As any comics creator will tell you, illustrated literature is far older than text-only. The primacy of the latter is due mostly to accidents of technology (thanks, Gutenberg). Yet in our present time, visual storytelling continues to fight for legitimacy as a medium.
To confuse things further, comics (as we know them today), though they have roots going back to cave paintings and Medieval tapestries, are a uniquely American modern art form-some argue, the only such, though there are 19th Century precursors in Europe.
The variety of work in the medium is vast, as is the volume of material. In the last century, creators generated everything from superheroes and deconstructions thereof, oddities and quirky experiments that grow from things like Matt Groening’s challenging Life in Hell with its cult following into the ubiquitous Simpsons, to stories that aspire to be of literary significance (guilty as charged). Some who choose to identify themselves as “graphic novelists” (also guilty as charged) may look down upon other creators (not guilty as charged, I swear), and vice versa.
But no one can deny that the hard work of a few specific creators has really put comics on the map. Respect compels me to mention Will Eisner, a pioneer in the medium who coined the term “graphic novel,” after whom the top comics award is named, but I’ll cover him in a separate column. As post-Eisner luminaries go, no discussion could exclude Art Spiegelman and his two volumes of Maus, completed in 1991 (a thirteen-year undertaking, all told), the first comics to have won the esteemed Pulitzer Pize. Prior to his work on Maus, Spiegelman was known for his work as an underground comix artist.
Maus is, principally, a retelling of the story of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, a survivor of Auschwitz. The narrative shifts between Spiegelman’s interactions with an elderly Vladek in Rego Park, Queens, and Vladek’s flashbacks to his younger, happier life in Sosnowiec, Poland. As the Nazis annex Poland, however, conditions get steadily worse. Though known to us in our present times through the lens of history, the monstrosities of those times come vividly to life, retold through Spiegelman’s perfect approximation of Vladek’s Polish cadence, a simple device, yet one of the most compelling and moving aspects of the story.
The main conceit of the work, one of a few factors that make the devastating events it relates bearable-like the odd wit and humor of Vladek’s interactions with his son and his second wife Mala-is that the Jews are depicted as mice. The Nazis, unsurprisingly, are shown as cats, and a variety of supporting Animal Farm-esque characters are embodied by other animals. The choice of mice is multi-layered. Aside from the visceral aspect of showing their vulnerability to the predatory cats, Spiegelman was playing with the idea put forth by Nazi propaganda of depicting Jews as vermin. Putting the mice in domestic settings, wearing suits, doing business, going about their lives, constitutes an expert use of abstraction to get the reader to relate to the characters. The mouse faces also dissolve racial characteristics, another deliberate choice on Spiegalman’s part.
For me, Maus was both confusing and inspiring. The artwork, drawn by Spiegelman on huge boards with a Sharpie and then reduced to create scratchy, at times almost childlike images, is disorienting at first. But it’s amazing how quickly you fall into the world of the characters, and even cease to see them as mice. And inspiring, because it showed me the full range of experience an illustrated medium can achieve-like seeing Hamlet for the first time and realizing what a staggering array of predicaments and emotions can be portrayed on the stage.
It’s a testament to Maus‘s efficacy as a story, I think, that many non-comics readers can identify with it even across the challenges of reading an illustrated work. Several to whom I’ve passed it on say that they never thought they could get into it, but quickly changed their tune as soon as they’d gotten a few pages in.
Today, Maus is taught in schools and universities, and holds an esteemed place in literature concerning the Holocaust-and rightly so. As a first-person account (told from Vladek Spiegelman’s perspective), and as a recounting of a son’s relationship with a scarred and psychologically complex father, it is a masterwork. (And for those who have read both volumes of Maus, I highly recommend MetaMAUS, a supplement and companion to the Maus series put out by Pantheon in 2011. MetaMAUS includes filmed footage of the actual Vladek, audio recordings, and some of Spiegelman’s background research into the Holocaust and the events of Vladek’s life.)