One thing that I really enjoy about graphic memoirs is the metanarrative nature of the medium. When reading a prose autobiography, the author typically does not draw attention to the compositional aspects of the text. For example, with Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, we know that he writes to his son; however, he does not refer to the writing of the text or the way he constructs it. Other autobiographies fall into forms, such as the conversion narrative or the captivity narrative in early American literature. Here, I’m thinking about John Marrant and Mary Rowlandson.
What makes graphic memoirs different from these other texts is the way that creators draw attention, specifically in more autobiographical works, to the constructed nature of the work. This occurs in Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This when she draws the photographs, having her pencil or eraser in the panel. It occurs in Craig Thompson’s Blankets at various points, and most noticeably at the end when Craig walks through the snow and contemplates about leaving a mark on the “blank surface.” In the actual context, the blank surface is the snow, but in the broader discussion, the blank surface becomes the page, the ink on paper.
Benjamin Stevens talks about this in “The Beautiful Ambiguity of Blankets: Comics, Representation, and Religious Art.” Thinking about the tensions between religious and secular art in Thompson’s work, Stevens asks, “What does it mean for an artwork to acknowledge its status as ‘mark’ or representation, i.e. to metanarrate itself as ‘only’ image?” While Stevens focuses here on religious and secular art, the overarching question applies to most graphic memoirs because many comment on themselves, drawing particular attention to the construction of the text in both its visual and textual form.
Thompson points out this recognition of the constructed “reality” of the text when he describes Plato’s allegory of the cave, and that tension between the perceived reality and actual reality becomes blurred on the page in graphic memoirs. With that in mind, I want to take a moment and look at a few moments in Art Spiegelman’s Maus where he specifically reminds readers of the constructed nature of the text. Spiegelman does this, of course, from the outset through the narrative structure of situating the text as an interview with his father. This is nothing unique to graphic memoirs, but the frame directly tells readers that what appears within the pages are not necessarily factual reality; rather, what occurs is filtered through Art’s father Vladek and then through Art himself as the creator of the text.
One such occurrence appears at the end of chapter one after Vladek tells Art about how he met Anja. After relating the story, Vladek tells his son that he does not want the story in Art’s book because “[i]t has nothing to do with Hitler. With the Holocaust!” Spiegelman pleads with his father, telling him the importance of knowing this part of the story. Still, Vladek resists, and Spiegelman promises to leave the story out of Maus.
The final panel depicts Vladek in Art in silhouette. Vladek sits on the stationary bike on the left side of the panel, and Art sits in a chair, right handed raised, as he promises to leave the story out of the narrative. Two things stick out with this panel. First and foremost, we know that Spiegelman did not keep his promise because we just read the story. The second aspect is the way that Spiegelman frames the panel. Instead of showing Vladek and himself in color, Spiegelman presents them as silhouettes. This choice plays upon our idea of reality. Vladek and Art are essentially shadows, representations of themselves illuminated by light, like the shadows on the cave in Thompson’s Blankets.
In the final chapter of volume 1, Spiegelman visits Vladek and shows him some of the sketches he has been working on for the book. He hands them the pages depicting the Jews hung at the Black Market. During the initial sequence, Spiegelman ends with the Vladek sitting in a chair with his right hand on his head as Anja stands behind him. Both face away from the reader and again appear in silhouette. Richeau, their son, sits on the floor, facing the reader, and is illuminated. The background shows the heads of the four victims hanging from nooses. Vladek’s anguish comes from the murder of the Jews in the market but also from the knowledge that they could’ve given him up to save themselves.
Immediately following this panel, Spiegelman returns to his father in the present. Vladek pushes his glasses back onto his face as he tells his son, “Ach. When I think now of them, it still makes me cry . . . Look-even from my dead eye tears are coming out.!” These are the panels that Spiegelman shows his father at the start of chapter six. Spiegelman, Vladek, and Mala stand around the table looking at the images. Backs turned to the reader, Spiegelman quotes his father’s words from the previous panel, and Vladek responds, Yes, still it makes me cry!”
This panel places Vladek, Mala, and Spiegelman as readers of the constructed text. Essentially, they are taking part in the text during its construction. With their backs turned to us, they become us, and we read the narrative alongside them. At this moment, Spiegelman comments on the text, drawing attention to its creation and its depiction of reality. It does present the actual reality; instead, it presents a constructed image of that reality, and we see that through his commentary on the text itself.
Along with moments such as the ones above, Spiegelman also draws our attention to the ways that he is a collaborator in the construction of Vladek’s story, his reality. Recalling his time in the Srodula ghetto, Vladek talks about the Nazis taking screaming children, even as young as two or three, picking them up, and swinging them against the walls, killing them. Here, Spiegelman presents three panels. The first shows a Nazi soldier approaching a crying child. The next shows his swinging the child against the wall as blood splatters on the bricks. The final panel shows the soldier holding the dead child by the legs and the blood-stained wall. In the bottom right, we see Spiegelman and his father in the present.
The final panel points out the ways we construct memory and the construction of the text. Here, after Vladek tells his son what the soldiers did to the children, he informs Spiegelman, “This I didn’t see with my own eyes, but somebody told me. And I said, ‘Thank God with Persis our children are safe!'” Vladek’s word bubble covers up most of the blood on the wall. Some seeps out the edges, but the majority lies behind Vladek’s words that he did not see these killings occur. Through this, Spiegelman points out, as I have in numerous posts recently, about how we construct the past, and he also points out the constructed nature of his own text because he shows the violence occurring, even though Vladek and himself did not see it.
There are more examples I could discuss from Maus and other texts, but for now, I’ll leave it at these. What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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