How Art Spiegelman Designs Comic Books: A Breakdown of His Masterpiece, Maus

Maus, car­toon­ist Art Spiegel­man’s ground­break­ing, Pulitzer Prize-win­ning account of his com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship with his Holo­caust sur­vivor father, is a sto­ry that lingers.

Spiegel­man famous­ly chose to depict the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats. Non-Jew­ish civil­ians of his father’s native Poland were ren­dered as pigs. He flirt­ed with the idea of depict­ing his French-born wife, the New Yorker’s art edi­tor, Françoise Mouly, as a frog or a poo­dle, until she con­vinced him that her con­ver­sion to Judaism mer­it­ed mouse­hood, too.

The char­ac­ters’ anthro­po­mor­phism is not the only visu­al inno­va­tion, as the Nerd­writer, Evan Puschak, points out above.

Draw­ing on inter­views in Meta­Maus: A Look Inside a Mod­ern Clas­sic, taped con­ver­sa­tions with Neil Gaiman, and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Washington’s Mar­cia Alvar, and oth­er sources, the Nerd­writer pans an eight-pan­el page from the first chap­ter for max­i­mum mean­ing.

On first glance, noth­ing much appears to be hap­pen­ing on that page—hoping to con­vince his elder­ly father to sub­mit to inter­views for the book that would even­tu­al­ly become Maus, Spiegel­man trails him to his child­hood bed­room, which the old­er man has equipped with an exer­cise bike that he ped­als in dress shoes and black socks.

But, as Spiegel­man him­self once point­ed out:

Those pan­els are each units of time. You see them simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, so you have var­i­ous moments in time simul­ta­ne­ous­ly made present. 

Read­ers must force them­selves to pro­ceed slow­ly in order to ful­ly appre­ci­ate the coex­is­tence of all those moments.

Left to our own devices, we might pick up on the senior Spiegelman’s con­cen­tra­tion camp tat­too, or the intro­duc­tion of Art’s late moth­er via the framed pho­to he shows him­self pick­ing up.

But Puschak takes us on an even deep­er dive, not­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of Art’s place­ment in the long mid-page pan­el. Watch out for the 4:30 mark, anoth­er visu­al stun­ner is teased out in a man­ner rem­i­nis­cent of the rev­e­la­tion of a mes­sage writ­ten in invis­i­ble ink.

So Maus con­ferred com­mer­cial suc­cess upon its cre­ator, while hang­ing onto some of the bold visu­al exper­i­ments from ear­li­er in his career, when he and Mouly helped dri­ve the under­ground comix scene—the past and present entwined yet again.

And this is just one page. Should you ven­ture forth in search of fur­ther visu­al cues lat­er in the text, please use the com­ments sec­tion to share your dis­cov­er­ies.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

R. Crumb Shows Us How He Illus­trat­ed Gen­e­sis: A Faith­ful, Idio­syn­crat­ic Illus­tra­tion of All 50 Chap­ters

23 Car­toon­ists Unite to Demand Action to Reduce Gun Vio­lence: Watch the Result

Lyn­da Bar­ry on How the Smart­phone Is Endan­ger­ing Three Ingre­di­ents of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Lone­li­ness, Uncer­tain­ty & Bore­dom

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Adam S. says:

    Teach­ing this text, and with the inspi­ra­tion of this video behind me, I start to see many of these “secret mes­sages” in Maus.

    In book II, for exam­ple, on p. 69, the chim­ney used to sig­ni­fy the cre­ma­to­ry in Auschwitz (and shown as a stony full-stop, the final pan­el on the page—see also p. 58), has smoke which diaget­i­cal­ly emerges from Art’s cig­a­rette, the man­i­fes­ta­tion of the past in his present as he “relives” these events through his father’s sto­ry.

    The relief of Vladek and Shiv­ek when the Allied forces arrive after a night spent in the agony of nau­sea after eat­ing too-rich food is shown as the stars that rep­re­sent the mens’ pain meld into the stars on the Amer­i­can flag that serves as a ground for action in the next pan­el (II.111, pan­els 7–8). I might sug­gest this increas­es the sense of all-encom­pass­ing relief the men must hav felt.

    There is also the train to Dachau in Vladek’s mem­o­ry turn­ing into the car car­ry­ing Art, Vladek and Fran­coise in the present (II.88).

    Such jux­ta­po­si­tion of ele­ments cre­ates a res­o­nance between pan­els that con­tin­ues to add deep­er mean­ing to the text, espe­cial­ly in cre­at­ing a space where the past and present merge.

  • Rizwan says:

    Great write-up still smil­ing at it.

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