The comic medium is often discriminated against as being appropriate only for the action-filled comic books of youths or for the humorous strips in newspapers; therefore, some readers are immediately alienated by the form of Art Spiegelman’s brilliant Maus. Some readers fail to recognize the potential that the comic medium has for conveying important messages. Art Speigelman chose the comic medium because it was the best way to convey his message. The icons present in comics enable the reader to enter the story in a way that readers cannot enter written text; therefore, the comic allows the reader to have a different understanding of the events portrayed because he/she enters the story and subsequently experiences the events vicariously. Icons focus the reader’s attention in ways that words cannot.
According to Scott McCloud in his book, Understanding Comics, an icon is “any image used to represent a person, place, thing or idea” (27), such as a mouse representing a Jew and a cat representing a Nazi, while a symbol is an image used to “represent concepts, ideas, and philosophies” (27), such as the Nazi swastika. The icons in Maus are animals representing different nationalities. The mice, cats, frogs, reindeer and pigs are drawn very simply so that they are abstract enough for human readers to identify with. Unlike animals, words are “totally abstract icons. That is, they bear no resemblance at all to the real McCoy” (McCloud 28). Spiegelman wanted his readers to transfer themselves into the story so he chose picture icons supplemented with dialogue and text, rather than text alone.
Spiegelman chose animal icons as opposed to icons representing humans because of “the universality of cartoon imagery. The more cartoony a face is…the more people it could be said to describe” (31). Mice can represent more people than human icons can because the details of more elaborately drawn humans alienate readers who do not share the human icon’s characteristics. McCloud asserts that when “you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another” (36) since you pay attention to others’ features in vivid detail. Alternately, one is only aware of a vague “sense of general placement of one’s own features; thus, when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself” (36). The mice have eyes, noses, and hands, which readers recognize that they themselves have, but the mice do not have distinguishing features that would cause readers to view them as they would view other people. The mice icons are just human enough that we can see ourselves in their place, but they are not so human as to alienate readers. Spiegelman had to find a perfect balance in his drawings in order to bring readers into his story, as opposed to shutting them out.