Since its first publication in 1987, Maus has achieved a celebrity that few other comics have ever done. And yet it's an extremely difficult work to talk about. In the first place, what is it? Is it a comic? Is it biography, or fiction? Is it a literary work, or a graphic one, or both? We use the term graphic novel, but can anything that is literary, like a novel, ever really work in graphic form? Words and pictures work differently: can they work together without pulling in different directions?
In the preface to The Western Canon , his attempt to define "The Books and School of the Ages", Harold Bloom says: "One mark of an originality that can win canonical status for a literary work is a strangeness that we either never altogether assimilate, or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncrasies."
This is an accurate description of my reaction to Maus. In one way the work stands squarely in the comics tradition, observing many of the conventions of the form: a story about anthropomorphically depicted animals, told sequentially in a series of square panels six to a page, containing speech balloons and voice-over captions in which all the lettering is in capitals, with onomatopoeic sound-effects to represent rifle-fire, and so on. So it looks very like a comic.
It also refers to earlier forms. The stark black-and-white drawings, the lines so thick in places as almost to seem as if they belong in a woodcut, hark back to the wordless novels of Frans Masereel, with their expressionist woodcut prints; and those in turn take their place in an even older northern European tradi tion of printmaking that goes back to Holbein and Dürer. In telling a story about Germany, Spiegelman uses a very German technique.
Yet in other ways Maus does have a profound and unfailing "strangeness", to use Bloom's term. Part of this is due to the depiction of Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, and so forth. This is what jolts most people who come to it for the first time, and still jolts me after several readings. It is such a risky artistic strategy, because it implies a form of essentialism that many readers will find suspect. Cats kill mice because they are cats, and that's what cats do. But is it in the nature of Germans, as Germans, to kill Jews?
The question hangs over the whole work, and is never answered directly. Instead we are reminded by the plot itself that this classification into different species was precisely how the human race was then regarded by those who had the power to order things; and the question is finally dispelled by the gradual gentle insistence that these characters might look like mice, or cats, or pigs, but what they are is people. They have the complexity and the surprisingness of human beings, and human beings are capable of anything.
At the heart of the story is the tormented relationship between Art and his father Vladek, a survivor of Auschwitz, an obsessive, mean, doting, helpless, cantankerous, altogether impossible old man, whom we come to know in two different worlds: the present-day world of penny-pinching retirement in New York and the Catskill mountains (names signify), and the remembered world of occupied Poland and the extermination camps. The work as a whole takes the form of a memoir by Art in which he tells us of his interviews with his father about Vladek's experiences under the Nazis. As Vladek tells his story, the first-person-past-tense captions in Art's voice give way to those in Vladek's, so the bulk of the narrative is technically a flashback.
Names signify. Is the Art of the story the Art of the title-page? Art Spiegelman is a man, but the Art in the story looks like a mouse. In one extraordinary passage about two-thirds of the way through, Art is worrying about art - about his art, and what it's doing to himself and to its subject matter.
But the Art shown here is not a mouse but a man in a mouse mask, and the journalists who come to pester and interview him are people in cat or dog masks, but men and women, not cats and dogs. This Art is the author, as distinct from the Art who is the narrator. So for six pages, as we follow the man-Art's anxiety about his art, we are in a different kind of world from either of the story-worlds, and in this sequence alone the words are not drawn in capitals.
What shape things have, and in what kind of letters the words are printed, and how a picture is set against its background, are matters we have to think about when we look at comics. A comic is not exactly a novel in pictures - it's something else. But the presence of pictures is not a new thing in printed narrative: William Caxton included woodcuts in the first books he printed in English, and some of the greatest novels in the language were conceived from the beginning as being accompanied by pictures. Vanity Fair is incomplete without Thackeray's own illustrations, which often extend and comment on the implications of the text; and in a sense the entire career of Dickens as a novelist began when he was commissioned to provide a text for a series of engravings of Cockney sporting life by the artist Robert Seymour. This grew into The Pickwick Papers. Our experience of Dickens is also an experience of "Phiz", his most prolific illustrator Hablot K Browne, just as our sense of the world of Sherlock Holmes comes from the drawings by Sidney Paget as much as from the words by Conan Doyle.
So a criticism that was able to deal adequately with comics as a form would have to abandon the unspoken assumption that pictures aren't quite grown-up, or that they're only for people who don't read properly, and that clever and serious people need only consider the words. In order to have anything to say about comics, where the pictures generate a large part of the meaning, it would have to take the shape of things into account. For example, take the full-moon shape against which the characters are silhouetted at important points in the story of Maus, as if on a movie poster.
This echoes the claim old Vladek makes to young Vladek near the very beginning of the story, that he was romantic and dashing; but we know that movies are make-believe, and so the full-moon shape is bitter as well as sweet. It indicates something wished-for, not something true. There was no happy ever after; Anja was haunted by her experiences, and committed suicide in 1968. The shape carries a charge of irony: we see it and feel it in a glance.
Perhaps the most powerful moment comes very close to the end, and it could only come by means of a picture. Vladek, after Auschwitz, is making his way home to Anja, and one day Anja receives a letter telling her that he's on his way. And in the envelope there's a photograph. Old Vladek explains to Art: "I passed once a photo place what had a camp uniform - a new and clean one - to make souvenir photos ..."
And there is the photograph. Here on the page is the character we have come, with Art, to hate and love and despair over in his old age, not a mouse any longer, but a man: a handsome man, a strong man, a proud and wary man in the prime of life who has survived appalling suffering, and survived in part because of the very qualities that make him so difficult to like and to live with: in short, a human being in all his urgent and demanding complexity. As Anja says when she opens the letter and finds the photograph, "And here's a picture of him! My God - Vladek is really alive!"
He's really alive. This story is really true. The impact of that photograph is astonishing.
Comics are a modern form, but this story has ancient echoes. At one point early in the war, the young Vladek, having been drafted into the Polish army and then captured by the Germans, escapes and finds his way home, and when he tries to pick up his young son Richieu, the boy is frightened and cries out. In the Iliad , Homer relates a little episode on the walls of Troy:
... Shining Hector reached down
for his son - but the boy recoiled
cringing against his nurse's full breast,
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest ...
(translation by Robert Fagles).
Men in uniform have been terrifying their own children for thousands of years.
At the very end, little Richieu's name appears again, although he died 40 years before. Vladek, ill and near the end of his own life, is talking to Art, and he says: "So ... let's stop, please, your tape recorder ... I'm tired from talking, Richieu, and it's enough stories for now ..."
Art stands by the bedside, silent, because art has been subsumed under a larger heading, namely life. There's nothing more for him to say. I began with a series of questions, and I'm not sure they can ever be completely answered; Maus is a masterpiece, and it's in the nature of such things to generate mysteries, and pose more questions than they answer. But if the notion of a canon means anything, Maus is there at the heart of it. Like all great stories, it tells us more about ourselves than we could ever suspect.
© Philip Pullman 2003
This is an expanded version of part of Philip Pullman's chapter in Children's Book Publishing in Britain since 1945 (Scoular Press, 1998).
Pulitzer prize-winning artist Art Spiegelman will be in conversation with Philip Pullman at the ICA, The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH on Tuesday, November 4 at 6.45 pm. Tickets £9, concs £8, ICA members £7. Box Office 020 7930 3647.
How should I go about choosing my topic?
Begin by reading the explanations below. Examples of each are provided below!
- Division Essay: find a topic that people might tend to underestimate or over-simplify. In other words, choose something that the average person might not know much about, and therefore can't really understand how complex or interesting that topic really is. Your job in the essay will be to break your topic down into meaningful and important categories.
- Classification Essay: think about the categories we place things in everyday and the characteristics of those categories. The topic you choose should allow you to argue that something has been misplaced.
How should I organize this essay?
As you write, keep these guidelines in mind:
- Your thesis statement and introduction will need to explain why these divisions/ classifications should matter to your reader.
- Your thesis statement and introduction MUST define or explain the category you plan to discuss (i.e. A sport is a competitive, physical activity therefore cheerleading should be considered a sport.)
- You should organize your body paragraphs so that each division or category has it's own paragraph or section. (i.e. cardio exercise is paragraph 1 and weightlifting is paragraph 2, etc.)
Division Essay Examples
If you want to lose weight, simply saying that you're going to "exercise" everyday may not be the most effective way to do so. Exercising is more complex than many people realize--attaining your goals will involve understanding how different types of exercise can help you achieve your goals.
Types of Exercise
- cardio: burns calories and strengthens your heart (running, using an elliptical or stair-stepping machine, etc.)
- weight lifting: tones muscles, increases physical strength, burns fat (using weights or weighted machines)
- recreational/sports: depending on the sport, can provide both cardio and toning benefits (cycling, tennis, kayaking)
We could also narrow this topic down a bit further and write about the important differences between different types of cycling.
Types of Cycling: stationary (exercise) biking, road biking, mountain biking, recreational biking
Classification Essay Examples
To write this type of essay, we'll need to think about things that should or should not be placed in a particular category.Example: Batman (that's our topic!) is not a superhero (category people place him in), but is simply a local vigilante (category he belongs in).
Ask yourself: Why do I think that...?
- Does not possess super powers (powers most humans don't possess).
- Chooses to be a hero, rather than being "chosen" by others/other forces.
Example: Cheerleading (That's our topic!) should be considered a sport (It belongs in the category, "sports").
Ask yourself: Why do I think that...?
- cheerleaders go to "practice" and must be in good physical shape
- cheerleaders work together toward a common goal
- cheerleaders must "try out" for their squad and often compete against other squads