6 Jul 2014

Spiegelman. prt A. Opening material of Maus I

by Corry Shores
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Art Spiegelman


Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, vol.1

Opening material



Art Spiegelman, the author of Maus, interviews his father, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps. We might think of it as a documentary. It is similar to Claude Lanzmann’s documentary film Shoah (1985) in that neither one gives much direct objective evidential material (like footage or photographs), but both depend rather on subjective testimonial from those who lived through the Holocaust. [from Thompson and Bordwell’s Film History: “Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (1985), a nearly nine hour study of the Nazis' extermination of the Polish Jews, recalls Alain Resnais's Night and Fog in studying bland contemporary landscapes that were the sites of unspeakable cruelty. Here, however, no stock footage takes us into the past; Lanzmann presents | only what he called ‘traces of traces,’ interviews with witnesses, Jewish survivors, and former Nazis.” (582-583)] So we will learn not just about the events but as well about the real human experiences directly affected by them. One interesting difference is that Maus is drawn, which means the experiences are processed subjectively yet again, this time through an artist who will depict affective experiences, rendering the events in his own way. On the one hand, we might see this as a distortion of the actuality of the events and thus a subtraction to its documentary value. However, we said that Shoah demonstrates another sort of documentation, namely, the preservation and communication of emotional and affective experience. In that sense, the cartoon format of Maus may in fact prove just as effective as film. And since cartoon art is known for being able to be more expressive, in that it often shows the inner workings of the characters through expressive outer iconic representations, perhaps the graphic literary medium can be even more effective than film for the purpose of subjective documentation.

Here in this opening material, Spiegelman prepares us for the harsh and dark human truths that his father’s survivor’s tale will teach us. Art is recalling a childhood event when he suffered cruelty from his peers. He was roller-skating with some play-friends, and they race ahead, saying “Last one to the schoolyard is a rotten egg!” Young Art’s skate breaks, and he lands on the sidewalk, hurting his leg. Here the pain is given iconically with the star and line squiggle, accompanied by a distressed look in Art’s face.


Art goes home crying to his father, who is sawing a plank of wood. After he asks his son why he is crying, Art says:


His father is struck by Art using the term ‘friends’ and he replies:

1.5.4 5

In the rest of the narration, Art is in his middle age, interviewing his father, whose stories are depicted graphically. We will see how Art’s father and other Jews were treated as subhuman, in a sense, like animals or worse. But the Nazi savagery is as well a sort of ‘behaving like animals’. And the Jews were not only treated like animals. They were as well signified as such specifically in propaganda and more generally in the Nazi’s ‘regime of signs.’ Spiegelman’s Maus in a way is like a small machine working in the larger machine of signs and significance, but sending disruptive shockwaves into it. The language is still largely the same. Jews are rodents, and like rodents they are highly vulnerable to predators and they burrow, scurry, and hide in recesses. But Spiegelman keeps all of these meanings that are inferential to the imagery, yet he makes a small but significant change. The Jews are mice and not rats. They have all the powers of other rodents, but not the negative connotations. This could be one way that Spiegelman is overturning the Nazi’s regime of inferences. Rats we might detest, but mice instead are cute and their cartoons can evoke our sympathies. Think of Mickey, for example. Spiegelman inserts practically the same image, following the same rules of representation, but he inverts the imagery’s inferences and affections. As we continue through this great work, we will ask if we might find in Spiegelman’s ‘strategy’ of representation a ‘minorization’ of the major language of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda. We furthermore will wonder if the graphic literary medium is already poised to play a minorizational role in the larger context of the more established major art forms like film and literature. Lastly, we will wonder if Maus might be an example of ‘becoming-animal’, not superficially because the people are depicted as animals, but in the Guattari and Deleuze sense of preventing fixed significations and inferential values.  When we consider the treatment of the Jews, we can infer from their behavior the implied (and stated) message that Jews are subhuman. But by re-engineering the machinery of their inferential system, Spiegelman reverses the message, seemingly saying that the Nazis, by lacking humanity, would not necessarily fulfill our definitions for a human being, at least morally speaking. This might be ‘becoming animal’ in the sense of evading determinations and refashioning them to produce new inferences.

Spielgelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, vol 1. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.

Thompson, Kristen, and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. 3rd edition. Boston: McGraw Hill.

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