Comics, History, and Identity

How do you create empathy? The power of good history, good art, and good storytelling is in their ability to open a door into another life. They show the forces that shape people’s lives and the things that matter to them. They create channels of connection that draw people into another consciousness or another time. Although often dismissed as “low art,” comics and graphic novels have the power to foster those connections.

Superhero comics in the 1940s pioneered a new storytelling form, drawing the line between good and evil on the page as well as in the real battles of World War II. These artists, primarily immigrants (and often European Jewish immigrants), created characters and conflicts that reflected the war and their own personal struggles to carve out a place in American society. The Jewish Museum highlighted 15 Jewish comic book artists and writers in their 2006-2007 exhibition, “Superheroes: Good and Evil in American Comics”:

The young comic book creators, often keenly aware of their own sense of cultural marginalization, struggled to define themselves in terms of mainstream American culture. By extension, they created characters whose identities largely reflected this aspect of the immigrant experience. [1]

The result was an extraordinarily popular visual genre that swept across geographical and social boundaries.

Four decades after the war, another comic artist gave the subject matter a new treatment. Art Spiegelman’s shattering graphic novel, Maus, was serialized from 1980 to 1991. Maus begins as a universal story: a son learning about his parents’ past. Spiegelman is the son, and his father, Vladek, is a Polish Jew who survived World War II and the concentration camp Auschwitz. The focus is not just on Vladek’s narrative of life during the war, but also on Spiegelman’s own identity as a Holocaust survivor’s son and his struggle to deal with this heritage.

Much of Maus’s power and beauty come from the dialogue between characters, who squabble, joke, and pause to correct details of the story, breaking the narrative and making it seem all the more real and intimate. In one scene, Vladek asks that the information about his former lover, Lucia, be excluded from the story out of respect for privacy. “But Pop,” Spiegelman says, “it’s great material. It makes everything more real—more human.”

Comic books and graphic novels offer a unique means of storytelling. The pairing of words and images sets them apart, requiring the artist to assign a visual accompaniment to even their more abstract ideas. Graphics can double as symbols with powerful results, as demonstrated in a recent art group’s activist work to plaster images of the new Muslim Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, over anti-Islam hate ads in buses.

In Spiegelman’s illustrations, Jewish people are portrayed as mice, Germans are cats, and Poles are pigs. This concrete graphic representation of identity has stirred up controversy.

Spiegelman addresses this decision in a 2011 interview with BBC News. He points out that he has never thought of his characters as actual mice, but rather as having mouse heads, or masks. The animalization that critics accuse him of—daring to represent Jews as mice—is precisely his point. The Nazi policy towards Jews was one of extermination. The language is precise, and associated with vermin.

“My father was a collaborator on the book, but then so was Hitler,” Spiegelman said. “And it involved taking that rhetoric and turning this notion of the subhuman back on itself, and letting these mice stand on their hind legs and insist on their humanity.”[2]

The Jewish Museum celebrated Art Spiegleman’s work in a 2013-2014 exhibit, “Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective.” The exhibit focused on his career and creative process, from his early exploration of 1960s and 70s counterculture through his work as an artist and editor in “underground comix” to Maus and his later work. “As he matured as an artist,” the museum explained, “he also began exploring themes that dominate his work to this day: intimate personal expression, memory, and history.”[3]

No one who did not live through the Holocaust can truly understand the experience—not even first-hand witnesses. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s permanent exhibition opens with the voice of an American GI describing what it was like to see his first concentration camp:

The patrol leader called in by radio and said that we have come across something that we are not sure what it is. It’s a big prison of some kind, and there are people running all over. Sick, dying, starved people. And you take to an American, uh, such a sight as that, you… you can’t imagine it. You, you just… things like that don’t happen.[4]

What could be better than a graphic novel, born in the world of superheroes and fantasy, to make people understand things that don’t happen?



[1] Jewish Museum. “Superheroes: Good and Evil in American Comics.”

[2] BBC News. “Art Spiegelman discusses Maus & MetaMaus.”

[3] Jewish Museum. “Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective.”

[4] Linenthal, Edward. Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum. 1995. 167.

6 thoughts on “Comics, History, and Identity

  1. Kate, I love how you looked at the broader impact of comic books and graphic novels in telling stories. I wish I could have gone and seen the the exhibit on Spielgelman’s work at the Jewish Museum after spending so much time analyzing the first part of Maus to gain a greater understand of his other work as well. I think it’s incredible how well a graphic novel can tell a story and the way that museums are using the illustrations in exhibits today.

  2. I love how you made the connection between Maus and other comics. The creators of many comics, such as Captain America, were Jewish Americans (in that case, one creator was the son of immigrants, the other an immigrant himself). Often times this gets forgotten, and people who claim they are fans make racist, sexist, or antisemitic claims about the character, obviously missing out on the many inclusive messages of the series. Even from the beginning, comics have been using their unique format to express the ideas and opinions of a wide variety of writers and artists. The new addition of a Muslim Ms. Marvel is perhaps one of the larger leaps that the comic industry has taken to appeal to a wider cultural audience and provide visual representation of minorities. The way that images are used in any art form can be extremely impactful, but the verbal narrative also associated with comics gives it a unique opportunity to provoke cultural awareness and change.

  3. Comics and graphic novels are so often written off as just for children or teenage nerds who have yet to grow up, but so many have deeper meanings. Maus is just one example of how the medium of graphic novels can be used to tell a story that shouldn’t be forgotten as well as increase cultural awareness. If nothing else, graphic novels help spread messages in a more accessible way to people who learn best in different styles.

  4. I think that illustration is largely underrated and that we feel that adults shouldn’t read illustrated books because they are childish. Yet, as an adult, I sometimes wish that some of the books I read included illustrations because the description is confusing and I end up rereading it 5 or 6 times in an attempt to understand what the author was trying to say. I think Maus does away with any possible confusion as to what is happening because it is a graphic novel. The illustrations don’t take away from the story but add to it and let’s us as readers really focus on what is happening.

  5. I had never truly considered this aspect of comics, and it was truly fascinating to have it pointed out. Indeed, so many of the themes surrounding the heroes of early comics–the wearing of mask, the struggle of a “double identity,” and the attempt to have a meaningful role while navigating this balance–is a profound mirror and commentary of immigrant and minority experiences. It is a shame more people do not recognize this. If many cases, comics were particularly advanced in addressing these themes on a broad scale. That Spiegelman and other new age comic artists have been able to bring such perspectives into new, more intimate formats only speaks to the utility of comics and graphic works as works of literature, social commentary, and explorations of identity.

  6. I think it’s very interesting that more and more comics and graphic novels are utilizing memoir and dealing with issues of identity and social justice. In addition to Maus, books like Persepolis and March or the work of Alison Bechdel do similar things. As a nonfiction reader, it’s fascinating to see how people use different media to wrestle with identity. As a student in this class, I wonder if the expansion beyond just the written word is an attempt to break free of restrictions and explore self in ways that resonate more truly with their experiences.

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