The Haus of Maus
Looking at all these works, it’s not surprising to learn that the impetus for Maus was formal: Spiegelman wanted to create a comic that “needed a bookmark” and would be worth rereading. (For the most part, poring over his oeuvre in book form is more rewarding than gazing at it on walls.) The process is recounted in minute detail in MetaMaus (2011), a 300-page compendium of notes, sketches, resource materials and all the rest that went into making Maus, with a lengthy interview conducted by the comics scholar Hillary Chute. The book comes with a DVD, The Complete “Maus” Files, that contains the words and images of both Maus volumes, with individual pages linked to relevant background materials and preparatory drawings; the 1946 booklets of renderings of concentration camps and other contemporary accounts that Spiegelman had found on his mother’s bookshelf; home-movie footage from his second research trip to Auschwitz; and the full audio of the interviews with Vladek. In all, the volume is like a cross between a variorum King Lear and the six-disc deluxe reissue of The Velvet Underground and Nico, designed for prospecting academics and zealous fans—who can’t ever come close to Spiegelman’s own obsessiveness. Not that they haven’t tried. Dozens of doctoral dissertations have been written about Maus, and a scholarly-journal database shows thousands of references to it; in the comments notebook by the exit from “Co-Mix,” one museumgoer wrote: “My future wife and I have matching Maus portrait tattoos taken from the endpages of Maus. Thank you.” One can only wonder if they put them on their forearms.
* * *
In Breakdowns/Portrait and MetaMaus—and in the more overt teleology presented in the exhibit, where, in the most satisfying use of the museum format, all of Maus II is mounted in horizontal sequence, with variant pages running in vertical branches—one sees Spiegelman clambering up the mountain and applying the lessons of his earlier experiments, in which he mastered the use of the distancing devices that, as in theater, are built into the very form of the medium, available to those who want to make use of them: breaking the fourth wall, juxtaposing disparate realms of story and meaning, making metaphor material, monkeying with metonymy. Comics can captivate the reader with representational narrative even as they reveal and comment upon their own themes and strategies. They can simultaneously make and break illusion—while yakking about the process. Sometimes, this takes the simple form of making figures of speech visual. When a “Portrait” strip recalls how Art was “in the grip of my recovered memories” while working feverishly on “Hell Planet,” a huge white hand squeezes around the artist at his drawing table; in Maus II, when Art visits his therapist, he is actually shrunk—tiny against his chair and barely a third of the other man’s size.
Sometimes, the strategy involves giving graphic shape to the unspoken. In another “Portrait” strip, after Vladek unwittingly buys his son crime and horror comic books—once banned for allegedly causing juvenile delinquency—the boy tosses his “pops” a quarter for another batch, appearing in the frame transformed into a hoodlum replete with leather jacket, shades and greaser pompadour. A strip called “A Father’s Guiding Hand” offers a powerful portrayal of trauma transmission, as the middle-aged Art presents his own son with the family heirloom: a chest from which a fire-breathing monster bursts forth and keeps growing, a Hitler face protruding, Alien-like, from its belly.
Most important, as Spiegelman enthuses, comics turn time into space. Panels can collapse or juxtapose different temporalities, pit them against each other, dissolve them entirely. And all that can happen in the visuals alone, in the accord or contradictions between image and text or between speech bubble and caption. Early in Maus I, Art asks Vladek to describe his life in Poland and the war as he pedals on a stationary bike in Art’s old bedroom. Vladek’s arms dominate a long, narrow panel as they grasp the handlebars, framing Art in the background—just beneath his father’s concentration-camp tattoo. In Maus II, when Art and Françoise visit Vladek in the Catskills, he tells them about the cremation pits dug for the mass arrival of Hungarians at Auschwitz: as big as the swimming pool at the Pines Hotel. While driving to the Shop-Rite, he answers Art’s question about four women who revolted and blew up a crematorium: as he explains that these women—good friends of Anja’s—were caught and hanged, the car travels a wooded road, passing four bodies dangling from the trees. The perpetual presence of the past in comics maps directly onto the perpetual presence of past trauma.
Maus has long been credited with winning some highbrow legitimacy for comics, best exemplified by its special Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and an exhibit on the making of Maus (largely incorporated into “Co-Mix”) at the Museum of Modern Art in 1991 (there, one had to don earphones to hear Vladek’s testimony). It’s hard to imagine that the serious, long-form narratives by artists like Chris Ware, Marjane Satrapi and Alison Bechdel could have happened without it (nor, perhaps, the spate of comics about the Holocaust like Bernice Eisenstein’s I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, Miriam Katin’s We Are On Our Own, Joe Kubert’s Yossel: April 19, 1943, and even a manga version of Anne Frank’s diary). Spiegelman helped open the way, too, for works in other media, like Ari Folman’s animated film Waltz With Bashir and Lisa Kron’s solo performance 2.5 Minute Ride.
Less widely noted—and tied to the ways comics allow the present to be permeated by the past—is the fact that Maus became the proof text for academic study of the transgenerational transmission of trauma and its representation. It was in her discussion of Maus that the scholar Marianne Hirsch coined the term “postmemory” to describe the experience of second-generation children being so intimately and powerfully shaped by the stories and images of events that preceded them that they take on the force of their own memories.
Spiegelman likely still wishes to get out from under the shadow of the giant mouse—“a monument I built to my father,” though “I never dreamed [it] would get so big,” as a strip in Portrait puts it. But Maus is one of the great artistic works of the twentieth century, so what can he do? It is also a monument to the medium he has championed, and expanded, for decades.