Literal Forms: Narrative Structures in Maus
by Hillary Chute

Riveted to both the cadences of language and the rhythms of the visual, Maus walks many faultlines. This book is fictional and non-fictional; modernist and postmodernist; esoteric and popular; universalizing and particularizing; representational and non-representational; narrative and experimental. We may see its inscription of contradiction most clearly in its form, in the way Spiegelman carves out the space and texture of each page. While Maus is composed with an "architectonic rigor" that moves each page forward in time, it also disrupts its own surfaces -- layering temporalities, violating the grid of the page.i In its narrative movement, Maus pushes and pulls. And while Maus singlehandedly shifted the critical terrain -- the field of contemporary literature now pays the book, if not other comics, serious attention -- much Maus criticism hooks into its narrative strategy, often at the expense of close attention to its narrative form.

There are many breathtaking pages of Maus about which much has been written: its brilliant prologue; Vladek and Anja's first view of a swastika from the window of a train; the "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" comic strip; Anja and Vladek's venturing out on a swastika-shaped road; Vladek's donning of a pig/Pole mask; Anja and Vladek's arrival at the gates of Auschwitz; Art's deliberation over how to draw his French wife; the self-reflexive, several-page "Time flies..." introduction to Maus II's Chapter Two; Spiegelman's depiction of a pleading Auschwitz prisoner as both cat and mouse; Vladek's body fragmented across frames as he discusses the fragmentation of his family; and the deeply moving, clever, and even crushing conclusion of the book. And while there are less widely famous, yet pivotal pages in the text that I would like to discuss (such as, to name just a few, the Jewish businessmen hanging in Modrzejowska Street, and later in the room of the Spiegelmans' apartment, where they blend in with the walls and window; the disagreement between Vladek and Art over the existence of the camp orchestra; Art's Auschwitz timeline; and the collision of representational space and time shown in the wartime bodies of hanged Jewish girls dangling in the trees in the Catskills as the Spiegelmans'automobile winds its way to the supermarket in 1979), here I focus on instances where the narrative strategy of the page is revealed tellingly through its form.

1. Maus I, page 12. Flanked by the past.

Maus I pg. 12
Here Maus offers a page-wide horizontal panel packed with signifiers of the past and present, jammed together in a frame only about one inch high. In a space that the book suggests was once Art's bedroom (a flag proclaiming "Harpur," Spiegelman's college, is still pinned to the wall, we see in the page's second panel), Vladek, his camp tattoo visible for the first time, pushes ahead on an Exercycle. Vladek does not actually move forward -- his is a kind of movement in suspension, a literal "spinning his wheels." (This paradoxical stillness is also indicated by the fact that we may trace and align a full view of his body, locked into position, across frames on the page: his head in panel 4, his torso in panel 5, his foot in panel 7). The wide berth of his arms frames and encompasses the seated, smoking Art, who looks remarkably small compared to his father. A framed photo -- of the dead Anja Spiegelman, we will later find out -- is conspicuously propped on a desk to the right of both men, representing both an object of desire and a rebuke (and just four pages later -- in the same right hand corner, facing the characters from the same angle -- a photo of Anja acts as a profound rebuke to Vladek's then-girlfriend Lucia). Vladek's speech balloon on the far left-hand side of the panel echoes the right-side photograph and tattoo: "It would take many books, my life, and no one wants anyway to hear such stories." It is if the past -- articulated (spoken), inscribed (tattooed), documented (photographed) -- literally flanks both men, closing in on them.

Throughout Maus, and most remarkably in this early scene, Spiegelman crams his panels with both markers of the past (the camp tattoo, pre-War photographs) and the ultimate marker of the "present": Art himself, framed by his father's body, his parents'post-War child, born in Sweden after the couple lost their first son to the Nazis. And the horizontally elongated panel on the page, while its size implies a stillness, registers Vladek's first moments in the text of dipping into a narrative of the past. While Vladek verbally refuses to offer "such stories," a dramatically round, thickly lined panel below, showcasing his dapper young self in the early 1930s, pushes up into the rectangular panel of the present, its curve hitting in between the handlebars of Vladek's Exercycle -- and his own grasping hands. (As such, this protruding circular frame [performs] and figures movement, and can be thematically and visually figured as the wheel to Vladek's Exercycle: as Spiegelman points out, "You enter into the past for the first time through that wheel.") ii On this page we see one of the first significant examples of how panels narrativizing the past physically intrude into panels from the present, ignoring borders, nudging into the book's weave of enunciation.

2. Maus I, 45. Bridging decades.

Maus I pg. 45
In Maus I's Chapter Three, "Prisoner of War" -- a title that describes Vladek's circumstance in 1939, and which is later echoed and twinned by the title of Maus's embedded comic strip "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" -- Art sprawls across the floor of his father's Rego Park, Queens home, pencil in hand, notebook open, soliciting stories. In Spiegelman's suggestive panelization, Art's legs bridge decades: looking up at his sitting father, and facing "forwards" towards the direction of the unfolding narrative (if one considers that one reads from left to right), Art's legs are yet mired in the past. His body conspicuously overlaps and joins a panel depicting 1939, and the panel depicting 1978's conversation. Significantly, it is in the act of writing and recording his father's deposition that Art's body spills over between frames, thus disrupting the "setting apart" of Vladek's history from the discursive situation of the present. In what reads as a meta-discursive gesture, Spiegelman drops the panel borders of the second frame, visually propelling the reader forward through the page (in the direction that his body and tail point to) and out from the implied containment -- or sanctity -- of historiography.

3. Maus I, 51. Hands.

Maus I pg. 51
Making Maus look like a manuscript was an important quality of its conceptualization. And Maus is, despite the many, many studies, sketches, and breakdowns that preceded its final form, what could be considered a manuscript -- in its Latin sense as "written by hand" (manu, hand, and scriptus, of scribere, meaning to write). Spiegelman's text is composed in handwriting, and his deliberate emphasis on handwriting as offering intimacy accords with Roland Barthes' discussion of eroticism in texts where the hand on the page registers the materiality of a body writing. Certainly, the obvious presence of "the hand" -- on each page, in each panel of any graphic narrative -- is a feature that distinguishes the graphic narrative form from a medium on which it draws: the novel. One way to look at the comics page, then, is that it always carries with it a mark of meaning excessive to semantic meaning.iii Appropriately, Spiegelman has described comics as "a vital and expressive language that talks with its hands" (emphasis mine).iv

Maus is a text deeply cognizant of "handwriting" on many levels -- it is a theme and a recurring point of self-conscious representation in the text -- and this important page in Maus I calls attention to this. Vladek recounts an incident in which a German soldier barks at him, "Show me your hands! You never worked a day in your life." This conversation is followed by a conspicuous corner panel on the bottom left of the page -- an iris diaphragm -- focusing in on two hands: Vladek's hand, nominally lined, palm up, gripped appraisingly by the soldier's hand, with its rugged lines and ominously long fingernails.v Vladek ends this anecdote with a pointed comparison in the very next panel (whose dropped bottom border visually calls attention not only to its graphic but its circumstantial difference). We may make out Spiegelman holding a pencil over his open notebook as he sits smoking, listening to his father, who declares, "Like you, Artie, my hands were always very delicate."

In including a discussion of his own artisanal, "delicate" hands in the text of Maus, Spiegelman calls attention to his "handwriting" as an important textual register of materiality, and of enterprise (emotional, cultural, professional) that marks and differentiates him from his father, whose hands went on to lose their "delicacy" in the tin shops and shoe repair sessions of Auschwitz. Vladek tells Art, later on in the book but fairly early on in his narrative, that he "didn't want to put my hands where Jews were being taken" -- an odd sentence accompanied by an image of the latter-day Vladek, hands up in the air demonstratively (86). Vladek's hands, of course, did end up where Jews were taken to, and we see him in Auschwitz and beyond not only using his handwriting to his advantage (he writes a letter for a German prisoner in return for food, Maus I 156; he successfully writes to Anja, Maus II 63) but also conspicuously using his hands for a more physical, urgent survival: his hands loom large in the text, for example, as he grabs snow from out of the window of a packed cattle car in order not to die of dehydration in 1945 (Maus II 86). In Spiegelman's representation of Auschwitz, hands are a reference point, calling attention to the text's own handwritten process of production. As the ill-fated prisoner Mandelbaum cries out, "But what can I do? I only have two hands!" (Maus II, 29).

4. Maus I, 110. Pirandello Comics.

Maus I pg. 110
Maus's actual diagrams qua diagrams (for many of its other panels and pages are diagrammatic) maneuver us into the space of what we may think of as Pirandello comics. Here historical representation becomes at once self-conscious, rejecting narrative transparency, and yet is also marked by a powerful drive for accuracy (my favorite part of Spiegelman's 1992 letter to the New York Times Book Review is his complaint: "It's not as though my passages on how to build a bunker and repair concentration camp boots got the book onto your 'Advice, How-to and Miscellaneous' list"). In Maus I's "Mouse Holes," Vladek interrupts his own testimony, demanding of Art, "Show to me your pencil and I can explain to you," and, drawing a diagram, reasons that "such things it's good to know exactly how was it -- just in case." Spiegelman draws Vladek drawing for Art, and then Spiegelman draws Vladek's diagram -- a side view of a bunker where the Spiegelmans hid -- for readers. He showcases it in a panel that is drawn as a page of Art's spiral notebook. Although readers immediately recognize the distinctive, largely lowercase handwriting as belonging to the authorial, narrating voice of Maus, the gesture of drawing the panel as such is to suggest, even as an idea, that it is a reproduction of the actual diagram.vi We have, then, a page within a page: hence the drawn spiral notebook, framing its own lined page's information, tilts, life-size, out of the lower-left hand corner into the white space of the Maus page. The diagram panel calls attention to itself through its size, its intentional angled awkwardness in relation to the page's other frames (the first panel in the second row layers over the notebook, but the notebook itself layers over the very next panel, its spiral acting as a protuberant semi-border). Spiegelman notes that in Maus the stylistic surface was a problem to solve, and that he tried to create a visual surface that was appropriate to the material. Here, the spatial presentation of this diagram -- hooking under one panel, covering the next, unmooring from black space, dislocating the grid of what starts out as a traditionally conceived page -- disrupts the surface two-dimensionality of the comics page, a recalibration that is appropriate to the material, which is a detailed description of a crucial and well-crafted space -- the bunker.

Here experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs' comments are instructive in describing the kind of move Spiegelman makes in showing us his father showing him "exactly how was it" and then showing us that diagram. In a 1994 roundtable on Schindler's List -- a panel in which Spiegelman was an active participant -- Jacobs details his criteria for historical representation, referencing the film's last scene, its only in color, in which actual Schindler Jews walk with the actors portraying them at Schindler's gravesite in Israel. Jacobs claims: "In this scene I felt he was making a movie for me. If only throughout the film, he had shown these people guiding and instructing the dedicated actors, placing their hands, 'Okay, now you do this, as was done when I was young, this happened this way.' But how many people turn out for a Pirandello cinema?" (Spiegelman borrows his friend Jacobs' observation in a later interview with Harvey Blume, praising the film's same scene: "If you'd had actual survivors walk through the entire movie with actors showing how it was and how it should be done, you would have had a Pirandello-like movie").vii This double movement and gesture is, of course, what Spiegelman draws on this page, and what he does throughout Maus.

5. Maus II, 51. Mapping.

Maus II pg. 51
This crucial page of Maus II's "(Auschwitz) times flies" is not only dominated by a bird-eye's view of and map/diagram of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, but both starts and concludes, at diagonal edges, with perimeter-hugging, inverted L-shaped rows of frames that show a black sun-umbrella pole -- here figured as a literal dividing line -- separating father and son, who are seated, facing each other, as Vladek first starts explaining the geography of Auschwitz. The standard-size panels, which line the top and bottom edges of the page, invoke -- if only not to deliver -- the grid of the page. This page, then, recalls Spiegelman's comment "I grew up with parents who were always ready to see the world grid crumble" -- which is surely what is depicted here, as the geography of Auschwitz replaces the order and implied grid of the page.viii In its spatial layout, the page also is reminiscent of a board game, whose participants move forward along the outside rim of a space, as Art and Vladek move slowly around and through the history that Vladek elaborates.

The panels argue that even as he sympathetically solicits and reconstructs his father's testimony, Art is on the other side of an epistemological divide. In each individual panel on the page, the sun-umbrella pole is an evident marker of the obstacle between father and son (even in the page's last panel, in which Art is off-panel, the pole is prominent, still figuring the insurmountable space between them). The panels that frame the looming map of the Auschwitz camps as a partial perimeter, then, gesture toward the fundamental un-graspability of the past. And while Vladek, who lived through the camps, is on the other side of the dividing line from his information-seeking, order-imposing son, he still cannot simply "access" history, even his own. In as much as Art is a figure of the elusive "present," always marked by the instability of the past, Vladek is a figure for the elusive past itself, always marked by the discursive situation of the present. The smoke from Art's cigarette, as it drifts upwards from the bottom-left corner, is consonant with and becomes the smoke from the crematoria (as is also case on Maus II's page 69). This thick black smoke is also consonant with the vertical black lines of the umbrella pole -- and yet visually it seems, for a moment, as if the smoke might be contained by the ceiling of the umbrella in the page's first panel, which looms above the upward drift.

6. Maus II, 71. Defamiliarization.

Maus II pg. 71
When the stylized animal characters, drawn in a simplified cartoon style, exist and act in frames, and on pages, with meticulously realistically drawn props and locations -- such as the gas chambers and ovens of Auschwitz -- the reader of Maus registers a jolt, a defamiliarizing recognition beyond that they would experience in a representation with a consistent style of verisimilitude. It is this jarring quality that is the power of the text's deliberately un-synthesized collisions of styles and the root of its ethical representation of horror. Maus is able to represent a traumatic history so effectively because it utilizes the formal (spatial, architectural) and stylistic properties of the medium of comics to circumvent a "magical" or "mesmerizing" effect (to quote the completely misguided language of Umberto Eco's praise from the flap copy of Maus). And while innovative approaches to pace and rhythm, as we see in Maus, are one way the comics medium circumvents the effect of mesmerization, the animal metaphor, especially in how it registers as a style interacting with other styles of drawing, destabilizes any potential for the text to be "mesmerizing" -- or, in Spiegelman's language, "diversionary."

On this page Spiegelman draws the insides of a gas chamber and a row of ovens in a realistic style that is largely a departure from the rest of the book -- the look of the lines is less shaggy; these pictures of Auschwitz's awful spaces carry the neutrality and chill of strict documentation; they are more cross-hatched, more technical, more strictly informative, different in look and feel from what readers are used to. And yet what is most jarring about the page is not only this departure in style, but also the interaction on the page between the stylized, reduced-looking mice that we are used to, and the detailed, realistically-rendered machinery of Auschwitz. Unsurprisingly, the mice -- Vladek and a fellow prisoner -- make their only appearance on the page sandwiched in the center tier, blocked, it would seem, on both sides, by the impersonal fact of death and the style it here mandates. The movement of the page, its rhythm between open and closed, action and stillness, underlines this. A cut-away view of the gas chambers in the first panel (Vladek's narrative says it was closed "hermetic," but our view is open, going above its ceilings to the roof and outside), opens out our perspective, which is immediately shut down in the next panel -- a drawing of the closed door to the chambers, punctuated by a window facing us directly. Spiegelman does suggest broadly that narrative, and subsequently comics, is like a row of windows, but here the point is that we definitively do not get to look through window of the tightly locked door (as the Nazis did to check the status of prisoners, whom Vladek reports took three to 30 minutes to die).ix In the middle row of frames, Vladek and another prisoner move heavy piping, walking to the right, moving us forward through the page. But while they point forward, the bottom tier -- a single, horizontal panel concluding the page, depicting a stretch of ovens -- visually ends this movement swiftly, hauntingly.

7. Maus II, (115). Frames and Snapshots.

Maus II pg. 115
Here Spiegelman painstakingly draws dozens of photographs of his family -- including one of Vladek, Anja, and Richieu from 1939 -- dating from the 1920s onwards. This may be Maus's most graphically cluttered page, and its visual excess has the powerful effect of highlighting the loss that its swarm of pictures cannot repair. And this page -- in which the camera's subjects are drawn, naturally, as mice -- has its crucial ruptures: photographs both spill over into, punctuate, and even overlap the present-day panels, interrupting the grid of the panels and refiguring the page's gutters with their own visually similar white panel borders. The sea of pictures swim to the very edge of the page of the book.

The drawings of photographs here operate at three levels of remove: the animal heads are one remove, the concept of a photograph is another, and the drawing of a photograph is a third. Photographs frame the frame of the page: they spill down in a heap at its bottom, much like the Auschwitz corpses in "Time Flies" accrete at the bottom of Spiegelman's self-conscious address to his audience. But as is typical with the work of photography (as medium, subject, code) in Maus, on this page, when the photographs gather on the page (unlike the bodies lingering below Art in "Time Flies"), they transform the structure of the page, as if interrupting and refiguring its narrative procedure. (Several panels and even rows of panels in Maus II, it seems, are even designed to look like snapshots, for instance as Spiegelman shifts how one's eye moves across the page by introducing a vertical tier of four descending panels that looks like a photo-booth strip [25].) Here, as Vladek unearths his collection of snapshots for Art, the photographs themselves become the frame as the grid structure of the page melts into their downward cascade. While Stephen Tabachnick sees that the photographs "lie on the floor like dead leaves, finally burying the present," I see that the panels' structural decomposition into the photographs rather signals the imbrication of the past and the present, representing here their literal -- that is, legible -- fusion.x The photographs even fall behind the grid of frames, suggesting the compositional structure on the page as a three-dimensional framework outside of which they exist, and by which they cannot be contained. Significantly, this page is unnumbered, as with several other pages in Maus that rupture their frames, self-consciously displacing the linear logic of pagination. (See also the text of "Prisoner"; the realistically drawn rat fulfilling cartoon mouse Anja's nightmare; Vladek's arrival at the gates of Auschwitz; and Maus II's last page, in which Spiegelman's signature replaces a page number.)

8. Maus II, 134. A Souvenir Photo.

Maus II pg. 134
The photograph of Vladek Spiegelman at the end of the text, dated from 1945, is the final of the three photographs in Maus, and it powerfully refers to Maus's defiant refusal to cleanly subscribe to either the discourse of fiction or the discourse of nonfiction. By virtue of the value attached to photography as a documentary medium, and by virtue of its status as the text's only "official" "Holocaust photograph," this photograph refers self-consciously to Maus's historical status. In a page about a photograph of Vladek (at this point in the narrative we learn he sent this photograph to Anja to let her know he was still alive), Spiegelman shockingly shows us the actual photograph, after his earlier painstaking and conspicuous drawing of dozens of photographs. The photo of Vladek tilts out of the comic book frame at a diagonal angle, intruding into drawn pictographic panels and the white space of the border of the page. Behind it, where it jostles out of its neat position, we see black space. In his discussion of photography, in comments directly applicable to this ambiguous portrait of Vladek, Roland Barthes remarks that a photograph that is erotic "takes the spectator outside its frame, and it is there that I animate this photograph and that it animates me."xi We can understand the "erotic" here as the thematic and structural play of showing and not showing of which Spiegelman's text is constantly, self-consciously aware. "Anja kept this picture always," Vladek tells Art; Spiegelman also decides to keep this picture always by immortalizing it in print, and by allowing it the power to rupture his own provisional representational system -- unbounded by the structure of an embedded comic strip, an acknowledgments page, or even a row of frames.

Spiegelman first shows us Anja first looking at it in 1945 ("and here's a picture of him!" she cries out); and he shows us Art looking at it in 1981: "Incredible!" he exclaims. The very fact and idea of this photograph is bizarre, upsetting, indeed incredible. Linda Hutcheon writes of how that category she names historiographic metafiction "uses and abuses" documents of the past, inscribing their powerful allusions and then subverting that power through irony.xii Certainly that is the case for Maus's use of a souvenir Auschwitz photograph. Here an actual camp survivor (who else, one wonders, Jews and Gentiles alike, purchased such souvenir photos of themselves?) performs the all-too-real and acutely proximate role of prisoner, with a twist -- a new, clean uniform, a costume of death celebrating its incongruous status as costume. Vladek's expression -- like Anja's in "Prisoner" in Maus I, is inscrutable: is he proud (to be alive)? There is something forceful about his expression, something registering more than relief: Defiance? Joy? Is he amused (that his wife will know that he is alive, although he's wearing a death-camp uniform)? His posture upright, Vladek (who we confirm as handsome, as he reminds Art throughout Maus) is almost smiling.

One way collision is enacted in Maus, as we saw in the page depicting Auschwitz gas chambers and ovens, is in Spiegelman's brushing up together -- in the bounded pictorial space of the frame or page -- different codes of drawing for constructing textual reality (the different levels could possibly be summarized by the figures Mouse, Maus, and Mickey Mouse, a triumvirate Spiegelman drew in an image reproduced alongside an article in Tikkun called "Saying Goodbye to Maus"). The use of a few select photographs in Maus also performs this work of collision. Spiegelman's inclusion of a photograph of his father in a souvenir camp uniform is an ingenious instance of a text striving for authenticity by deliberately writing against itself, exposing the boundaries and limits -- and the capaciousness -- of, among other aspects of form, its visual dimension, which encompasses both a medium that heightens the book's historical status (photography) and one that by most accounts is seen to detract from "authentic" representation (cartoons).

"I'm literally giving a form to my father's words and narrative," Spiegelman observes, "and that form for me has to do with panel size, panel rhythms, and visual structures of the page."xiii When writing about Maus, I also find myself using the adverb "literally" -- frequently -- and I find myself adding emphasis to the idea, too, as Spiegelman does here. What Spiegelman means by "literally" points to the ability of the form of comics to not only tell but to show, and to not only show, but to sculpt how it shows, out of the space of time, out of the space of the page. As I have suggested here through these few readings, to underline how comics makes language, ideas, and concepts literal is to call attention to how comics can make the twisting lines of history readable through form.  


Footnotes
i Michael Silverblatt, "The Cultural Relief of Art Spiegelman." Tampa Review 5 (1995) 33. Return...

ii The Complete Maus. CD-ROM. New York: The Voyager Company, 1994. Return...

iii Clearly there is a long tradition in the avant-garde -- both historical and present -- of thinking through issues of "getting beyond" semantic meaning. The bond between material form and visual performativity enacted on the page is evident, for instance, in English Vorticism, Anglo-American modernism, Futurism, and Dada, and, today, for example, in contemporary language poetry; yet the crucial difference with comics is that it resides in the field of the popular. Return...

iv The Forward 12 Jul. 2002. Return...

v Maus makes frequent use of the drawn "iris diaphragm," the technique most often used at the end of silent films, when the film is viewed as if through the lens of a binocular, and the image gradually diminishes into the darkness. This description is in Gertrud Koch, "'Against All Odds'or the Will to Survive: Moral Conclusions from Narrative Closure" History and Memory 9.1 (Spring/Summer 1997) 401. Return...

vi A draft page of The Complete Maus notes: "original diagram lost. redrawn and labeled by art spiegelman." Return...

vii "Schindler's List: Myth, Movie, and Memory." The Village Voice (29 Mar. 1994) 29-30. Harvey Blume, "Art Spiegelman: Lips," Boston Book Review, 1994. Return...

viii "Profile: Art Spiegelman's Comic Book Journalism." Narr. David D'Arcy. Weekend Edition. Natl. Public Radio. 7 Jun. 2003. Transcript. Return...

ix See, for instance, the introduction to Breakdowns. Return...

x "Of Maus and Memory: the Structure of Art Spiegelman's Graphic Novel of the Holocaust." Word and Image 9.2 (April-June 1993) 160. Return...

xi Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981) 59, emphasis mine. Return...

xii The Poetics of Postmodernism: Theory, Fiction, History (New York: Routledge, 1988) 118. Hutcheon's description of the form of "historiographic metafiction" fits Maus perfectly: "By this I mean those well-known and popular novels which are both intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages... [these works are] metafictionally self-reflexive and yet speaking to us powerfully about real political and historical realities" (5). Return...

xiii From Gary Groth, "Art Spiegelman Interview," The Comics Journal (Sept. 1995) 105. Return...