Reading Maus Badly

mausIIn the comments to my last post, Bill said he hoped that my choice for a comic book or graphic novel for a course on “pulp fiction” would not be “some terribly respectable ‘graphic novel’ along the lines of MausFun Home, or Persepolis” — not that there’s anything wrong with these on their own terms, obviously — quite the opposite! — but that they wouldn’t really represent “the genuine pulp article.” In response, I mentioned that I have just recently read Maus ... which reminded me that I never wrote anything about it here.

Actually, it wasn’t that recent: I read it at the end of the summer, so several weeks ago now. Usually I blog about books more or less as soon as I finish with them: the time lag here is a sign of trouble. And the trouble was, I didn’t know what to say about Maus. Not that I always know exactly what I’m going to say about a book when I sit down to blog about it — but I do usually have some sense of direction, some sense of how to engage with it. I finished Maus, however, with the nagging sense that I’d read it wrong. You see, I read it like a novel: an illustrated novel, because obviously there are pictures, but still, like a novel, with my primary attention on the words.

You see my problem, I’m sure. Maus is neither a novel nor an illustrated novel: it is a graphic novel, which is another term (a sometimes contested one) for a comic book, which is, in turn, helpfully defined at the Internet Public Library as “sequential visual art, usually with text.” But I don’t know how to read “sequential visual art”: I don’t know what to notice, what to track across the sequence, how to interpret what I’m seeing. I looked at all the pictures in Maus, of course, but I didn’t scrutinize them: to me, they seemed secondary — they were only drawings of the story.

I’m not saying I didn’t notice that the Jews in the book were mice, the Nazis cats, and the Poles pigs — or that I didn’t think as I went along about the general style of Spiegelman’s drawings, which reminded me of  folk art with their rough-hewn quality, or of naïve art, with a deceptive simplicity that somehow enhances the horror of the telling by its childlike air. How can something so cute be so terrible? That’s as far as I could go, though: otherwise, I just read on to find out what happened to the people whose fates and relationships unfolded across the novel with such pain and urgency. (Of course, the pictures rapidly stopped meaning cats and mice to me, no matter what the drawings showed).

watchmenMaus isn’t the first graphic novel I’ve read. Several years ago a thoughtful student gave me a copy of Watchmen, and I worked my way through it with even less success than I had with Maus. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in it, but in that case, I couldn’t even hang on to the characters or story. (In retrospect, to be fair, that might at least partly be because I read most of it on my one and only trip to Australia, including on long trans-Pacific flights while under the calming influence of Ativan.) Then too, I was aware that I wasn’t paying close enough attention to things besides the words on the page, which is, after all, what I’ve spent years focusing on pretty exclusively.

There are definitely things I understood about Maus, including the ingenuity of recasting its population as animals in such a potent metaphorical way. Lawrence Weschler puts it well in his essay “The Son’s Tale”:

There have been hundreds of Holocaust memoirs — horribly, we’ve become inured to the horror. People being gassed in showers and shoveled into ovens — it’s a story we’ve already heard. But mice? The Mickey Mice of our childhood reveries? Having the story thus retold, with animals as principals, freshly recaptures its terrible immediacy, its palpable urgency.*

And of course Spiegelman himself, quoted in the same essay, is eloquent about his reasoning:

Almost as soon as [the idea] hit me, I began to recognize the obvious historical antecedents — how Nazis had spoken of Jews as ‘vermin,’ for example, and plotted their ‘extermination.’ And before that back to Kafka, whose story ‘Joseph the Singer, or the Mouse Folk’ was one of my favorites from back when I was a teenager and has always struck me as a dark parable and prophecy about the situation of the Jews and Jewishness.

He goes on to explain that he also wanted to subvert the metaphor: “I wanted it to become problematic, to have it confound and implicate the reader.” In a way, though, what both writers are dealing in here is something familiarly textual. Once you get how the metaphor works, you can “unpack” it in the same way you would if nobody ever drew a picture.

mauscoverIn general I’m not that well educated about the visual arts, not trained to notice and appreciate them in any expert, or even well-informed, way. Once we watched a Great Courses series on the history of Western art, and that helped a bit. What is the comic book equivalent? Is there a primer of some kind on what to see when you’re looking at graphic novels? Or is it just a question of slowing down and really looking, not taking the lines on the page for granted, the same way I’m always telling my students not to take the words on the page for granted?

Or, and of course this is a real possibility, am I overthinking the whole thing? I was caught up in Maus: I read it with rapt attention, with interest, and occasionally with tears, after all. By some measure, that has to count as a good reading.

*As a side note, I am very grateful for the recommendation of Weschler’s essay, both because it is fascinating and because the same collection (Vermeer in Bosnia) includes Weschler’s  ‘Balkan Triptych,’ which I hadn’t read before either and which is stunning.

Update: Well, this is certainly timely!

12 Comments to Reading Maus Badly

  1. October 12, 2015 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    There is a primer! Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud is the standard. (I haven’t done more than browse it. But I read some things on how picture books work for teaching Children’s Lit, and I find them helpful for reading comics too). My comics scholar husband says that one problem with comics scholarship is that so many people who do it come out of English/lit backgrounds and privilege the text. McCloud is a comics artist himself. I do think it’s like reading text, in that you can enjoy it/get something out of it just fine without developing a special expertise in reading (and you can teach yourself a lot about reading images by slowing down and paying attention) but I also think expert guidance can help. I’m agreeing with your last paragraphs. I think Bill is right that a high/low distinction is rapidly developing in comics as in many kinds of literature, which would be something to consider if you’re teaching them in a “pulp fiction” course. It’s easier to sell your colleagues on Persepolis than on superheroes.

  2. Bill from PA's Gravatar Bill from PA
    October 12, 2015 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    Liz Mc2 beat me to it: Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is the primer on reading comics. I grew up reading comic books and I think I was intuitively aware of all McCloud’s points before I came across his book, but it was interesting to have everything spelled out in the way he does.
    I have to confess, though I own a copy of Maus, I have never been able to bring myself to read it. I read Watchmen a long time ago; while this seems to be a comic book often recommended to non-readers of comics, I found it very heavily rooted in the mythology of superhero comic books. I thought of it more as “the graphic novel for comic book geeks” rather than “the comic book for people who hate comic books” as it is often touted.
    One comic book you might consider for your course is It Rhymes with Lust by Drake Waller (Arnold Drake and Leslie Waller), with artwork by Matt Baker and Ray Osrin. This was originally published in 1949 in a size between mass market paperbacks and comic books, intended for adult readers who were consumers of both these forms of popular literature, a format that unfortunately did not find enough readers to encourage further attempts. The plot is rather boiler plate film noir, complete with a femme fatale: the story concerns a crusading editor who arrives in a small corrupt copper mining town with the intention of exposing the shady dealing going on there. Though most of the narrative work is done by the text, the black-and-white artwork by Matt Baker with inker Ray Osrin is very good, rendering the characters realistically in solid precise lines. In most panels, the elements of the drawing not presenting the foreground characters is printed using a mechanically produced grey tone; this gives a convincing effect of depth in some cases, but its overuse makes the environment in which the characters exist seem insubstantial and deprives the artwork of the true film noir atmosphere which solid areas of black would provide. This has been available recently in a relatively inexpensive reprint edition from Dark Horse.

  3. steve donoghue's Gravatar steve donoghue
    October 13, 2015 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    “It Rhymes with Lust,” “Maus,” “Persepolis” – yikes! Isn’t there something a bit off-base about including in the syllabus of a class on pulp fiction things consciously planned and executed as high art? These things are great reads, but they’re also interlopers – they’re appropriating the comics form in order to tell their stories, but they aren’t native to it. Why not include a graphic novel collection of four-color superhero comics – the unsold individual issues of which were actually pulped, for Pete’s sake! I’d be happy to send you some potential candidates!

  4. October 13, 2015 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    I’m completely side-stepping the topic of your post, but just wanted to echo your plug for Ren Weschler’s writing, which is nearly always engaging and illuminating – perhaps especially when he writes about the visual arts. His brief work on California artist Robert Irwin – Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees – is one book on art I return to again and again.

  5. October 13, 2015 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    Third the suggestions about the McCloud book. I didn’t grow up with comics, don’t know much about the form, and that book helped me a lot.

    I don’t think you should teach Maus in that Pulp class either, but it’s worth saying that Spiegelman is steeped in the entire history of comics (I had the privilege of hosting him here at Hendrix a few years ago and hearing/seeing his two-hour-plus history of images slideshow/lecture/extravaganza). He came out of the avant-garde comix scene in NYC in the 70s but he grew up reading the four-colour stuff Steve mentions. He tells a funny story about how his father brought home piles of them for him to read because he was able to buy them so cheaply, not having any idea what they were about.

    As to Maus itself, it is one of the great books of my life. I’ve read and taught it so many times in so many contexts and it never fails to move me, give me joy, and teach me things. It’s so smart, so rich, so wonderful!

  6. October 21, 2015 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations on your first graphic novel! There is a learning curve when you are used to reading text-only novels but it isn’t insurmountable. If you want to try a really good recent comic from Marvel, Ms. Marvel is quite enjoyable.

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