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Issue 8. Mélanges/Miscellaneous

Considering MAUS. Approaches to Art Spiegelman's "Survivor's Tale" of the Holocaust by Deborah R. Geis (ed.)

Author: Ole Frahm
Published: May 2004

A review of Deborah R. Geis (ed.): Considering MAUS. Approaches to Art Spiegelman's "Survivor's Tale" of the Holocaust. University of Alabama Press 2003.



Deborah R. Geis' anthology of essays on Art Spiegelman's comic book "MAUS - A Survivor's Tale" is both a necessary collection and a failure. It is necessary because several of the essays are very hard to find, and now they are made available again (especially Nancy K. Millers' contribution, which was published in M/E/A/N/I/N/G, a magazine that is nearly impossible to get in Europe). It is necessary because it demonstrates the value of a specifically academic discussion on MAUS.

And the collection is a failure: In a way the book is published seven years too late. In her short introduction Geis mentions that there have been a number of essays and articles on MAUS. Seven years ago most of the articles included in this volume were already written - they could have influenced a discussion but never really did beyond the universities (and even there…). But now? What are the criteria to chose just eight articles? Just to show their "tremendous diversity", as Geis implies? Their quality? For sure, the essays of Jonathan Rosen and Michael Rothberg, for example, are impressive for their critical quality. But why is the very influential essay by Miriam Hirsch about post-memory not included? What about the seminal but often ignored last essay by Terrence Des Pres with the provocative title Holocaust Laughter? This latter is briefly mentioned in the short introduction but no reason is given why it is not included. And why did the editor forget Joshua Browns essay Of Mice and Memory which is one of the best readings of MAUS I ever read? And to name a last one, why is Amy Hungerford's critique of MAUS not included, one of the rare essays that does not praise MAUS but is questioning of its politics of identity (not too convincingly, but this is another discussion). One other opportunity to become a seminal edition of essays on MAUS is missed because there is no bibliography that could help readers to find further articles. (One such bibliography exists, up until 1997, in the German encyclopedia Lexikon der Comics, with an article on Spiegelman).

The failure seems to me to be not a pure coincidence, but has a sad reason. Sure, there has been an important academic discussion on MAUS, even well known professors like Dominick LaCapra, Linda Hutcheon or Lawrence L. Langer took part in it, but beyond the very early essay by Josef Witek there has not been that much writing on MAUS from the perspective of comics scholarship. The explanation for this phenomenon is not very hard to find: There is not really a comic scholarship in existence, a research on the theory and aesthetics of comics that could be called a discourse. Otherwise it would have been impossible for Deborah R. Geis to state in the first sentence of her introduction: „Art Spiegelman's two-volume ‚comic book' MAUS: A Survivor's Tale is not exactly a comic book" (1). Poor Art Spiegelman! He is one of the artists who is most aware of his history as a comic book artist. He has always considered himself as such. He has published a lot of articles on the history of comics, not to mention the many references in MAUS to comic book producers like Harvey Kurtzman or Will Eisner - but what he has done is supposedly "not exactly a comic book".

This is not the only problematic notion in Geis' introduction. It seems that she has to confirm nearly every myth, every prejudice that is known about MAUS but never proven. A few examples: As so many others she is arguing that MAUS due to the fact it belongs in a way to the comics there has to be something comic in it. Sure, even the early Superman stories are comic, but the Superman of the sixties (just to mention one obvious example)? But people like Geis have never read ‚comic books' as she seems to prefer to write the term. For sure she has read Kim Deitch and Ben Katchor, but she did not realize that these „comix artists" are not deploying „what is in some ways a cinematic style to play against the linear/sequential: he [Spiegelman] changes motion from horizontal to vertical; he changes the size of frames; he uses close ups and other ‚filmic' techniques" (2). When did in cinema change the size of frames? Why is a drawn close up a filmic technique? What is cinematic in the drawings of Katchor, Deitch and Spiegelman when we consider them as drawings? And beyond these questions: why do we have to use a vocabulary that is for sure very apt for the projection of movies but perhaps not that apt to describe what is happening on the surface of the comic books' page between the lines? It is a pity that especially an artist who is caring that much on his means as Spiegelman is doing has to face such kind of notionless academic criticism.

The not existing discourse on comics in the academic world is not the only explanation for this lack on knowledge why MAUS is telling the story it is telling only as a comic book and with all the means of a comic book. There is another myth that overshadowed a possible discussion on this means: I have read an endless amount of articles that were stating that MAUS is „controversial" including sentences like the following one: „some more traditional Holocaust commentators (…) have argued that Spiegelman's choice of the comic book form inevitably trivializes the events and reduces the characters to stereotypes" (1f.), but I never found articles by these "more traditional Holocaust commentators". Who are they? Where did they publish their protests? Nearly all commentators (except the comic book artist Harvey Pekar but this too is another story) praised MAUS and it is very hard to find critical articles like the mentioned of Amy Hungerford. But nearly all articles are stating that MAUS has been perceived as "controversial". And always the reference is missing where this critique could be found. This controversy is a phantom which only seems to be necessary for the critiques to justify their subject.

MAUS was not „both successful and controversial" (5), it was just a success. To me it seems that critics could not believe this simple truth. It was a success because it was one of the best comic books ever written and drawn. It was a success because it is a very precise interpretation of the Holocaust, finally it was a success because it's aesthetic approach toward the history of the Holocaust was so convincing (and it changed the discourse on the representation of the Holocaust as it is easy to see in novels like Jonathan Safran Foers „Everything is illuminated" or W. G. Sebalds „Austerlitz"). It is as simple as that. To most commentators it seems to be easier to state that there is something controversial in MAUS than to discuss the work itself. It is perhaps too complicate to answer questions like: how is the aesthetics of MAUS dealing with the topic of the Holocaust? What are the means that enables Spiegelman to face this history? Is there more than the always mentioned device of the „animal metaphor" and the non-linear narrative? A lot of problems emerge because people are not reading carefully (and as a theorist of comics I have to admit that I suppose most academics do not think that comic books are worth a close reading). As an example I would like to mention another very common notion that is repeated in Geis' introduction: „Like other postmodern writers and artists, Spiegelman does not deliver a straight chronological narrative" (2). On one hand this might be true but on the other the narrative of the present time is as straight chronological as possible. Spiegelman delivers a straight chronological narrative that is interrupted by the narration of the history. This wouldn't be that important but most acadmic readers do not recognize how Spiegelman narrate the present time of the narrative, most seem to assume that it is autobiographical and thus ‚his own' story. But it is not very plausible that all what happens in MAUS is happening within excactly one year. MAUS is meant to be autobiographical in genre but not in narration. But if this is true we have to consider how the narration is constructed on each level. It sounds strange but most critiques seem to believe what is said about MAUS in MAUS without any critical distance. But there are a lot of traps in it's obvious self-reflexive mode that are not that obvious...

For such kind of research some of the articles that are included in this volume could be helpful, most times because of the fact that they are not written in the field of comics but in the field of Holocaust studies. Especially for people who are more interested in popular culture and comic books MAUS should be seen in the context of discussions about the question how to remember the Holocaust. To read articles which are sometimes misreading MAUS from a comic scholar's point of view is nescessary if you would like to find why this misreadings are possible and what other readings could be more apt to the comic books' format.

For sure this edition of essays gives an interesting and compelling overview how MAUS could be read but it is to be hoped that this does not mean a canonization. Articles like the mentioned (and some others could be added) should still be taken into account. The volume Deborah Geis edited is helpful but not a landmark. As I wanted to show by discussiong some points of the editor's introduction there are too many questions still to be discussed, not only academic questions but political questions concerning the politics of the Holocaust's representation: How MAUS is remembering the Holocaust for future generations? And I have to admit that I am convinced of the importance of MAUS for the international remembrance of the Holocaust. Not because „historical narratives are always fragmented, partial and subjective" (3), as Geis suggests, but because MAUS is writing and drawing history. Spiegelman considered in the specific approach he chose that MAUS could be part of the popular remembrance of the Holocaust. Thus there is an objective perspective in it as it is related to the material remains of the Holocaust, i.e. the drawings of the prisoners of the camps, unknown because the did not survive or nearly forgotton like Alfred Kantor. MAUS is remembering these drawings by redrawing them and reflecting their truth in the specefic constellations of the comic books' page. This complex remembrance is far from being subjective. It is another technique, a technique new to comic books that has to be examined carefully. But my thesis would be that because of this objective approach that takes into account how the Holocaust was remembered MAUS could and should be read as a genealogy of the Holocaust. As such a genealogy MAUS could be read as a critique of many interpretations of the Holocaust, especially these which would like to refer to a ‚postmodern' writing of history without considering that this has to include a materialistic approach. Considering MAUS in this perspective means to consider it's not yet discussed notion of history.

Mentioned Articles and Books

Joshua Brown: Of Mice and Memory. In: Oral History Review, Jg. 16, Nr. 1, 1988, S. 91-109.

Terrence Des Pres: Holocaust Laughter?. In: Lang 1988, S. 216-233.

Jonathan Safran Foer: Everything is Illuminated. London: Penguin 2002.

Ole Frahm: Art Spiegelman. In: Marcus Czerwionka (Hg.): Lexikon der Comics, 6./24. Erg.-Lfg. Wimmelsbach: Corian 1993/1997.

Marianne Hirsch: Family Pictures - Maus, Mourning, and Post-Memory. In: Discourse, Jg. 15, Nr. 2, 1992-93, S. 3-29. With some variations in: Marianne Hirsch: Family Frames. Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. Cambridge/London: Harvard UP 1997.

Marianne Hirsch: Surviving Images: Holocaust Photographs and the Work of Postmemory. In: Barbie Zelizer (Hg.): Visual Culture and the Holocaust. New Brunswick/New Jersey: Rutgers UP 2001, S. 215-246.

Linda Hutcheon: Postmodern Provocation: History and "Graphic" Literature. In: La Torre, Jg. 2, Nr. 4-5, April-September 1997, S. 299-308.

Linda Hutcheon: Litarature meets History: Counter-Discoursive "Comix". In: Anglia, Nr. 1, 1998, S. 4-14.

Amy Hungerford: Surviving Rego Park. Holocaust Theory from Art Spiegelman to Berel Lang. In: Helene Flanzbaum (Hg.): The Americanization of the Holocaust. Baltimore/London: Johns Hopkins UP 1999, S. 102-124

Alfred Kantor: Das Buch des Alfred Kantor. Frankfurt am Main: Jüdischer Verlag bei Athenäum 1987.

Dominick LaCapra: 'Twas the Night before Christmas: Art Spiegelman's Maus. In: ders.: History and Memory after Auschwitz. Ithaca, London: Cornell UP 1998, S. 139-179.

Lawrence L. Langer: A Fable of the Holocaust. In: The New York Times Book Review, 3.11.1991, S. 34-36.

Lawrence L. Langer: Two Holocaust Voices. Cynthia Ozick and Art Spiegelman. In: Lawrence L.Langer: Preempting the Holocaust. New Haven/London: Yale UP 1998, S. 121-130.

Nancy K. Miller: Cartoons of the Self - Portrait of the Artist as a Young Murderer. In: M/E/A/N/I/N/G, Nr. 12 1992, S. 43-54.

Harvey Pekar: MAUS and other Topics. In: The Comics Journal, Nr. 113, Dezember 1986, S. 54-57.

Harvey Pekar: Blood & Thunder. In: The Comics Journal, Nr. 135, April 1990, S. 27-34.

Winfried Georg Sebald: Austerlitz. Random House: New York 2001.

Joseph Witek: Comic Books as History - The narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman and Harvey Pekar. Jackson, London: Mississippi University Press, 1989.



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