by Art Spiegelman
Pantheon Books. 2011. 300 pages
Graphic Women: Life Narrative & Contemporary Comics
by Hillary L. Chute
Columbia University Press. 2010. 297 pages
Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First-Century Storytelling
by Jared Gardner
Stanford University Press. 2012. 220 pages
In MetaMaus, a generously illustrated book-length interview with the author of Maus, Art Spiegelman recalls his formative encounter with an edition of Winston Churchill's The Second World War. In this edition, which Spiegelman read as a child, the Jews were barely mentioned. MetaMaus reproduces part of a page from Churchill's book on which the word "Jews" appears, now circled in red, alongside a striking photograph of SS guards handling corpses at Belsen. The image is eye-catching, and a reader might nearly overlook the original book's caption, which fails to point out that many of the victims were Jews. (1) "Churchill's war" Spiegelman elaborates, "seemed to have very little to do with the one my parents went through" (44). On the following page he provides his readers with a photographed array of novels, histories, and memoirs more appropriate to his parents' experience. The colorful assortment forms a nightmarish psychic wallpaper. Books that influenced him directly include Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (1959 [English 1967]), as well as a number of more surprising choices, including Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammier's Planet (1970). For some this spread alone will constitute an invaluable bibliographic resource, as will the material on the DVD-R that accompanies MetaMaus. It includes a searchable version of Maus, digital reproductions of Spiegelman's notes and drafts, and an academic essay by Hillary Chute, the book's associate editor and Spiegelman's interviewer. (2) Most significant among the supplements are the audio and transcripts of Spiegelman's conversations with Vladek, his father. Portions of those conversations were once made available on CD-ROM in 1994, but that version was quickly removed from the market. For completeness this version far exceeds the earlier one.
Some of the most striking images in the volume come from the private collection of Spiegelman's mother Anja, including pages taken from a pamphlet of drawings about Ravensbruck concentration camp. Illustrations from that pamphlet--some of which are included in the book, and the entirety of which is reproduced on the DVD-R--place Spiegelman's work within a longer historical tradition. Although Maus itself was alternately revered and reviled for breaking taboos, Spiegelman was hardly the first to illustrate Holocaust experience in a vernacular mode; many survivors had already done this. The accessibility of Spiegelman's depictions was, however, at the root of his critics' complaints. Few begrudge Anselm Kiefer his indirect depictions of death camps, but the popularity of the cartoonish idiom serves as a starting point for Spiegelman's detractors. His own awareness of the tension that arises from using a popular medium to represent something that high art has generally considered unrepresentable is reflected in a 1999 New Yorker magazine cover featuring Jack Cole's Plastic Man eyeing a Picasso and recognizing, with surprise, distorted features similar to his own. The brilliance of Spiegelman's cover is not that it recognizes an affinity, but rather that one could just as easily imagine the image's inverse: Plastic Man's own portrait could and should also hang on a modern museum's wall. Divisions between high and low are as artificial as the taboos on Holocaust representation. And insofar as those taboos are also employed to validate a preference for some images over others, the two sets of rules can be seen as interlinked.
Part of the drama of bringing Maus into being is epitomized by a two-page spread of rejection letters Spiegelman received from potential publishers. The letters explain to him via his literary agent that his book is not compelling, that they don't think much of the framing device, and that his work compares unfavorably to Raymond Briggs's illustrated nuclear catastrophe book When the Wind Blows (1982). Spiegelman proved them all wrong, and he gets to live out an author's dream of reveling publically in collective misjudgment. One part of the tale here concerns how hard it is to present something genuinely new, especially where challenging subjects are concerned. In this spirit MetaMaus deals explicitly with the question of race and representation and cites the Nazi film The Eternal Jew (1940), which compared Jews to mice and which is subverted--one hopes--by Spiegelman's anthropomorphic figures. In the eyes of anti-Semites, the Jews lacked individuality and were mere biological instantiations of a concept. They became dedifferentiated "Jews," and their mousification, attended by the corresponding catification of the Germans, provides a means of depicting the pervasive sway of those racialist mantles. Spiegelman dialogues with. Chute about the centrality of dehumanization to his project, but at this point most of their readers surely no longer require convincing.
The interview is thoroughly compelling, but the book's illustrations are its most remarkable feature, especially where they speak to the original graphic novel's own complicated deployment of photographs. When considering what he describes as the "objective correlatives" to the images in Maus (220), Spiegelman discusses his referential use of the famous photo taken by a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz. He plainly walks a line between reproducing evidence and renouncing claims on absolute historical truth; where possible Spiegelman assimilated and thereby remediated the photographic evidence. Regardless of the degree to which his vision may have been based on and informed by historical fact, Maus's portraits of the past are by and large filtered through Vladek, whose singular survivor's perspective remains central. Throughout MetaMaus Spiegelman provides new insights into his relationship with his parents. One of the most telling images is a photograph of Vladek and Anja watching their son, as a teenager, draw. The photograph is deliberately destabilized by its caption, which reads, "Staged photo for bar mitzvah keepsake album, using a borrowed easel as Vladek and Anja feign interest" (37). The caption reproaches the couple in no less than three ways: beyond the obvious assertion that the couple's interest is insincere, it adds that the photo is staged and that the easel is on loan. Yes, they are striking a pose, but in itself the photo conveys next to nothing of the duplicity its caption suggests. The illustration and its accompanying text recall Harvey Pekar's critical comments about Spiegelinan's "biased, one-sided portrayals of his father, himself, and their relationship." (3) There's more to Pekar's intervention, of course. He provokes on a number of levels, especially where he writes about Maus's animal metaphors. But Spiegelman is right when he contends that the accusation of bias misses the mark. A memoir of a father-son relationship is by nature fraught, stilted, and over-determined.
Assorted photos of Vladek and Anja are interspersed throughout MetaMaus's pages, and the concept of the objective correlative loses meaning insofar as these images all stray far from clear-cut connotations. How could objective inferences be drawn from this surfeit of memory? The photographs taken in the late 1940s generally show a happy and handsome Vladek, a survivor determined to recover the sense of normalcy that the Holocaust had taken from him. The most compelling image, however, is a color photograph of Anja, which is nearly, but not quite, the final one in the book. Here, Anja stands, squinting, by the rail of a cruise ship. Her bright ensemble and boxy purse bespeak the year the photo was taken, and her posture suggests, perhaps, that she's had her fill of the photographer. Alongside the image Chute and Spiegelman also reproduce the backside of the photo, upon which Vladek has written, "Last cruise together with my beloved wife. March, 1968. Died May 21st 1968." Like the hand drawn lines in Maus, the handwriting here comes across as a physical trace, perhaps the most human one in this truly expansive meta-memoir. How, one might ask, did Vladek bring himself to write this sentence? For what posterity did he transcribe these facts, only indirectly alluding to his wife's suicide? The writing itself, the trace of his pen, raises a range of questions that exceed those evoked by the image alone.
In her study of contemporary female artists, Graphic Mitten, Chute quotes Spiegelman on precisely this subject. Spiegelman asserts, "I think anybody who liked what I did in Maus had to acknowledge that it couldn't have happened in any other medium." (4) The statement is tautological: Maus the graphic novel, had it not been Maus the graphic novel, would not have been Maus the graphic novel. Agreed. The interesting point remains that there is something specific about the medium, beyond the juxtapositions of text and image, the presence of gutters, and the unique conventions by which graphic novels signal the passage of time. All of that has been dealt with in books such as Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. What has been less discussed is the source of the special relationship between graphic literature and autobiography. (5) Why are so many graphic writers compelled to expose their most private secrets? Chute, in Graphic Women, implicitly and explicitly addresses the argument that the graphic medium inherently tends towards autobiography. Spiegelman's specter haunts her book, not only because Chute co-assembled MetaMaus, but also due to Spiegelman's unmistakable and direct influence on the autobiographical writings of authors, including Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi, who use graphic literature to examine their personal and, not coincidentally, Oedipal traumas. Spiegelman's influence, admittedly, complicates the claim, for an innate pressure towards autobiography within the medium. Even if the physical presence of the artist in the form of the inked line--the corporeal aura of the author's hand--is what makes graphic writing more personal, one also needs to acknowledge that Spiegelman's choices and his subsequent successes have shaped the medium's contemporary manifestations.
Referring to her objects of study as graphic narratives rather than as graphic novels, Chute finds a label under which to corral diverse work by author-artists such as Bechdel, Satrapi, Linda Barry, Phoebe Gloeckner, and Mine Kominsky-Crumb, all of whose voices are deeply interlinked. Chute examines the importance of women's writing, and of work that directly addresses traumatic experience. She ties sexual explicitness to the representation of trauma and argues that indiscreet depictions along these lines are generally a means for author-artists to figure those aspects of sex they find pleasurable, to take control of memory through the act of representation, and to reframe the male gaze. Kominsky-Crumb's work serves as a central example. As Chute points out, Kominsky-Crumb has not been canonized with the same enthusiasm as her husband Robert Crumb. While her work is as sexual and candid as his, her subjects and their compositions continue--long after his have received the purifying benediction of art--to be treated as too transgressive. At least in part this may be because Kominsky-Crumb's generally unforgiving depictions of straight sex, unlike those of her husband, were and remain distinct from what the majority of male readers seek.
Looking closely at Kominsky-Crumb's 1972 story "Goldie: A Neurotic Woman," Chute explores her subject's particularly personal work. She lingers on how, for example, the author's illustrated body at the moment of orgasm pushes against the edges of the panels. Kominslcy-Crumb has a special talent for depicting multiple selves, and her graphic alter ego's confrontation with itself in mirrors--doubled, eyeing her reflection with contempt--is a hallmark of her generally unforgiving self-regard. The most confrontational of the works examined are focalized through "the Bunch," a deliberate inversion of the otherwise sweet-sounding pet name "honeybunch." In choosing that moniker, Kominsky-Crumb was turning the tables on a sexy adolescent character in her husband's work. Kominslcy-Crumb's work and Chute's readings of it address the coerciveness involved in sex, the psychic issues that attach to it, and the ways it can be depicted graphically in a form that is, by virtue of its resistance to aestheticization and verisimilitude, anti-pornographic. Kominsky-Crumb's work deliberately unsettles the pornographic imaginary. One example is the clown-like face of "Mr. Bunch," who inhabits Kominsky-Crumb when she is subjected to sexual force. Here the narrative voice, "claiming a power of authorship, is shown to literally emanate from inside the 'trapped' body of the autobiographical protagonist." The figure, Chute explains, "shows the projection of what we may read as Aline's sexual disgust mapped--literally--onto the figure of her male alter ego" (44).
Like Kominsky-Crumb, Gloeckner also habitually draws herself in mirrors. She also talks to herself, in this case staging an encounter between her older and younger personae. This doubling of the self opens a dialogue between pre- and post-traumatic lives, before and after episodes of abuse. Chute looks closely at A Child's Life and Other Stories (1998) and pays special attention to what she describes as a "full-page, highly detailed and realistically rendered self-portrait of a decaying Gloeckner, eyes closed, head turned sideways, arm across her naked chest, plagued by pemphigus vulgaris, a disease in which one's dermis separates from one's epidermis--otherwise known as a condition in which the skin blisters at the touch" (62). The self-portrait is breathtaking. It recalls the contrap-posto pose in Raphael's St. Catherine of Alexandria (1508) as well as Marcantonio Raimondi's comparable Lucretia (1534, after a design by Raphael). Like Lucretia's, Gloeckner's eyes are downcast, gazing inward, almost completely covered by their heavy lids. There is sorrow in this realistic depiction with its weighty shadows, and in this case, one can call Gloeckner's style a form of vernacular Neo-Platonism. Chute's account gives this remarkable artist some much-deserved critical attention.
Chute also discusses Alison Bechdel's widely acclaimed Fun Home (2006), which is about the author-artist's encounter, during her teenage years, with her father's conflicted sexuality. Chute again positions the work relative to Maus, noting, "Both are father books, functioning at once as biographies and autobiographies. Both authors end their books with a scene that figures the death of their father; in fact, both authors have figured their books themselves as funerals for fathers" (176). Similar Oedipal considerations are unavoidable, even though it was Spiegelman's mother rather than his father who committed suicide, and here, as with Kominslcy-Crumb and Gloeckner, the work takes the form of an intimate memoir, one which also reproduces selections from Bechdel's childhood writings. The depictions of Bechdel's youthful scrawling, re-imaged and re-drawn in the pages of Fun Home, are of particular interest. Why was Bechdel at that age inspired to efface her own text with strange symbols--odd inverted Vs--a combination of word and image that Chute identifies as a form of "protocomic" (193)? These hieroglyphs not only push the boundaries of the distinction between writing and illustration, but, in disfiguring her own text, they express her adolescent ambivalence toward expression itself.
At first blush Fun Home resembles a scrapbook filled with photographs, yet all of the "photos" are redrawn copies, each mediated through the author's hand. In a section in which Chute discusses Bechdel's father's handwriting, she notes that Bechdel meticulously re-created most of the book's documents, "reinhabiting the elements of her past to represent them--and to preserve them, to publically rearchive them." She summarizes, "The pathos that itself underwrites the project of painstakingly learning to copy a dead father's handwriting is striking, as is [Bechdel's] effort to pin it down correctly and reproduce it visually in her narrative. This embodiment also lets the reader recognize how the archival is by definition in Fun Home refracted through Bechdel's experience and her body" (186). In a manner akin to Spiegelman's use of archival images in Maus, Bechdel redraws and thereby asserts control over her family's memories; she refracts them through herself in the physical act of drawing. In a letter from her father Bruce, written from military service in 1959 and hand copied by Bechdel into the pages of Fun Home, Bruce tells Bechdel's mother, Helen, that he has just read F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1924 short story "The Sensible Thing," about a couple that waits to marry until the husband has enough money. When he accumulates enough, however, "the old love is gone." Bruce writes to Helen that in the story he is Jonquil, the wife-to-be, and she is George. Bechdel reproduces her father's penmanship, an act that may be equal in importance to parsing his complex identification with Fitzgerald's characters. His love for his wife had been mediated by an investment in literature, and he replicated this dynamic in dealing with his daughter, giving shape to the vexed legacy she now strives to repossess.
Where Chute focuses on contemporary graphic novels by women, Jared Gardner offers a wide-ranging and topographical history of comic art. In five chapters and a coda, Gardner surveys the twentieth-century history of comics and addresses how they have, over the course of that century and the present one, shifted in their capacity to convey narrative. His first chapter reproduces some early strips, including two particularly fascinating 1905 ones by James Swinnerton for the Journal American. Swinnerton's strips are stunningly elegant in their modest lines, their expressivity arising from Swinnerton's tendency to keep physiognomies simple. Had he given his figures more definition--had they been more realistic--they would have surrendered their pathos. A child watching a man shovel snow can be transfixing, and it is little wonder that a contemporary artist like Chris Ware, who appears in Gardner's fifth chapter, was interested in early twentieth-century strips such as Gasoline Riley and learned so much from them. Gardner also shows how early comic images were captured in another medium, examining the links between early cinema and comic strips. He juxtaposes an adaptation of "Happy Hooligan," which depicts its actor in extraordinarily comic pose, with its source. The combination of faces--illustrated and filmed--speaks volumes about the contiguities between media.
The most compelling character in Gardner's narrative is, surprisingly, not a comic artist at all but the German-born psychiatrist Fredric Wertham. Gardner places Wertham, the author of Seduction of the Innocent and an expert witness during the 1954 comic book hearings of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, at the center of his account of the period 1938-1955. Wertham was well-intentioned: he had hoped, according to Gardner, to liberate young readers from the "locust plague" that was taking over their innocent minds (87). Gardner examines Wertham's critical, close reading of a 1950 issue of Crime Smashers, asserting, "For Wertham, it is the tendency of comics to slow down the reader forcing them to focus on details such as undergarments and prominent breasts, on the one hand, and to imagine the details of violent attack, on the other, that makes these texts so dangerous" (88). Gardner finds in Wertham an astute reader, adding that he "is actually on to something important in describing the ways in which comics slow down the reading process" (89). He concludes, "in making his case, Wertham ... stared harder at comics than any other Critic of his generation and in the process laid the groundwork for theorizing the unique nature of the form" (91). This perhaps gives Wertham a bit too much credit--as do Gardner's comparisons of him to the theorists of the Frankfurt School such as Theodor W. Adorno--yet Gardner locates an interesting point of intersection between close readings of comics and the psychology involved in postwar anti-pop culture pedantry.
Autobiography ultimately returns as a central concept within Gardner's study, along with those curious V-shaped carats in Bechdel's work. On these points Gardner's analysis overlaps with Chute's in part because they are points that provoke a reconsideration of the intersection of comics and other modes of writing; points, that is, at which graphic writing connects to and is disjoined from literature. Gardner writes that, "Bechdel describes her first addition of image to text in her diaries as a 'curvy circumflex'--like the caret used over a variable as an estimator (used in statistics to represent the unknown); or, more familiar to writers, like the proofreading symbol indicating where additional text should be inserted." He adds that after being exposed to the body of a dead cousin on a mortuary table, Bechdel's carets "take on a life of their own," and it is "as if the two--image and text--are at war for the page" (143). Though it first seems as though the shadow of the digital age looms as the material endpoint of Garnder's historical study, the key question faced by contemporary graphic novels turns out to be--as it is for Chute--how these works construct relationships between autobiography and graphic accounts of trauma, between confession and concealment. Although many artists, including Bechdel, employ computers, the physicality of the pen, pencil, and brush, in all their varieties, facilitates the act of pouring the private life onto the printed page. That trace of the self remains the most compelling characteristic of the medium, which is--insofar as it attempts to capture personal turmoil, silence, and, most of all, what cannot be expressed--ultimately indistinguishable from literary art.
Chaney, Michael A. ed. Graphic Subjects: Critical Essays on Autobiography and Graphic Novels. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2011.
Churchill, Winston S. The Second World War. Vol. 2. New York: Time Inc., 1959.
Chute, Hillary L. "'The Shadow of a Past Time': History and Graphic Representation in Maus," Twentieth-Century Literature. 52.2 (2006): 199-230.
Gussow, Mel. "Dark Nights, Sharp Pens. Art Spiegelman Addresses Children and His Own Fears." New York Times. October 15, 2003. E1, E6.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Northampton: Tundra Publishing, 1993.
Pekar, Harvey. "Mans and Other Topics." The Comics Journal 113 (1986): 54-57.
Wertham, Fredric. Seduction of the Innocent. New York: Rinehart & Company, 1954.
(1.) The caption reads: "Gross Germans, SS guards in the Belsen concentration camp where some 80,000 people died, are put to work by the Allies stacking starved bodies of their victims after the arrival of the invading armies" (Churchill 550; the photo is on 551).
(2.) The essay first appeared in Twentieth-Century Literature (see Chute).
(3.) See Pekar (56). Spiegelman responds to Pekar's criticism in MetaMaus (34-35).
(4.) See Chute (220n5), quoting from Gussow (E6).
(5.) The topic is central to Chaney's collection, to which Chute is a contributor.
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|Title Annotation:||'MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus'; 'Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics' and 'Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First-Century Storytelling'|
|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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