Art Spiegelman's MausTerm Paper

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Maus

Using animals as proxy people in graphic novels and comics is nothing new. Using animals to represent people in a holocaust memoir is, however, has no precedent prior to Art Spiegelman's Maus. The choice of genre reflects Spiegelman's selection of the media he deemed most appropriate for capturing his father's story, as well as the collective story of the Jews during and after the Holocaust. Using the graphic novel as a medium does not necessarily mean that Spiegeman believes it to be the only valid genre for memorializing. Rather, it is the most appropriate art form for telling Spiegelman's story. The genre allows for unlimited flexibility in depicting characters and events. Most importantly with Maus, the graphic novel allows for the use of masks. In this case, the mask is that of the animal proxy. Using the animal mask, Spiegelman accomplishes several goals that might have been unattainable without this trope. The mask of the animal creates necessary emotional and existential distance between several binaries, including that between the reader and the author, but also between the non-survivor and the survivor. Second, the mask of the animal allows the graphic novel to become elevated to the level of high art, as it connects the genre to ancient Greek theater, Balinese dance, and other mask-dependent and culturally rich art forms (Baetens). Third, the animal trope allows the exploration of incomprehensible truths and indigestible trauma. The animal mask functions as black humor, which is a potent yet controversial thread in Spiegelman's work. Finally, the animal trope raises important and relevant questions about the nature of personal identity, collective identity, and the authenticity of each of them.

Maus and Maus II are graphic novels published in the early 1990s. The predecessor to the graphic novel was Spiegelman's brief comic, "Maus," which he published in 1972. The graphic novel represents the self-conscious metanarrative that ensues as Spiegelman builds upon the core themes in the "Maus" strip, interviews his father extensively, and documents the results of that interview in the form of a graphic novel. Maus earned Spiegelman the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Spiegelman's work did not escape the eye of social critics, who have felt that in using the graphic novel as the medium of memorialization, the history of the Holocaust is trivialized and commercialized (Kohli).

An astute analysis of Maus from the perspective of graphic novel-specific literary criticism has been offered by Gene Kannenberg, as part of Baeten's collection of essays in The Graphic Novel. Unlike other analyses of Maus, Kannenberg focuses specifically on the use of the mask, and the symbolism it entails. Kannenberg uses the mask motif as a springboard for discussing central themes in Maus, too, such as identity. Kannenberg claims that while the animal trope is commonplace in the graphic novel genre, it serves a special function in Maus as it links father and son, insider and outsider, past, present, and future.

While Kannenberg's assessment of the mask motif in Maus is skillful, it falls short of offering a systematic explanation of what the animal imagery achieves, and why Spiegelman dedicates himself to the graphic novel as the means by which to make his father's memory -- and the shared memory of his people -- sacrosanct. For one, animal imagery accomplishes something that most documentary memoirs cannot provide, which is the admission of psychological, emotional, and existential distance from the traumatic event. Kannenberg does discuss the issue of distance creation when he refers to Spiegelman's unique approach to Maus II, in which Art draws himself drawing himself. Visually, Spiegelman achieves this added layer of distance by drawing himself as a human wearing a mouse mask, as opposed to simply being a mouse as he is in Maus, and as his father and other Jews of his father's generation forever remain. The extra layer of distance between Spiegelman and his father, and between Spiegelman and his work, sends a powerful message about the function of the graphic novel genre as an appropriate means of memorializing Holocaust trauma, something that Kannenberg misses. The use of the mouse mask in Maus II also touches upon a central issue for Spiegelman throughout Maus, which is identity and his role in his family. The mask also allows Spiegelman to question his motives and his authenticity as a writer, artist, and documentarian. He serves in multiple roles, which is why the mouse mask is an appropriate method of self-representation. There is also the use of the mask as a means of stressing his continued identification with Jewishness, while retaining a core identity that transcends culture and ethnicity.

Although he misses the opportunity to explore the issue of identity further, Kannenberg does note that the added layer of distance created by this motif enables Spiegelman to effectively fictionalize himself "to distance himself from the narrative," (Kannenberg 86). Thus, Kannenberg recognizes the power in creating and maintaining distance. After all, this is Vladek's story told through Art's eyes. There is a distance between son and father, just as there is distance between author and reader. Kannenberg also points out that the additional layer of mask also proves Spiegelman's "awareness of the impossibility of doing so," or the impossibility of distancing himself from the narrative," (Kannenberg 86). He cannot be detached from something that is so deeply personal. He might not have been the survivor, but he is the son of the survivor and thus the heir to traumatic memory. Thus Maus II is an exploration of the paradoxical dilemma of his position," (Kannenberg 86). To a lesser extent, the human with a mouse mask signifies Art being of the younger generation that is a step removed from his father's suffering. He "identifies with the Jews of the past, yet he also realizes that time and circumstance have changed him -- and the world -- as well," (Kannenberg 87). As Elmwood puts it, Spiegelman "seeks to narrow the psychological rift between himself and each one of his family members, whether deceased or still alive," (Elmwood 691). Temporal distance, emotional distance, and existential distance have all been successfully achieved in Maus.

The animal mask form has become a "trope" in the genre because it allows for the indirect exploration of difficult subjects like mass murder, racism, death, and betrayal (Kannenberg 80). Animal identities also parallel human identity construction. Using the cat and mouse motif is deliberate; Spiegelman could have chosen hares and hippos, but he consciously links his graphic novel to classic cat-and-mouse cartoons like Tom and Jerry, as well as the Sylvester and Tweetie series in the Warner Brothers cartoon series. In each of these instances, including in Maus, the cat is the relentless predator and has a cluster of undesirable qualities like ruthlessness and an abject desire to kill, maim, and torture. The mouse, far from being a victim, always outruns and outsmarts the cat. In television cartoons, each episode ends in which both cat and mouse survive their respective adventures and they will return again for more. Thus, the mouse can never die. The irony of Maus is that six million people did die because of the cat. Spiegelman makes a broader statement about the immortality of the Jewish soul, Jewish culture, and Jewish spirit. There are and were survivors of the Holocaust like his father, showing that the mice indeed do survive. As with cartoon chases between cat and mouse, violence can be rendered graphically and deliberately and yet in a way that permits catharsis. Live action footage can never accomplish this critical goal of the graphic novel, which relies on proxies, or avatars, like animals to represent people.

The "mask" of the person, or the animal characterization, does not say who the person is on the inside or as an individual. Maus is about individual and collective identities. The animal identity symbolizes collective belongingness with a group based on ethnicity and historic connection. Spiegelman shows that one's animal nature is immutable; it cannot be changed. Being Jewish is an essential feature of one's character and soul. He depicts this immutability of identity via animalization of people. Vladek's girlfriend cannot hide her tail, symbolic of her inability to "hide" her Jewishness and "pass" for being Polish. Other Jews can "pass" for being Polish but only after donning pig masks. The viewer can see that beneath the mask, there is a mouse. Kannenberg also points out that Spiegelman explores the difference between the identities ascribed to the individual, and the identities that the individual himself desires or creates. Whereas most mice are simply mice both inside and out, there is the one mouse who is not really a mouse: the German man who may have been mistaken for a Jew and who was sent to the camps. Spiegelman depicts him as a man wearing a mouse mask, which is one of the only instances in the graphic novel of this occurring. Beneath the mask, the man is of unknown identity. The counterpart to this of course is the existence of complicit Jews who work with… [END OF PREVIEW]

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