When discussing compelling and highly nuanced literary works, most would not consider a graphic novel capable of delivering any kind of high caliber or highly nuanced level of information. Until recently, graphic novels have been a novelty pastime shared only by children and adolescents. Modern graphic novels like Maus are starting to challenge these notions and dissolve any preconceived thoughts of what literary art must be defined as. Maus employs the use of art, white space, and strong layouts to convey the feelings of realism without being too pushy or perverse.
Along with literary art, Maus has also pushed the boundaries and our beliefs of what non-fiction encompasses becoming a biographic non-fiction novel through the crafty ability to cope with the tragedy of the holocaust without the overshadowing of a person auto-biographical account of living through tragedy. Maus has set a high bar for expectations and shows this through a complex graphic narrative that details a firsthand account of the holocaust but also the tragedy of being born to a father that has lived through the atrocities.
Maus is a non-fiction graphic novel that provides a painfully honest account of family life during the holocaust and uses a graphic medium and storytelling techniques to assist the author in depicting highly complex and sensitive topics in a relatable way.
Maus is a non-fiction, highly complex graphic novel which uses animal imagery and caricatures to assist in the development and portrayal of sensitive, complex and often painfully honest topics including the author, Art Spiegelman’s life.
Spiegelman uses animal imagery to categorize the human race into several unconventional stereotypes which, at first glance, might be hard to miss. In Maus one and two, those from Jewish descent were animalized and depicted as human rats. This might seem strange but this antisemitic propagandizing view depicting Jews as rats can be traced back to the 1920’s when the film Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) which attracted more than 412,300 spectators (Museum) was shown all over Germany. This same sentiment was spotlighted throughout history and can be seen outlined in Defining the Holocaust Encyclopedia: An Encyclopedia dedicated to outlining and historically documenting the Nazi Party program.
Further explanation of the use of this imagery can also be seen by Hannah Beckler, an undergraduate at University of Colorado who discusses the use of animal imagery in her paper “Discursive Construction of Referential Truth in Art Spiegelman’s Maus”. Beckler also discusses the outlined psychology of the human mind and how we ultimately perceive the use of these animal characterizations. Beckler describes Siegelman’s choice of depiction as, “a literalization of a metaphor that obliges the reader to more fully grasp the blatant racism”. The use of this imagery is a way for Spiegelman to further develop the readers mind and start building the capital needed to develop this as a work of non-fiction. Readers are left with a strong sense that this story is depicting real, true-to-life facts which is needed when a story is attempting to distinguish itself from fiction or non-fiction.
Maus uses a graphic medium and non-standard storytelling techniques to assist the with the depiction of highly complex and sensitive topics in a relatable way. Through panel shape and manipulation of presented artwork, Spiegelman relies on the reader to develop missing information without sacrificing the overall story. This ability to develop and create a sense of realism without overexposing its reader to witnessing the atrocities leaves the reader appreciative and serves as a way to develop a sense of realism without overexposure to the inherent graphic nature of the holocaust. This is most notably seen on panel five where Spiegelman’s father Vladek is recounting a time when he watched a German solder jump on someone’s neck, killing him . This scene starts out with German soldiers lining up Jews during their imprisonment in Auschwitz when a Jew pushes his way out of line to talk to one of the German soldiers saying, “I don’t belong here with all these Yids and Polacks I am German like you”.
The German guard responds by killing the outlier by jumping on his neck. This scene in a traditional graphic novel would have been high detailed without overtly hiding any detail. Instead Siegelman decides to show this image in a different way. He hides the killing action of the foot stomp and removes the face of the person getting killed. This helps keep the reader focused on the content instead of being caught up in the details of the picture. Beckler describes this as, “the employment of cognitive perceptual closure as the reader uses their previous knowledge of the texture, color, and material to fill in the missing sensorial details” . This simplification of artistic style does not distract the reader from the story, but enhances the story and in many ways which not only makes it more enjoyable but, assists further in the credibility of truth in the story.
This non-fiction graphic novel uses combinations of animal imagery and caricatures to assist in the development and portrayal of sensitive, complex and often painfully honest topics. Maus’s use of straight forward and raw story telling techniques may be unorthodox but, they assist with developing the story without leaving the reader fighting with the idea of a truthful narrative. Instead, the reader is left with a strong sense that this story is depicting real, true-to-life facts which is needed when a story is attempting to distinguish itself from fiction or non-fiction. When attempting to distinguish between whether something is Fiction or non-fiction the literary work must be subject to some form of external review and Spiegelman’s art assist greatly with this without changing the broader topic or narrative.