15 Jul 2015

Spiegelman. Selections from Maus II

Corry Shores
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Notable Selections from
[with commentary]

Art Spiegelman

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, vol.2







Art Spiegelman has very interesting theories about the portrayal and experience of time and memory in the comics medium. We will not get into them too much here. Our current interests are in the animal form of Maus. However, in some cases there will be intersections with the theme of time. Spiegelman says of the animal forms that “I tend to think of it as humans with animal heads” (1991 UWTV interview). These animal heads wear masks of other animal forms. But also, Spiegelman suggests that even the unconcealed animal faces are masks on human heads. We will see in the selection below from Maus II Art himself, along with interviewers, having a human head covered with an animal mask. First  note however the temporality. Time has passed since the first Maus, which was already mixing past and present. That former present is now a past. But even the new narrational present will be read in the future, making it past in advance. The basic format of telling the story from someone’s memory has a sort of non-oriented eternal temporality. This sort of portrayal and experience of narrative time was masterfully executed also in issue four of Alan Moore’s (writer), Dave Gibbons’ (artist), and John Higgins’ (colorist) Watchmen.

Moore, Gibbons, Higgins. Watchmen. #4.p1

We see something similar in the “Time Flies” section of Maus II.


We (above) also see Art wearing the mouse mask, and others wearing dog and cat masks (below).

2.42.2Another theme is the changing relations, alliances, bonds, and organizations based on exchanges of goods and services. Social structures which once held are shown during this time to have broken down, with new relations springing up spontaneously on the basis of mutually beneficial exchanging. Here we see Vladek building a relation with the chief of the tinmen, who at first was antagonistic toward Vladek, but warmed up as soon as Vladek began bribing him.


Vladek often saves things, like a mouse storing away food for later. In this case, he explains how he would save bread made with sawdust, which might remind us of how he and Anja gnawed on wood while in a bunker, to stave off hunger.
In another scene, Vladek is in Auschwitz, and he is talking secretly to his wife Anja. He says to her not to share with her friends, since their only concern is getting food from her. This is interesting since Vladek himself knows how to build advantageous friendships by giving away food. His point perhaps is not so much that it is bad to give away food but rather that one must be strategic in whom to invest one’s goods.


One of the themes of Maus of course is survival, and the question is, how does Vladek survive? When discussing the following instructional diagram (below), Spiegelman recalls how his father told him, “You must know everything to survive” (MetaMaus, p.54). We see very often throughout Maus Vladek taking on new occupational identities (as well as cultural and national identities). His identity is flexible, in other words, and he often exercises the self-creative power of falsehood. He pretends himself to be something before being it, and then he in that declaration-enacted transition becomes it. Notice that he has never fixed shoes before, but he proved himself better than the prior shoe repairmen in his first attempt.


We return now to the idea of friendship and forming larger compositions to aid survival. Here we see Vladek forming advantageous relations through exchange, and he says, “If you want to live, it’s good to be friendly.”


Another theme is that the cartoon animal masks allow the reader to attain greater proximity to the events and to the personal experiences of the characters. This is because the figures are not specific. They do not give us a photo-realistic presentation of Vladek’s face, for example. Instead, it could be any person. While engaging with the visual story, we project our own inner worlds onto these “blank sheets”. This for example allows us to see Vladek as our own father or as ourselves or as some other loved one, and to sympathize much more strongly with the character. Before viewing it, first recall Spiegelman’s point that the animal faces are like Little Orphan Annie’s face, where the blankness of the eyes allows for a more personal projection than Li’l Abner.

Little Orphan Annie Abner faces
Here is the Maus panel, which I find to be one of the most deeply moving images in comics.

In another scene, the war was apparently ending, and prisoners were planning for when the Germans, seeing the need to retreat, were going to move the Jews in the camps back to Germany. Another prisoner tells Vladek of these rumors, and they plan for an escape, with false identity papers and civilian clothes.

2.80.7Later, as the prisoners are being marched to another camp, Vladek tells a story that is important for the notion of dehumanization. He sees a man who gets shot and whose dying movements resemble the way that a dog dies. In MetaMaus, Spiegelman discusses this important scene.


I guess it’s all an inquiry into what it means to be human in a dehumanizing world. When my father told me about his long death march out of Auschwitz near the end of the war, he describes hearing gunshots and then, at some point, he sees far ahead of him, “somebody jumping, rolling 25 or 35 times around and stops.” he tells me, “Oh, I said, they maybe killed there a dog,” because my father [133|134] hadn’t had that many experiences of seeing people shot close up, if any (although of course he did shoot someone from a distance when he was a Polish soldier). And he goes on to say, “When I was a boy, our neighbor had a dog what god mad and was biting; the neighbor came out with a rifle and shot. The dog was rolling so, around and around, kicking, before he lay quiet, and now I thought, ‘How amazing it is that a human being reacts the same like this neighbor’s dog.’”

When he told me that anecdote, he certainly wasn’t thinking about me telling his story with animal surrogates – but I instantly knew this would become a key page in the story. I worked hard to make the transition between human/mouse and animal/dog as clear as I could. My father describes how “the dog rolled around and around, kicking before he lay quiet,” and that is worked out visually as a roll across the page. I didn’t try to present it cinematically, which would have been a bit corny, but I took advantage of the way the eye assimilates a page; it was analogous to showing a human rolling around, fading into a dog rolling around, and fading back into a human as it does.
(MetaMaus 133-134)


We then see another example of bribery not working.


Vladek shows his survival cleverness when he is packed with many other prisoners into a rail car. He sees hooks on the ceiling and fashions a hammock sort of platform to elevate himself out of the crowd and near the window where he could get snow to eat.


He uses his position to negotiate for sugar. He trades snow for spoon of it. But  the scene is odd, since it seems uncharitable. Why does Vladek not give the snow freely, especially since the prisoners’ throats are burning from the sugar? Perhaps the situation is unfair to begin with, since some have sugar and some not, and some have access to snow and some not. In the audio recording provided in MetaMaus, there is less material, and it makes Vladek seem more charitable.

Art: You did not have any food or anything to drink?

Vladek: I still had something in the knapsack, but not much. But there were also some people who had sugar – I don’t know; they organized in some places sugar. So they lived on the sugar. But – the sugar started burning them, because they didn’t have any water. And I could push out my hand through the bar from the little window, and I lived mostly on the snow, because it was a lot of snow on the roof, and I grabbed the snow, and I lived on the snow, and I had a small pieces of bread.

But later on, I manage that I got sugar. How did I get the sugar? Because the people who were down, standing, they begged me for a little, little bits of snow. But I told them I cannot reach. I reach only a little bit for myself. So they gave me a spoon of sugar, and for a spoon of sugar, I gave him a handful of snow. To save his life.
(MetaMaus 267. Italicized parts are not in the audio recording, seemingly edited out)

There is a remarkable scene in the present when Vladek tries to return opened and half eaten food boxes to the grocery store. Art and his wife stay in the car, not wanting to be present at such an embarrassing interaction. Art’s wife says it is a miracle Vladek survived the ghettos and camps. Art replies that in some ways he did not survive. This seems to be losses to his personality or in something else about him, since he seems so scarred and transformed by his extraordinarily difficult experiences. However, we also noted elsewhere that Vladek was supposedly always tight with his money, and perhaps it was only reinforced by the experience in the camps. At any rate, Art’s observation suggests that Vladek’s survival came at the cost of a constant identity.


The next page we examine is notable both in showing the extents the prisoners were willing to go in order to get basic sustenance, but also it speaks to the issues of time and memory. In the present there are the scars of the past, which keep the past alive in the present as indelible traces. The scars of course are emotional as well. Art often refers to how it was not uncommon for  his parents to wake up in the middle of the night screaming.


There is another scene where Vladek shows his cleverness and perhaps as well the power of falsity. Here he fakes being without lice by using a dummy shirt.


Vladek later explains that he had forgotten a lot, having put away many memories when burning letters with Anja’s notebooks. He then says Art’s Maus project is rebuilding that part of his past.


There is an interesting visual mixture of present and past in the title panel for the fourth chapter.


There is also an interesting series of pages with photographs. Here we again see this theme of past and present mixing.



Finally, there is a scene where the animal metaphor breaks down, according to Spiegelman, because we have a mixed couple of German and Jew, with their child showing mouse form but cat stripes.

Spiegelman. Maus 2. p.131 panel 1 striped mice


Spiegelman, Art. Maus, book 2: And Here My Troubles Began. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.



Or if otherwise noted:

Art Spiegelman. Television Program entitled, "The Holocaust Through the Eyes of a Maus (Art Spiegelman)." University of Washington Television (UWTV). Available on youtube: https://youtu.be/BLVG3GNvHkU

Spiegelman, Art [with Hillary Chute (interviewer)]. MetaMaus. New York: Pantheon/Random House, 2011.

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