It is National Comic Book Day and what better day to talk about… graphic novels! See, I haven’t found any day to celebrate graphic novels and I do feel they need some love. One of my all-time favourite graphic novels is Art Spiegelman’s Maus. This heart-wrenching tale is based on the true story of Spiegelman’s father during the Holocaust.
Spiegelman used his skills as a graphic novelist to tell his family’s story of the Second World War. Taking a look at the intricate plot and embedded narratives we can start to understand why this story has such a lasting impact on the reader.
As always for these writer’s reviews, spoiler alert!
Throughout the narrative we follow Art Spiegelman as he speaks to his father Vladek about his experience of the Holocaust, wishing to tell his father’s tale. Vladek takes his son through his life during the Second World War, starting before his time in Auschwitz and venturing into the brutalities he faced inside Auschwitz and his devastating journey back home.
But Maus is a little more than the story of Vladek Spiegelman during the Holocaust. The graphic novel describes the life of Art Spiegelman and his experience as a child from a Holocaust survivor (I will discuss Art’s post-memory later in this article). It pinpoints the relationship he has with his father and his trying path towards finishing the graphic novel.
The Art of Art Spiegelman
Pigs, mice, cats and dogs in Maus
Visually there’s a lot to talk about. First of all Spiegelman sets up a clear distinction between different groups. Poles are drawn as pigs, Jews as mice, Nazis as cats and Americans as dogs. This makes it abundantly clear for the reader what the context of a scene is, but it does a little more than that. It categorises people, much as what was done during the Second World War, and it shows the grotesqueness of such a division.
Later on in the narrative Spiegelman decides to add another layer with this visual aspect. In the story, Art’s father is seen wearing a pig mask, pretending to be a common Pole. This technique is repeated throughout the story. It blends well within the storyline and adds an extra unexpected layer to the narrative.
Use of shading in Maus
The entire story of Maus is black-and-white, which fits the historical setting. But Art has a way with shading and using silhouettes that shape the narrative so very well.
In general, the use of shading is used as a way to distinguish the panels that take place in the ‘now’ (first level of the embedded narrative) from the narrative during the Second World War (second level). The scenes set during the Second World War almost always appear to have more shading, creating a grim setting.
In particular dire circumstances and dark scenes Spiegelman decides to amp up the use of shading and silhouettes even more. The settings created on those panels really do stick with the reader.
Embedded narrative in Maus
There it is again! The embedded narrative. Maus is an embedded narrative with two levels, meaning it is a story within a story. The first level of the story is that of Art Spiegelman talking to his father about his experiences in Auschwitz. Within this story Vladek starts to tell his tale, which brings us to the second level of the narrative. Vladek’s entire history during the Second World War is told through his eyes with his words.
But there’s another second-level narrative that is embedded within Maus, which is a truly heart-breaking tale. About one-third into the story Vladek finds an old comic Art had published years ago. It goes into detail on the suicide of his mother Anja Spiegelman and the reaction of his father. Art decided to add the copy of the comic in Maus itself. The book, in a single instance transfers us not only into a new art style, but also a new embedded story.
Metaphor in Maus
There’s ample metaphor in Maus. And the metaphors are so clear-cut that it makes you stop in your tracks.
One of the prime examples in Maus is near the very end. Art is annoyed by bugs buzzing around and he decides to use bug spray after which a fly is lying dead on the floor. Only one moment before Art and his wife Françoise talk about Auschwitz and how it’s hard to imagine it ever happened. The dead fly on the floor here serves as a direct reference to the ovens in Auschwitz.
Another example is the way Vladek Spiegelman (Art’s father) is discriminating others. He’s in a car screaming to a black person; racism blatantly on display. Here again we are confronted with the harsh reality of discrimination and how it is ever-present in our lives, even from those who have suffered the most from racism.
Postmemory in Maus
One of the more fascinating discoveries I have made about Maus comes from Marianne Hirsch, a Professor of Columbia University. In her book ‘The Generation of Postmemory’ Hirsch writes about how the children of Holocaust survivors experience what she coins ‘postmemory’. In her book she refers to Maus as a good example of postmemory.
In Maus postmemory refers to the relationship Art has to the traumatic experiences of his father. These experiences have been transferred onto Art and have shaped part of his own being. The memories of Vladek have, therefore, become in a way memories to Art.
Looking back at the illustrations in the graphic novel we can now see Art drawing up panel after panel (sometimes literally) on how he imagines the Holocaust was for his father. In the end, however, it is Art’s view on his father’s past. Maus can therefore be seen as a product of postmemory.
As a whole Maus manages to leave an impression on the reader. It enfolds many narrative techniques, but the lasting impact comes from the fact that this is not fiction. Vladek’s story is real. Art’s postmemory is real. That, encapsulated in the form of art, is why Maus is so horrifying and impactful as it is.
This review on writing techniques is part of a series I run on my blog. Interested in reading more? Read my writing review on The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde or my review on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein!
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