Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Tragedy in Comics

As it happens, I am currently enrolled in another class that requires us to read Maus: Comics in America. Through my coursework in this class, I found it particularly interesting to note the more serious nature of comic strips. Though we have not gotten up to Maus yet, I feel that I can see the natural progression of the medium as a way to address political and social concerns.
For instance, the very first images that could be correctly identified as comics depicted scenes of urban poverty in the early twentieth century. R. F. Outcault's Yellow Kid was directly influenced by a series of early photographs that introduced children in crowded tenement buildings and the troubles they encountered on a regular basis. The title character was shaved bald(a precaution against the spread of lice) and dressed in an oversized nightshirt(a hand-me-down that could get ruined with little concern for cost). The dialogue of the Yellow Kid and his companions demonstrated a strange combination of ethnic dialects and otherwise uneducated English and was often concerned with the death of siblings and the shortage of food, at least initially. Though the Yellow Kid comics eventually became more lighthearted, the themes of poverty and urban squalor remained.
George Herriman's strip Krazy Kat is largely considered a work of genius in the medium. In short, the series features Krazy Kat, his antagonist Ignatz Mouse, and the local lawman Officer Pup and their struggles against each other. Within this context, sexual and racial arguments are explored. The creator admits that each of the characters are of an ambiguous nature and, as a result, several love triangles emerge depending on the strip. As race is concerned, the characters have been known to either die their hair to appear white or fall into mud puddles to appear black and receive different treatment from their fellow animals. Herriman himself was of mixed racial descent and used his art to express his own feelings of displacement and confusion.
Thus, Art Spiegelman's Maus follows in a line of profound comic strips that engage in serious, topical themes. It lies somewhere closer to Yellow Kid than Krazy Kat on the scale of intensity as there is no obvious layer of comedy at the surface. It is shocking, and intentionally so. The mice characters are reminiscent of Mickey Mouse; seeing them play the part of Jews in the Holocaust is a surreal experience, but one that in no way lessens the historical importance of the event. In fact, I find that the seriousness of the horrors suffered by Vladek Spiegelman are even clearer to the reader as juxtaposed against the comic medium. The animals also provide a very clear division between the nationalities involved in World War II and suggest an inborn tendency towards violence against one another. It makes sense on a basic level that the German cats would be disposed to harm the Jewish mice. Making dogs of the Americans completes the classic cartoon triumvirate.
As we have just begun a new topic in class, that of the face, it is interesting to apply Levinas' interview with Philippe Nemo to Maus. Essentially, every Jewish figure in the comic strip possesses the same face, as does every German and so on. As a result, it is impossible to physically differentiate one character from another based on a defining characteristic. This actually becomes a strength of the work as the reader is forced to come to grips with Vladek and Art on a personal level. It is impossible to judge any character in Maus based on appearance. Ultimately, a deeper understanding and emotional connection is established between the reader and the subject. Also, in the introduction to the part two of Maus, Spiegelman appears in person, but covers his face with a mouse mask. This is strange because he is simultaneously identifying with the character he has based on himself while making it clear that he is a human being. This seems to be a conscious decision by Spiegelman to avoid the reader identifying with him as the writer, but as a subject that requires as much analysis as Vladek in his work.

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