Gutter Space #6 by Leslie Salas
The Mice Behind the Masks: Art Spiegelman’s Maus
Art Spiegelman’s Maus is a framed narrative graphic novel in which the relationship between the author, Artie, and his father, Vladek, is exposed and intertwined with the author’s attempt to capture and relate his father’s experience as a persecuted Jew during the Holocaust. The major conflicts explored in the outer frame of the novel involve the Artie’s contemporary struggle to understand his father’s stereotypical pragmatism as well as the Artie getting stuck in the middle of the bickering between his father and his step-mother, Mala.
The inner story, taking place in Poland just before and during World War II, mainly surrounds the Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland as experienced by Vladek in his roles as a soldier, husband, father, and son. Throughout Spiegelman’s Maus, the importance of prayer is noted and the mother’s, Anja’s, mental instability recorded. The definition of friendship, the value of wealth, and the importance of health are questioned. The sheer cruelty of the Nazis is exposed, and the reader is made to bear witness to the horrors Jews endured under Hitler’s regime.
The element of craft that I find central to the book lies in an aspect of the graphic storytelling: the representation of different races as different anthropomorphic animals. Simply put: the Jews are mice, the Poles are pigs, the Nazis are cats, and the Americans are dogs.
These representations are heavy in symbolism and have multiple connotations. At a basic level of understanding the hierarchical structure of animals, it makes sense that the Nazis are cats since cats hunt mice, and that the Americans should be dogs, since dogs chase cats. But there is more than just that. Cats are known as being cunning, clever, graceful, and swift. They have a reputation for sass and vanity (the joke “Cats don’t have owners, they have staff,” comes to mind). Dogs are generally known for their unconditional love and loyalty. Pigs are known for their intelligence, but can also connote dirt and scheming (Animal Farm, anyone?). And mice? Small, helpless. I’m reminded of nursery rhyme, “Three Blind Mice.”
But it isn’t just what’s beneath the surface, it’s also how Spiegelman uses these anthropomorphic characters. The animals make it easy for the reader to quickly distinguish race, regardless of the clothes they are wearing or who is who.
With visual storytelling, some will argue that it is best to keep all of the characters as stock-looking as possible, with less defining features, so that they become more relatable to the reader. Clothes, glasses, and cigarettes distinguish person from person, but without human characteristics like hair and specific bone structure, each of the characters is a blank slate where the reader is free to fill in details themselves and make the reading experience more personal.
If the reader has experienced a situation similar to this one, the lack of detail in the characters allows for a stronger connection between the reader and the work, because it is likely that the reader will put himself or herself in the character’s shoes, and the reader will relive that moment through the graphic novel.
If one contrasts this with Spiegelman’s comic within Maus, “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” the characters are all drawn to look just like themselves. This no longer becomes a general story that anyone can relive, but instead is a highly specific tale about Art, Vladek, and how they specifically dealt with Anja’s death.
Since Artie’s father’s story about his experience in the Holocaust is one of many, many, many sad stories, I find Spiegelman’s choice to keep faces general is powerful for readers, particularly if they had family members involved, or were involved themselves.
The ambiguity is also characteristic of the degradation of memory over time. Coupled with the fact that the story is told by Spiegelman telling it through Vladek, there is no way it could be kept exactly correct. Since the characters do not look like humans, this takes off a lot of the pressure to get everything exactly right.
What I find particularly clever is Spiegelman’s use of masks to illustrate deception of identity. For instance, at one point, Vladek sneaks onto the train back to the Reich, the circular frame that bleeds into the next one clearly show’s Vladek’s deception—a pig mask, even the string and bow are visible on the back of his head, and the hat hides his ears! It is only four frames later, when Vladek is hiding in the closet, that we see his mouse ears and him holding the mask very clearly, contemplating it.
This deception works highly effectively—not only for the characters in the novel, but also for the reader, for now the anthropomorphic characteristics are also signaled as real, identifying markers. It adds a level of subtle depth and complexity to the story that I find fascinating.
Spiegelman’s combination of words from his father’s actual storytelling as well as their clever manifestation to the graphic media in a logical and essential format is simply brilliant. Spiegelman’s art is at once simplistic and detailed, and Spiegelman’s use of a simple device like a mask is so impressive to me because it ends up being so crucial to the telling of the story.
Leslie Salas writes fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, and comics. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida and attended the University of Denver Publishing Institute. In addition to being an Associate Course Director at Full Sail University, Leslie also serves as an assistant editor for The Florida Review, a graphic nonfiction editorial assistant for Sweet: A Literary Confection, and a regular contributing artist for SmokeLong Quarterly.