov. 17, 2015
- Introduction of the project to the class of 26 grade four students.
- Drawing exercises and character design demonstrations using simple geometric shapes.
- Teaching techniques for creating an autobiographical/metaphorical cartoon self-portrait.
- Students will invent a pseudonym for their autobiographical character. This will be coded and kept securely by the Primary Contact only.
- Conduct first of four individual five to ten-minute interviews with a minimum of 5 to a maximum of 8 participants who have consented to be audio-taped (copy of interview questions attached in section 9). Students will be referred to in the study by their anonymous pseudonyms and represented visually by their hand-drawn, metaphorical and autobiographical characters only.
In between lessons one and two: students will practice drawing themselves as cartoon characters, and explore creating cartoon characters based on their family and friends.
Except here I ran into an obstacle: the students absolutely did not want to draw stories about themselves!
To be continued next week...
I enjoyed writing about Maus so much that I wrote another paper on another one of Spiegelman's books: In the Shadow of No Towers.
Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers:
Mediating Trauma through Metaphor and Comix
by Julian Lawrence
Art Spiegelman is arguably the world's most famous living cartoonist (Chute, 2007), and is widely recognized for helping elevate the status of the comic book to a legitimate literary medium in North America when his autobiographical novel, Maus, was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Exhausted by the labour-intensive effort of Maus, Spiegelman chose to spend the remainder of the 20th century “trying to avoid making comix” (Spiegelman, 2004, np), preferring instead to work as a cover artist for the New Yorker magazine under the art direction of his wife, Francoise Mouly. This all changed when, as a resident of Lower Manhattan in New York City, Spiegelman personally experienced up-close the tragic events of September 11, 2001 and was left profoundly traumatized. Convinced he was going to die that day, he recalls vowing that morning “to return to making comix full-time, despite the fact that comix can be so damn labor-intensive that one has to assume that one will live forever to make them” (Spiegelman, 2004, np) – no doubt a reassuring thought when one is staring death in the face.
In the Shadow of No Towers is Spiegelman's follow-up to Maus. Both books share similar motifs including (but not limited to): narratives of temporality & seriality; the repercussions of trauma; and the use of visual metaphors - yet each book is designed using strikingly different methods and styles (Chute, 2007; Orban, 2007; Whitlock, 2006). In my previous paper, I looked beyond the superficial metaphor in Maus (that the artwork references Hitler's view that "Jews are vermin") to discover the basic, deeper, more resonant metaphor that "identity is a mask". In the Shadow of No Towers is more direct in its use of metaphors, and Spiegelman even goes so far as to tell the reader what the theme of this book is when he reveals the “19th century source for the 21st century’s dominant metaphor.” (Spiegelman 2004, p.1)
Spiegelman immediately began working on page 1 of In the Shadow of No Towers on September 11, 2001 and completed the 10th and final page on August 31, 2003. During this time, In the Shadow of No Towers was serialized as a work-in-progress and published in several European magazines, yet Americans never really saw it in print until an anthology of all 10 pages (plus a 7 plate “Comic Supplement”) was released in 2004. The book is prefaced with an essay describing the impetus for creating it [“disaster is my muse!” (Spiegelman, 2004, np)] specifically, to document what he actually saw in order to distinguish his experience from the tsunami of media images that threatened to overtake his memory. The first four pages of the book chronicle Spiegelman’s personal impressions and experiences on the morning of September 11th and the remaining six pages feature his critical commentary on America’s subsequent paradigm shift into what he calls “the new normal”.
The “Comic Supplement” at the end of the book features reprints of old newspaper comics from the medium’s first decade in America, or as Spiegelman calls it, “Year Zero". These reprints feature long-forgotten cartoon characters such as the Kin-Der-Kids, the Yellow Kid, Little Lady Lovekins & Old Man Muffaroo, Foxy Grandpa and Little Nemo. In a two-page essay introducing the old reproductions Spiegelman explains:
The only cultural artifacts that could get past my defenses to flood my eyes and bring something other than images of burning towers were old comic strips; vital, unpretentious ephemera from the optimistic dawn of the 20th century. That they were made with so much skill and verve but never intended to last past the day they appeared in the newspaper gave them poignancy; they were just right for an end-of-the-world moment (Spiegelman, 2004, np).
The Globe & Mail newspaper interviewed Spiegelman in 2004 and asked him why he chose to use classic cartoon characters, to which he answered:
When I was working, I would be drawing the towers and find myself doodling Hans and Fritz, the Katzenjammer Kids, the tower twins. For a while the only explanation I had was that when the bones of the towers went down, right next to ground zero was where the Sunday comics were born, on newspaper row, and the bones of the old characters came up. Part of it realistically had to do with the fact that I was being given a kind of newspaper acreage that hadn't been around since the beginning of Sunday comics -- nobody gets a broadsheet to fill regularly for comics, and so for that reason, also, I found myself channeling the earliest comics. Also the old comics that I always loved were the love I turned to after Sept. 11 for succor. (Caldwell, 2004)
In the Shadow No Towers is published as an oversized 10” x 14.5” graphic novel printed on heavy cardboard that is reminiscent of a children’s picture book. The comics in the book are oriented sideways in portrait style to take up the full width and length of both pages. Spiegelman consciously chose this format as homage to broadsheet newspapers published by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer 100 years earlier, at the turn of the 20th century.
Spiegelman also chose to divide the book into two sections, with his 10-page account of September 11th representing Tower One and the accompanying “Comic Supplement” representing Tower Two (Chute, 2007). The two parts are linked by their oversized format as well as by the inclusion of classic newspaper comic strip characters into the narrative. To underscore this relationship, the cover of the book features full colour renderings of classic comic strip characters such as Mutt & Jeff, Jiggs, the Yellow Kid and others suspended mid-fall inside a small rectangular panel in the middle of the cover. Behind this panel, Spiegelman uses a monopigment of black: one flat and the other gloss. The glossy black is used to silhouette the shape of the Twin Towers against a stark flat black background. Writer Yves Davo draws comparisons between the cover of In the Shadow of No Towers and the work of preeminent 20th century painter Pierre Soulages, whose work mediates the relationship between the canvas and the viewer by focusing on the space in between: the light that actually reflects off the black (Davo, 2011). The juxtaposition of the colourful panel against the shrouded Twin Towers makes a powerful statement about Spiegelman’s view towards comics and their ability to bring vibrancy and light, even in his darkest hour. Comforting reassurances can be garnered when we see that one of the characters, the Yellow Kid, has, in pratfall fashion, landed on his keister unharmed, as if Spiegelman is saying despite their ephemerality, these old cartoons endure.
In the Shadow of No Towers is designed in a format reminiscent of the “Sunday Funnies” comic section of a broadsheet newspaper, with each page featuring four or five distinct “comic strips” drawn in different styles, and with each comic strip depicting a different take on the impact and implications of September 11th. One of these comic strips appears as a serialized story already in progress, and begins on Page 1 with a narrative text box “Synopsis: in our last episode as you might remember, the world ended…” (p. 1). This comic strip is Spiegelman’s autobiographical narrative of his 9/11 experiences that he describes as “a slow motion diary of the end of the world” (Chute, 2007, p. 230) and is easily recognizable as such because almost every page includes at least one panel which depicts the same repeated image – one that Spiegelman was eyewitness to and haunted by for years - the glowing bones of the north tower just before it vaporized.
Using the medium of comics as the vehicle for telling multiple stories allowed Spiegelman to sort out his experiences and document his “fragmentary thoughts” (Spiegelman, 2004, np) without the burden of committing to a long-form narrative, leading him to comment “it’s inevitable that (No Towers) is a contemplation of comics as a metaphor for September 11” (Chute, 2007, p. 237). One example is Spiegelman’s use of the Katzenjammer Kids as the terrorized (and terrorizing) Tower Twin characters who metaphorically represent the doomed World Trade Centre (Chute, 2007).
With their multiplicity of tools, such as speech balloons, panel layouts, metaphoric characters, text boxes, style, genres, colour, timing, and more, comix present themselves as a formidable voice for recounting trauma and history. Comics Scholar R.C. Harvey wrote that speech balloons give the comics their life (Harvey, 1996). I disagree with this, as it is the pictures that give the cartoon characters life. To designate the speech balloon as the giver of life only condemns to obscurity centuries of silent pantomime comics such as Henry, Little Lulu, Lynd Ward’s book God’s Man and Sean Tan’s graphic novel The Arrival, amongst many other examples. Although the speech balloon can enhance a character/author’s voice in comix, there can still be life without words. Harvey is correct when he later writes that laying-out the story into illustrated sequential boxes or panels creates a “narrative breakdown which is to comics what time is to life” (Harvey 1996, p. 108) echoing Spiegelman’s 1977 theory in his book Breakdowns that “comics are time, time turned into space!”
This handling of time relates to one of Spiegelman's major working themes: the intertwining of temporalities and history (Chute, 2007). In Maus, Spiegelman shifts from present to past and back again while consistently maintaining a distinct delineation between the two time periods, whereas in In the Shadow of No Towers, Spiegelman blurs the lines by invoking historic cartoon characters from old newspaper comics and by utilizing old-fashioned drawing and text approaches to populate present-day scenes in his narrative.
There is a difference between newspaper comic-strips and comic books. Although both were created within the 16-acre radius in Manhattan known as Ground Zero, the comic book evolved a full 40 years (Dorrell, Curtis & Rampal, 1995) after the comic strip’s appearance in American newspapers in the early 1890’s (Walker, 2004). Unlike comic books, the daily newspaper comic-strip and its accompanying Sunday color supplement (known as “the Funnies”) endured mainstream success throughout most of the 20th century, and have only lost momentum over the last two decades, after the news industry began to abandon print all together in favour of migrating content into digital-only platforms. On the other hand, comic books enjoyed a brief Golden Age from 1938 to 1954, peaking at a 90% readership rate, but were severely impacted by the falsified data of child psychologist and anti-comic book crusader, Dr. Fredric Wertham, who wrongly blamed comics for contributing to juvenile delinquency (Dorrell et al, 1995; Tilley, 2012), despite studies indicating the comic book’s potentials in education (Sones, 1944; Zorbaugh, 1944; Frank, 1949; Makey, 1952). By 1954 book-burnings, congressional hearings, and severe censorship by the newly-established Comics Code Authority forced publishers out of business, artists out of work, and comics out of schools.
Spiegelman explains in the introduction to his book, Breakdowns, that as a child growing up in the 1950s, “everything I know I learned from comic books”. Later in the book he recalls a time in 1960, he was around the age of 11 or 12 years old, when his father unwittingly came home from work with a stack of old pre-Code comics. His father had no idea that those books, featuring lurid tales of crime and horror, were the very ones that spelled the end of the comics as an art form in North America only 6 years earlier. Spiegelman says those books made him fall “head over heels into a dangerous adult world of violent, sexually charged images!” Before this revelation, he had only been exposed to the “relatively insipid, good always wins and very nice” comics that were available during the post-Comics Code Authority era (aka the Silver Age). This is a key moment in Spiegelman’s artistic development and he spent the ensuing years using the medium of the comic book to avoid telling “relatively insipid” stories and instead pushed the boundaries of comix as a mode of self-expression. A valiant effort that has proven to be a true struggle in North America due to the medium’s continued vilification as an art form.
Compared with comic books, the newspaper comic strip elicited little controversy, except the occasional disgruntled churchgoer writing the editor to complain about the vulgar and illiterate color comics published on Sundays, sullying the Lord's Day. Like the comic books four decades after them, the colour Sunday Funnies created a huge sensation and newspapers saw their circulations more than quadruple in some instances when colour comics were introduced as weekly inserts (Walker, 2004). Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were the “twin titans of modern journalism who gave birth to the newspaper comic strip as a byproduct of their fierce circulation war” (Spiegelman, 2004, np). The ephemerality of these late 19th century comic strips are what drew Spiegelman to them following the events of 9/11. He saw the parallels between their fragility and the momentary nature of buildings, democracy, his work, and human life. In his “Comics Supplement” essay that prefaces the 7 plates of newspaper cartoon reprints Spiegelman writes “(b)ut it was Krazy Kat that hit me hardest… It presented an open-ended metaphor that could contain all stories simultaneously; and after September 11, Ignatz (the cartoon mouse from Krazy Kat) started looking a lot like Osama Bin Laden to me!” (Spiegelman, 2004, np)
The Next Floor: Metaphor
The medium of the comic book and graphic novel is fundamentally structured on metaphor, beginning with the layout. The comic book structure of telling a story by sequencing panels one after the other on a page could be interpreted metaphorically as PANEL IS TIME, but that is not entirely true because each panel portrays a frozen moment in time and not time actually passing. Since the panel freezes time, it is the space (or gutter) in between the panels that defines the timing. Therefore GUTTER IS TIME is the appropriate visual metaphor for one of the basic structural concepts in comics. In mapping we see “gutter” as the source and “time” as the target. Time is an abstract that requires a concrete image for conceptualizing. In comix, the gutter is understood as the space between the panels on the page. Artist Scott McCloud writes in his book Understanding Comics that transition of time in the gutter between one panel to the next can be broken down into six categories (Fig. 1):
Figure 1. Artist Scott McCloud’s illustration of the 6 transitions of time in comics.
It follows then that the boxes which contain the composition of words and pictures are to be read as the visual metaphor "PANEL IS MOMENT-IN-TIME" and within the panels of In the Shadow of No Towers, Spiegelman crafts visual metaphors of himself on the page in much the same way actors create metaphors for the characters they perform on the stage (Lea, Belliveau, Wager & Beck, 2011). Once again, this self-created avatar functions as another mask of identity for the ever-conflicted Spiegelman.
In one instance, Spiegelman mediates his trauma metaphorically on page 9 in a sequence entitled Weapons of Mass Displacement (Fig. 2). In between each panel are instances of moment-to-moment transitions in time but the panels feature a constantly metamorphosing Spiegelman. His panel-to-panel shape-shifting from Art to lampshade, to cat, to giant hand, to shoe, to mouse is a creative visual metaphor for his post 9/11 mixed-up identity, traumatized being and confused state-of-mind. The self-portrait metaphor that lives in the space/time continuum laid out on the page is also subject to the metaphoric signs, signifiers and semiotic codes (Jones & Woglom, 2013; Sousanis, 2013; Thomas, 2012; McCloud, 1993) that visually describe abstract concepts such as emotions or the 5 senses. For instance, sweat popping off a character’s head signifies fear; physical injury or pain suffered by the character is illustrated as stars (as when we say “I saw stars” if describing the immediate aftermath of a blow to the head); and an aroma is depicted as wavy lines emanating from an object (such as a freshly baked pie). Add metaphoric flies to the wavy lines and the aroma turns into a bad smell.
Figure 2. Spiegelman’s traumatized, chaotic and confused state of mind is portrayed metaphorically as a continuous shift in surrealistic character designs.
Spiegelman stated that part one of In the Shadow of No Towers represents Tower One of the World Trade Center and part two represents Tower Two. On the surface, this metaphor does not seem overly significant, until it is taken into context with Spiegelman's earlier work, a one-page comic strip created in 1977 and reprinted in Breakdowns where he declares
My dictionary defines COMIC STRIP as “a narrative series of cartoons. A NARRATIVE is defined as “a story.” Most definitions of STORY leave me cold. Except the one that says: “A complete horizontal division of a building… (from Medieval Latin HISTORIA… A row of windows with pictures on them.)
The metaphor COMICS ARE BUILDINGS is one that Spiegelman revisits and puts into practice nearly 30 years later when he writes “comics pages are architectural structures – the narrative rows of panels are like stories of a building –“ (Spiegelman, 2004, np). The title In The Shadow of No Towers refers, then, not only to the oxymoronic feeling of the Towers’ ephemeral presence through their absence [captured through Spiegelman’s use of “Soulagienne” black on black pigmentation (Davo, 2011)] but also the ephemerality of comics. This last point is emphasized on the cover with the inclusion of that small strip of color depicting classic comic characters frozen in mid-fall and surrounded by metaphoric stars indicating their pain at having been kicked up into the air by a bearded and apparently jihadist goat.
The motif of people falling is one that Spiegelman has returned to consistently throughout his career. In his pioneering autobiographical comic work 1972's Prisoner on the Hell Planet, Spiegelman draws himself climbing up out of the dark depths of a subway station wearing a metaphoric representation of a prisoner’s uniform (he uses a similar design years later in Maus) and the text box explains that he has just been released from the State Mental Hospital. His ascent from the subway can be interpreted as his attempt to climb back up after suffering a fall, in this case a mental breakdown.
Figure 3. Comic book covers by Art Spiegelman. From left to right: Raw #1 (1980),
Read Yourself Raw (1987) and Breakdowns (2008).
Another example of the people falling motif is the 1980 cover of Raw number one (Fig. 3), in which Spiegelman depicts a man sitting comfortably in his chair reading, while outside his window another man is falling between toppling buildings, an eerily prescient depiction of the events Spiegelman was to witness himself 21 years later. He returns to this idea again in 1987 for the cover of Read Yourself Raw (Fig. 3) this time depicting a man, a woman and the central figure from Edvard Munch’s The Scream in mid-fall amongst toppling skyscrapers and looking beyond the fourth wall to speak directly to the reader. For the 2008 reprint of his book Breakdowns Spiegelman designed a new cover featuring a solitary figure frozen in mid-fall (Fig. 3). The figure is effectively slipping on a copy of the book’s original 1977 cover design. However, this character’s fall is different from the earlier ones mentioned, as it is more slapstick in nature and is referencing a common trope in comics, where a character will fly off-panel at the conclusion of a joke in order to indicate to the reader, metaphorically, that the character is “knocked or bowled-over” by an understanding. The image of the man slipping is repeated inside Breakdowns as a metaphor for the 11-year-old Spiegelman’s introduction to lurid comics and the potentials in the sexually charged world of adults. In No Towers, Spiegelman again uses the image of slipping/falling for one of his more comedic strips (Fig. 4).
Figure 4. Excerpt from page 9 of In the Shadow of No Towers.
Perhaps the most significant metaphor in No Towers is the one that Spiegelman directly references on page 1: “Revealed: 19th century source for 21st century’s dominant metaphor”. Beneath this caption is a mostly pantomimed portrayal of an early 20th century vaudeville gag (Figure 5). The metaphor “waiting for the other shoe to drop” can be traced back to the late 19th century when the thin walls and close living quarters of New York City’s tenement apartments created annoying disturbances amongst neighbors. The story goes like this: a drunk returns home late one night to his top floor tenement room. He kicks off one shoe, which lands with a “thud” on the floor. The inebriate reacts in shock, then quietly removes his other shoe and promptly falls asleep. Soon though, curses fill the air and wake the sleeping drunk. His downstairs neighbors are unable to get to sleep because they are waiting for that other shoe to drop!
Over the course of the 20th century, this real-life common occurrence morphed from a classic vaudevillian gag to a 21st century metaphor where the disturbance of one shoe falling is mapped to a calamity (in this instance the events of the morning of September 11th) and the time spent afterwards anticipating an equal (or even more disturbing) second shoe to drop is mapped to the traumatized state-of-mind that disaster induces (Spiegelman references invasions, bombings, and terror alerts amongst others). As such, TRAUMA IS TEMPORALITY invokes the liminal space of the gutters located between Spiegelman’s frenzied panels in the medium of comix, just as time links tragedy through history. The panels freeze events into metaphoric representations and the gutters are the time in-between these moments where panels and gutters represent narrative breakdowns of time into space. Despite Spiegelman’s somewhat facetious assertion to the contrary in Breakdowns, he is using the medium of comics as art therapy and every panel in In the Shadow of No Towers is a metaphoric representation of the trauma he suffered and his attempts to mediate and come to terms with what he experienced.
Figure 5. Excerpt from page 1 of In the Shadow of No Towers.
The artist is transmitting his trauma through the medium of comix as a means of healing his fractured identity and to come to an understanding of who he is (as a traumatized being) by documenting his story (temporality/time). Spiegelman’s healing process/practice/praxis involves handling materials in the world such as paper, pencils, ink, paint, computers etc. as a means to come to an understanding. Heidegger names this understanding “circumspection” (Barrett & Bolt, 2010) and it is this “tacit knowledge” (Springgay, Irwin, Leggo & Gouzouasis, 2008) that helps to develop an awareness of Being in the artist as he/she practices their art. Spiegelman’s awareness of his Being and Time (Heidegger, 1996) is that he is traumatized and this is a condition inherent to most people in history past, present and future. In other words the process helps Spiegelman to process. As such, TRAUMA IS TEMPORALTY.
The up/down, side-to-side, upside-down and sometimes chaotic layout of the panels on the pages creates ruptures in the timing and represents Spiegelman’s fractured and fragmented identity as caused by experience and memory of trauma. This trauma appears to transcend history and affect successive generations of the Spiegelman family as the artist finds himself, just as his father did before him in Maus, “on that fault line where World History and Personal History collide…” (Spiegelman, 2004, np).
TRAUMA IS TEMPORALITY can also be mapped to the metaphoric phrase “The New Normal” which first appeared in relation to the events of 9/11 one month later in a Christian Science Monitor article that pointed to a noticeable increase in patriotism across America underscored by an unknown fear (Grier, 2001). The “New” in “The New Normal” is a source mapped to time/temporality and “Normal” targets trauma. Spiegelman confirms this metaphor visually in the three-panel comic strip on page 1 entitled The New Normal (Fig. 6).
Figure 6. Excerpt from page 1 of In the Shadow of No Towers.
Panel one depicts a cat, a mother, father and daughter dozing on the couch in front of the television - the calendar behind the couch identifies the day as September 10. In the second panel the calendar reads September 11. The gutter has created a 24-hour time period in the reader’s understanding. This second panel is almost identical to the first, except everyone is wide-awake and reacting up in horror to some traumatic televised event (the TV screen is hidden from the reader; however given the calendar date it is reasonable to conclude they are watching one of the many shocking graphic images that were broadcast on 9/11). The third panel is similar to the first except now everyone is traumatized (metaphorically signified by everyone’s hair standing-on-end) and the calendar has been replaced with an American flag. This implied patriotism is the “new” consciousness/temporality and “normal” now is to be traumatized and anticipating the next calamity.
The Walls Come Tumbling Down
In the Shadow of No Towers is a metaphoric narrative of trauma in which Spiegelman, having survived the events of 9/11, mediates his memory of trauma in an equally traumatized world through comix, collage, chaotic layouts and frequent style changes. The unsettling layouts and jarring style shifts are all metaphors for the fragmented identity that resulted from his reaction to, what he believed to be, an end of the world event.
Spiegelman determines that the metaphor “waiting for that other shoe to drop” is a fitting adage for the 21st century, which so far has included terrorist attacks, invasions, war, disease, famine, terror alerts, increased security, restrictions on liberties, torture, decapitations, austerity, economic collapse - the list of atrocities committed, disasters imposed and traumas created goes on. This apprehensive waiting for that other shoe to drop metaphorically describes America’s post 9/11 Being and is mapped as TRAUMA IS TEMPORALITY, for history (or his story) is a never-ending hermeneutic circle of war, invasion, disease and disasters. Soon after the attacks of 9/11, the media jumped on the expression “the New Normal”, using it as a metaphor to label the paradigm shift occurring across America: a surge in patriotism and enduring fear that even now, 14 years later, remains at the centre of public discourse, because the same terrorist threats are apparently still looming.
If the 21st century’s dominant metaphor is “waiting for that other shoe to drop” then it was brought to figurative and explanative focus in December, 2008, when Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw his shoe at US President George W. Bush during a press conference in Baghdad (Fig. 7). Captured on video, President Bush ducks down as the shoe narrowly misses its target. Yet Bush didn’t freeze in fear or remain cowering – he stood back up smirking and stared in the direction from whence the footwear came. Was he waiting for that other shoe to drop? “This is the farewell kiss you dog… This is from the widows, the orphans and those killed in Iraq. You are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iraqis,” (Setfree, 2008) al-Zaidi yells as he removes his other shoe and hurls it at the President, missing him a second time before he is finally wrestled to the ground, imprisoned, tortured and, we can assume, traumatized.
Figure 7. Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi throws his shoe
at Pres. George W. Bush.
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One of the classes I'm taking is called a/r/tography, a methodology that combines art/research/teaching. My art is cartooning, I've been teaching cross-curricular comics in the classroom for ten years, and now I'm writing and researching comics in the classroom.
I am currently working on a paper for this class that will be done entirely in comics. I enjoy writing (please see my previous post on Spiegelman) but cartooning is my practice. What follows is one page from the 30-odd page work-in-progress.
I only have a month to complete it (along with two other papers plus work) so I am abandoning my usual labour-intensive cross hatching and instead using Copic markers in various shades of grey for tone.
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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