When Art Spiegelman first published the original Maus, the comic book was only just beginning to make a move toward respectability. The view of most people who didn’t read comic books was formed either through childhood memories or generalizations based on media interpretation. For the average person, a comic book exists as little but a collection of lightweight paper telling ridiculous stories about men in tights saving the earth from supervillains. As a result, the concept of using the comic book form to tell a story as serious as the Holocaust seemed less than promising. And then that comic book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992. Suddenly, the comic book form was legitimate. But was it still worthy of representing the Holocaust, and if so, was it successful? Could Art Spiegelman’s pop art approach to telling the true life story of a Holocaust survivor ever hope to be included among other media as a learning tool?
The first hurdle that Maus II has to overcome is the most difficult for all representations of the Holocaust: reimagining the actual daily life inside a Nazi concentration camp. For decades, this obstacle undid any chance of historical accuracy in a Hollywood film. The censorship issue simply made it untenable to even make an attempt at a realistic portrayal of what went on inside the camps. The violence and utter degradation simply could not be filmed in any way that could stake a claim toward historical veracity. The problem is compounded by the specter of trivializing the Holocaust if the more repulsive aspects of the concentration camps aren’t addressed. At the same time, an artist must always be conscious of treading the line between accuracy and exploitation. The depravity practiced by certain Nazis lends itself to exploitative possibilities that have, unfortunately, been capitalized on by makers of pornography. And, since one man’s art is another man’s pornography, who decides where to draw that line? Art Spiegelman faces the same problem in his graphic novel, only enhanced as a result of the medium itself.
The comic book has long been an art form in which exploitation has been the norm; witness the plethora of endowed female heroes and villains that Pamela Anderson herself would envy. Because comic books are targeted to, and read mostly, by teenage boys and young male adults, this kind of content is hardly surprising. Art Spiegelman, therefore, was faced with the daunting prospect of finding a way to not only accurately represent the realities of Nazi concentration camp life without exploiting it, but he also had to overcome the expectations of exploitation that most people naturally grant to comic books. Granted the commercial and critical acceptance of Spiegelman’s two Maus books, there seems little doubt that he was successful in creating enough historical accuracy to allow him to overcome that obstacle. Had Maus II not presented the horrifying reality of the Holocaust it doubtlessly would have quickly resulted in accusations of trivializing the events.
The key to Spiegelman’s success in avoiding charges of trivialization may possibly lie in his artistic choice to treat the Holocaust through metaphor. The idea of comic book representations of actual human bodies may have been too much for an audience raised on memories of Batman and Spiderman. By making the decision to turn the events into metaphor, peopled by animals, Spiegelman follows in a long line of tradition. The specific literary element at play here is the allegory, though obviously Spiegelman is expanding the definition. Tradition-ally, the use of animal characters in an allegory are intended to draw stark distinctions between character types. This occurs in Maus II, of course, with the separation of Jews and Nazis into mice and cats, but the characters are specific individuals and not intended as archetypes. Unlike as in most allegories where the characters really have no definite personality or history, in Maus II that is not the case. In addition, Spiegelman also engages in the tradition of the talking animal metaphor. Animals have been endowed with human characteristics and abilities throughout the course of literature, but they are especially prominent in fables and other morality tales. As a literary device, this distancing has served to broaden the story’s appeal to children in order to better illuminate the moral. In the case of Maus II, the intent seems to be more toward universalizing the story, which already suffers as a result of the intensely Jewish dialogue. To have this language spoken by mice softly undermines the ethnic specificity of the characters, while at the same making the division of roles clearer.
The metaphorical aura of the book allows Spiegelman to tell a story that is both deeply personal while at the same time also being universal. Artistic representations of the Holocaust face the same dilemma that representations of American slavery or the effects of Hiroshima bomb face: how to appeal to an audience beyond the specific race or nationality affected by these events. Obviously, the Holocaust was not relegated only to Jews, but time has served to inextricably link the two together. A Holocaust movie that contained no references to Jewish concentration camp prisoners would surely face extraordinary outcries. But since a deep division does exist between Jewish and Christian culture, the question always comes back to how can one create a story about the Jewish experience that appeals beyond that culture?
Art Spiegelman’s answer lies in his decision to make a metaphor of it. The comic book form already contains a distancing device through its permeation into the consciousness as a medium for telling stories of otherworldly heroics. But the comic book is also a film in miniature; it is structured as a series of individual scenes that the reader consciously strings together rather than unconsciously as in a film. Freeze-frame a film and you essentially have one long comic book. Spiegelman manages to take advantage of the filmic component of the comic book while also manipulating its inherent pulp components. The art in Maus II has the look of a black and white movie, or those old newsreel films of actual concentration camps. The use of shadows and perspective looks more like a movie than a traditional comic strip; indeed, the characters, though mice, look more realistically human than most comic book characters. What is going on in Maus II is a strange dichotomy between the comfort level of watching a movie and the new sensation of reading such a serious story in comic book form. The use of talking animals serves as the linking device to make that dislocation more accessible.
It is a cartoon, after all, and generations have been raised on cartoons featuring talking animals. What may have been jarring once-watching an animal talk and behave like a human-has long since become commonplace. In fact, it has become so commonplace that most cartoon animals are no longer looked upon as animals. Bugs Bunny seems more human than many real life action heroes, for instance. Spiegelman takes full advantage of the manner in which an audience doesn’t immediately question how a mouse can talk. In a particularly brilliant move Art Spiegelman manipulates the media-created idea of cats and mice as not only natural enemies, but as sentient enemies. After thousands of hours spent watching Tom chase Jerry and Itchy carry out his sociopathic torture of Scratchy, the idea that cats and mice are actually conscious of their antagonistic relationship often requires a moment of lucidity to reject.
This particular animal metaphor is utilized to the fullest extent in Maus II and is in many ways a far more satisfying presentation of the anti-Semitism that had to exist among the German people than anything that has been put on film thus far. It verges on the implausible to think that the Holocaust could ever have happened without deeply ingrained strains of anti-Semitism. Just as cats aren’t really consciously aware of any antagonism toward mice-they are just food-Spiegelman’s use of them serves to heighten the idea that maybe many Germans also weren’t fully conscious of their own hatred of Jews. It would be practically impossible to present this concept with human characters without running the risk of criticism for forwarding either idea that there were “good Germans” or that every last German held anti-Semitic thoughts. By engaging in the cat and mouse metaphor, Spiegelman avoids those issues while bringing the concept to the fore in an almost subliminal way.
By taking the comic book form as his method of delivering a story about the Holocaust, Art Spiegelman immediately alienated a sizable portion of his potential audience. What he lost in mass appeal, however, he made up for in expanding the art form. The graphic novel became a fully legitimate art form due to Spiegelman’s experiment. In addition, by casting the story in comic book form and peopling it with metaphorical animal characters, Spiegelman is able to universalize the story beyond its deeply personal origins. The greatest accomplishment of Maus may be that any criticism of it is labeled at the content and not the form.