When Maus first came out, many people were shocked not just at how well Art Spiegelman handled the difficult subject of the Holocaust, but that he could handle it at all in his chosen medium. And though his work eloquently shows the flexibility of the graphic novel, it’s easy to see why it was such a surprise. By and large, this is a medium that had not evolved to tackle serious material. Just look at the different names for it: comics, funnies – it’s hard to even say the word “cartoon” without smiling a little. Spiegelman was well aware of the comical history of the comics, and he didn’t shy away from it. But he also demonstrated how flexible the medium is, using its unique characteristics to both distance and immerse his readers.
The horror of the Holocaust is almost beyond comprehension for those who never experienced it, perhaps because they do not want to understand it. Spiegelman knows this, so he puts it his father’s memories in a more palatable form. His simplistic artwork creates a hybrid experience between the visual power of a film and the room for imagination that comes from a traditional novel. Where a more realistic depiction might distract viewers with graphic violence, and a sanitized, bloodless version would be equally distracting, Spiegelman’s cartoon art can show the emotional reality of the Holocaust without having to show its effects on the body. The use of animal characters puts the horrific cruelty in more understandable terms. We may never fully know how one set of human beings can turn on another over minor genetic differences, but we all know that cartoon cats hate cartoon mice.
In his first attempt to tell this story, Spiegelman went too far in distancing himself from his father’s story, portraying himself as a little mouse named Mickey listening to stories about Mauschwitz. In this version, Vladek constantly refers to the Germans as “Katzchen,” and the whole thing is less moving confessional and more black comedy. This is not to say that Spiegelman is above drawing attention to his artifice in the finished product. Vladek and Anja disguise as Poles by wearing pig masks tied on with string, and Spiegelman himself wears a mouse mask in Maus II. He opens portraying himself in the process of creating the book we’re reading, discussing with his wife Françoise how he will draw her. Later, he breaks the fourth wall completely, saying “in real life, you’d never have let me talk this long without interrupting.” The following chapter goes even further, creating a completely imagined scenario where he sits at his desk surrounded by masked reporters and a cartoonishly stereotypical businessman who wants to advertise Maus with the catchphrase “You’ve read the book Now buy the vest!”
There are a few explanations for Spiegleman’s approach. First, he needs to distance himself from the reality of his work, conveying through humor his painful feelings of phoniness. Second, he’s drawing attention to the tradition he comes from, paying tribute to the cartoony comedy of his influences, creating a kind of uneasily absurdist humor by placing it in such a foreign setting. The “Prisoner of the Hell Planet” sequence, taken from his mostly comedic underground work, ends not with a whimper but with an uncomfortable laugh, as Spiegelman’s alter ego goes into an overdramatic diatribe and is interrupted by the vaudevillian line,“Pipe down, Mac! Some of us are trying to sleep! After four pages of heartbreaking honesty, Spiegelman has to backpedal into ironic distance, that dismissive insult undercutting everything that came before. The effect both allows us to return to a comfortable distance from Spiegelman’s pain and disturbs us in its rapid tonal shift. Even the title of the story is pure postmodern irony, a breathless hyperbole that would not be out of place in one of Stan Lee’s campy superhero stories. It accurately describes the content of the story, but exists on a completely different emotional wavelength.
Spiegelman uses all these aspects of the comic medium to distance readers from the Holocaust, but the use of cartoon characters makes it real in a different way. In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud writes on “the universality of cartoon imagery. The more cartoony a face is…the more people it could be said to describe.” He later points to Maus as proof that “a simple style doesn’t necessitate a simple story.” In many ways, the simple universality of Spiegelman’s character designs empowers him to tell his complex story more effectively.
In some ways, its cartooniness makes it feel more real. These simple characters – rounded triangles with two oblongs on top and two dots inside – could be anyone. There are no identifying features to separate them from the reader. Everything about Spiegelman’s art is elegant in simplicity. In many cases, he can easily convey that Vladek is smiling without even drawing his mouth, just by replacing his dot eyes with curves. There are many points in the text where this makes the emotions more powerful than a more “serious” art style could have. Spiegleman is a great admirer of Pablo Picasso, and like the Spanish artist, he creates intensity through distortion. When Vladek is beaten, his face expresses not only pain, but also Pain as a concept.
Art uses so little detail that every detail that does appear is enormously significant. Every movement of eyelid and eyebrow, every tilt of the head, speaks volumes about the characters. This is not to say that Spiegelman was fastidious in his artwork. He sketched these stories out with standard writing pens and printer paper instead of the tools associated with more polished art. His choice of media, along with the minimalism of his design sense, gives an impression of impressionistic immediacy. It’s as if he drew the book as he heard his father’s stories for the first time, rather than years later.
This all explains why Spiegelman made the kind of comic book he did, but there are many other reasons to tell this story in this form. In “Prisoner of the Hell Planet” he uses a completely different visual style that draws not from Impressionism but Expressionism to immerse the reader in his emotions. Art, Vladek and Anja are all less cartoony than they are in the newer material, but they and their environment are still not quite real. The weeping Vladek turns skeletal, the overbearing Anja is too enormous to fit within a panel, and Art’s imprisonment becomes literal as he wears prison stripes everywhere he goes. His subjective art throws the outer world into the same torment as his inner life: in the scene where he learns of his mother’s death, we see a progressive distortion in vision. When Doctor Orens first appears, everything is calm and symmetrical, but when he gives Art the news, the whole room turns sideways and his face turns cold and menacing before transforming into a grinning demonic figure shouting, “She’s dead! A suicide!”
Spiegelman can turn the world of Maus equally off-kilter, turning a simple drawing of a Anja’s face into something heart-wrenching just by tilting the viewpoint. When the escapees meet a German patrol, Spiegelman makes the shock visceral by replacing the standard square panel with a starburst. While subtle touches like these can make the book more powerful than it could be in another medium, the graphic novel form also makes striking images subtler. Scenes like the hanged Jews looming over Vladek, or Art sitting on a pile of bodies, or Jews being mistreated under the light of a giant swastika would look self-conscious and silly in writing or on film. But Spiegelman has already created an unreal world, full of floating words and balloons, so that these montage techniques seem equally natural. Besides, these images are so powerful that it is hard to question their reality.
In Maus, Spiegelman turns the low esteem of the comic-book form from a liability into an asset, by both acknowledging and transcending its association with light entertainment. His work on this novel shows just how much an artist’s command of a medium affects our subconscious experience of it. All this analysis of Spiegelman’s technique would mean nothing if the work itself didn’t affect me deeply before I sat down to explain why. That is the greatest part of Spiegelman’s achievement, to work directly on our emotions in a way only visual art can, to carefully think through his technique so that it becomes, to quote the subtitle of Understanding Comics “invisible art.” And that is an ideal that all great artists strive for.