The Mouse Behind the Mask: Illustration, Identity, and the Graphic Novel

Illustrations and words are both mediums of expressing and telling the stories of the past, but when combined, the result can be more powerful than either on their own.  Maus: Part I: My Father Bleeds History is a gripping graphic novel telling the story of the survival of a Polish Jew, Vladek Spiegelman, through World War II and the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Maus
Cover art of Maus Volume I (Pantheon Books, 1986).  Art by Art Spiegelman.

Art Spiegelman, Vladek’s son, used not only his father’s narrative as a means of communicating harrowing details of survival, but he also used illustrations throughout the story just as effectively to emphasize details of his father’s experiences during the Holocaust.  At points, the images in the graphic novel are more crucial for the reader to understand the challenges Vladek faced than the narrative itself.

In Maus, Spiegelman does not portray the main characters as people; instead, the Jews were portrayed as mice, the Nazis as cats, and the Poles as pigs.  The simple metaphor of cat and mouse to the predatory attitude the Nazis had towards the Jews.  Just as determined as the cat is to catch and kill the mouse, the Nazis and Nazi collaborators went to great lengths to catch and exterminate the Jews.  Spiegelman explained his reasoning for using mice in a different way.  He stated in an interview that he divided the characters in his novel into species because the Nazis did the same when moving toward the Final Solution by dividing humanity into species. [1]  Jews were also commonly portrayed as rats by Nazi propaganda and sadly, even the pesticide used in the gas chambers in Auschwitz, Zyklon-B, was originally created for rats and mice. [2]  In itself, the metaphor of Jews as mice is an illustrative concept that speaks louder than the words on the page.

A rather striking scene in the novel is when Spiegelman initially asks his father to begin to tell his story.  At this point, the reader is aware of the fact that Spiegelman’s father was somehow involved with the war and originally from Poland, but the extent of his identity and history is not clear.  In the panel before Vladek begins to tell the story of how he and his wife met and where his troubles began, the drawing zooms in on Vladek’s forearms and focuses on his concentration camp tattoo, the identification number he was identified by during his imprisonment in Auschwitz. [3] This particular panel also includes Spiegelman in the background, waiting for his father to tell his story.  For a reader with any type of World War II or Holocaust knowledge, one can infer that Vladek is a concentration-camp survivor, something that is not written outright until later in the novel but this image is the first introduction readers have to Vladek as a Holocaust survivor.  As the novel progresses, Spiegelman continues to use images to convey a story untold by words.

IMG_2142
Panel from Maus: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman.  Illustration by Art Spiegelman. (pg. 64) [Photo by Cassidy Mickelson]
Vladek’s identity as a Polish man and a Jew is further examined through illustration.  If Vladek or other Jews revealed their religious identity, it would have spelled certain imprisonment or death.  The reader is presented with Vladek wearing a pig mask, signifying he is masking his Jewish identity and presenting himself purely as a Pole.  One specific example of Vladek using his Polish identity to shield his Jewish identity occurs after he is released from the prisoner of war camp and trying to make his way back to his hometown in Sosnowiec from Lublin. Lacking the correct legal documentation to safely travel by train, he puts on his Polish mask and asks a fellow Pole for help, cloaking his Jewish identity. [4]  Spiegelman creatively uses his illustrations to show when Vladek is putting on his Polish mask, which becomes increasingly more common as the novel continues.

Spiegelman’s skill of dropping subtle, yet profound illustrative hints through Maus creates a window into the struggles Vladek faced while doing his best to survive in a place where all hope seemed to be lost.  Vladek Spiegelman’s life is shown from a unique perspective when illustrations combine with narrative to create a compelling, gut-wrenching, and inspirational graphic novel.

[1] Alisa Solomon, “The Haus of Maus: Art Spiegelman’s Twitchy Irreverence.” http://www.thenation.com/article/haus-maus/

[2] “Art Spigelman and the Making of Maus.” http://www.pbs.org/pov/inheritance/photo-gallery-art-spiegelman-maus/

[3] Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale I. My Father Bleeds History (New York, Pantheon Books, 1986), 12.

[4] Spiegelman, My Father Bleeds History, 64.

14 thoughts on “The Mouse Behind the Mask: Illustration, Identity, and the Graphic Novel

  1. I found it so interesting that Spiegelman chose to portray Jews as mice and the Nazis at cats, but after more thought, like you point out, it is a sadly appropriate metaphor. Despite the controversy surrounding his choice to use this metaphor, I agree with you that it sends a powerful message. I wasn’t aware that the gas chamber at Auschwitz were using a pesticide used for mice, and learning this makes it even more heartbreaking.

  2. Spiegelman’s choice to make his characters animals seals the deal for me with Maus. I think that there is a certain aspect of that choice that makes it easier for readers to stomach, but on the other hand, the horrible things happening to what my brain construes as an innocent animals makes it even more heart-wrenching. That dual dynamic makes Maus really special. I have to wonder how a Polish person might feel about being categorized as a pig, however. Generally being called a pig is not a flattering comparison. I am curious about Spiegelman’s choices when deciding which animals should represent certain groups… the cat and mouse metaphor is obvious, but the Poles are pigs, and the guards at the bank are dogs (are they all the same race or religion, or are they dogs because they are all guards? I’m probably over-thinking that one, but I am curious). I am looking forward to reading Part II and discovering how the animal metaphor extends into the rest of the story.

    1. From what I remember, Spiegelman said he characterized Poles as pigs because pigs are neutral, not hunting mice themselves, but not interfering with the cats. The dogs represent Americans. They hunt the cats, but can also be dangerous to mice. Overall, I loved his use of animal metaphors, with one exception. In Part II he uses moths to represent Roma people, which is just a cheap “Gypsy Moth” joke. It comes off as a little tone-deaf referencing a slur in what otherwise is a great use of animal metaphors.

    2. In my research on the book, I came across a Polish blog that had some definite issues with the portrayal of Poles as pigs. I think the blanket use of a single animal to represent an ethnicity or nationality is bound to have its critics (I gathered from the interview with Spiegelman that he had received harsh criticism for equating Jews with mice. In the case of the Poles, I imagine there is some element of guilt involved–they are not portrayed in a flattering light in this work. In general I would agree with the trend in this comment thread–that the potential harm of using this representation is outweighed by the power it lends to the story and ultimate connection to humanity.

  3. You found nuances in the graphic novel that I did not pick up when reading the first time. I did not notice the illustration of the tattoo on Vladek Spiegelman’s arm in the beginning at first reading. But your discussion of how impactful this illustration is because the reader has not been told explicitly yet that Vladek was in a concentration camp is wonderful. It may seem odd to reduce something as horrifying as the Holocaust to a graphic novel but you are correct the use of Spegelman’s art is able to tell a different story that is sometimes more powerful than the words he uses to accompany them.

  4. I too, like Hillary, did not pick up on all of the subtle hints that were hidden within Spiegelman’s illustrations. I think this work could be read many times and something different would be seen every time. Additionally, I found your discussion on identity really interesting. I was was blown away by reading Maus the visual clues that created a much deeper meaning to the text, particularly when Vladek or others where trying to mask their identities.

  5. “A picture says a thousand words” and Spiegelman utilized illustrations and words, creating a message, with a double whammy, so to speak. I found myself really immersed in Maus, pausing to study a panel multiple times while I read it. The layers of identity and meaning in the story are fascinating and thought-provoking. Most of us have a grandparent who had first-hand experience in World War II at some level, but the generation who experienced it are sadly dying. I worry about the day when I hear the last survivor of WWII has passed away. There are already people who deny the Holocaust ever happened or at the very least seem to forget its themes that still play out today. This is why creative mediums of telling the stories are so crucial; to help make sure we remember.

    1. I agree with Sarah, sometimes an image is more stirring than words alone. Words are limited in their abilities to describe something, and sometimes can serve as a way of distancing the reader from the story. When telling stories such as this, imagery can be a powerful way to communicate an experience.

  6. I think Spiegelman’s use of animals in very smart because it distances use as readers a bit from the horrors of the war and allows us to use it as an educational tool with an audience that is a bit younger (not incredibly though because it still very graphic). This distancing can be really helpful especially for readers who might have had similar experiences in the war, they can read the story without it be as “real” as if it were images of people. I also really appreciate the fact that this book includes who difficult it was for Valdek to recall the story after the war and how much this war had affected his life. I think sometimes in telling the story of the Holocaust we tend to leave out the story of what happened to the survivors decades after the war.

    1. I agree that a graphic novel, such as Maus, makes educating younger audiences easier, but I also fear that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that this is a true survivor’s story. I enjoy Maus and I think it is a valuable addition to survivor stories and Holocaust history, but I also find myself torn by the usage of animals portraying human beings. I do agree with Anna’s statement that survivors and their experiences after the wars are sometimes glossed over, and that Maus does a really good job at showing the daily struggles survivors must live with.

  7. To the extent we have discussed identity in our class, I found Spiegelman’s use of illustrations and animals to convey the complex navigation of identity to be especially profound. In yet another aspect of its doubleness, identity here is portrayed as something that integrally defines who one is, and at the same time, it is a mask one puts on, a deliberate or forced choice about how one presents themselves to the world. The use of pig masks by the Jewish mice to “pass” as non-Jewish Poles symbolized both how identity can quickly be taken up, and also how significantly it impacts people’s fate. The illustrations in this novel symbolize the trauma and alienation that can come when identity is rendered to such reductionist terms–as only what is seen or chosen to be seen.

    1. This fascinates me as well, Andrew! Identity and the Holocaust are fascinating (though morbid) things to study. How often people had to hide, or even abandon, who they were in order to survive offers a small window into the lives of these people literally trying to survive a Hell on Earth. I cannot imagine having to surrender my identity in order to live, but the victims and survivors had to do so on a daily basis for 12 years. I also found, as you mentioned Cassidy, the use of animals to portray different groups a powerful technique.

  8. The first time I read Maus I was so intrigued by the author’s decision to use this format, as opposed to more traditional written narrative. The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that graphic novels tell stories similar to the way that movies or documentaries do. Oftentimes the image conveys an idea or an emotion more powerfully than words can on their own. When talking about a subject as unimaginable as the Holocaust, then, I’m less surprised that Spiegelman chose this medium. I also love his use of animal, as opposed to human, illustrations. Cat and mouse metaphor aside, I find that the use of animals somehow makes a difficult story more accessible, while still effectively illustrating Vladek’s account of his experiences during World War II.

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