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The Department of History, University of Northampton & The Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team






Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of representing the Holocaust in graphic novel form such as Maus II.

By Phil Hemming


          The Holocaust, an event that marks the twentieth century and echoes historically, culturally and emotionally right up to the present day, is one that demands constant reiteration to each new generation as a warning from history. However, the mode this warning is presented in is subject to debate and discussion. Is it that, in the words of Adorno, ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’? Does he mean literally or metaphorically and is no degree of aesthetification to be permitted, that the only portrayal is from the testimonies of survivors? Cutter believes that “experiments at variety-even experiments which seem distasteful or inaccurate to others-are essential for a full understanding of the educational possibilities of the Holocaust” (Cutter 216).  Is any portrayal of the Holocaust justified to educate and inform?  A writer’s problem “is to discover the literary forms most appropriate to representing the extremities of dehumanisation and heroism that together begin to define what the Holocaust was” (Pfefferkorn 89). Spiegelman used the form of a graphic novel for his portrayal of the Holocaust, which has both aesthetic and moral ramifications and both advantages and disadvantages.

Maus II by Art Spiegelman is a recreation of the Holocaust in the form of a graphic novel, the term ‘graphic novel’ indicating a new form of ‘comic’, not associated with the genre of the world of adolescent literature of fantasy or the heroic, but grounded in the adult world of real encounter and engagement. This particular format allows many stylistic advantages over especially prose narrative, particularly in visual aspects, since it allows, for example, the language to be pruned of excess in a period when the meaning of language can be shifting and ephemeral and when even survivors talk of this instability; Anita Lasker-Wallfisch “has to use words that evoke shared human experience, such as ‘pain’ or ’cold’, but feels the need to counteract their familiar usage through the use of italics. Lasker-Wallfisch believes it is impossible to represent the events of the Holocaust, because their horror is beyond comprehension” (Waxman 496).

          The medium Spiegelman chooses is ideal for the expression of tone, inflection and volume of the speakers, with no need for adjectives, shouting is symbolised by large, bold lettering (35,57,66), the larger the letter, the louder the voice, and the containment of the words on the page in the speech ‘bubbles’, can be used to indicate the ’barbed’ words of the guards; these words can give pain as if mimicking the barbed wire that surrounds the camp (35,65). It can indicate an extreme of emotion; these ‘barbs’ can contain words that can harm.

          The choice of graphic novel by the author is a reflection on the cultural atmosphere he realises his work has to engage with. The Holocaust, like the Great War, has become ingrained into our ‘cultural memory’ and mention of the genocide will cause us to “flick to the identikit image of the Holocaust we carry in our heads” (Clendinnen 165), Spiegelman needed to get past this ‘cultural memory’, past the ‘official version’ and this he attempted by “new narrative and figurative strategies including irony, shock, black humor, even cynicism, much of it present in Spiegelman’s work” (Huyssen 81). This is not without its critics, but is an important strategy to establish itself in the middle ground between high and popular literature. Miles Orvell believes that “the special vitality of the hybridised forms” has made a space “in the literary marketplace” (Orvell 110). Spiegelman has managed to cross genres; novel/commix, biography/autobiography, high/low culture by the use of a graphic novel. This resonates with us in a postmodern world, with its eclectic mix of cultures and a refusal to ‘fix’ or ‘centre’.

          Arguably, one of, if not the, greatest strengths of the book is the flexibility, even freedom of the visual imagery. It allows the author to present both the past and present on the same page, no discontinuities, “Spiegelman’s commix form dramatizes action as a continuous present; it breaks narrative into a series of discrete, equal moments of illustrated panels” (Thormann 128). Spiegelman could represent aspects of the story that would be difficult to commit to prose, for example the techniques of shoemaking, added perhaps to show the authority of the author, the inside of the gas chambers, something very few survived to speak of, a timeline of Vladek’s life in 1944, a picture of Art and Vladek driving in the present, while the bodies of four young girls, the story of who is being told in the car, hang from the trees they pass, highlighting how the past can and does intrude in the present. The reliability or, obversely, the unreliability  of memory can be graphically and effectively portrayed on p54 of Maus II, when Vladek marches out of the gate past an orchestra playing, a documented fact from survivors, but Vladek denies this and we next see the inmates marching still, but obscuring the orchestra, the instruments just visible above the heads. Art seems to imply that they were there, Vladek just does not remember.

         We are then shown the gates of Auschwitz (55), but they are not contained in the frame, they spill across and show that the Holocaust does not obey formal rules, it is bigger than we can contain. “Images reinforce and often have a more powerful effect than words alone” (Banner 133). In image, key moments in the perception of the Holocaust can be reinforced; the showers that to many meant death, the close-up of a tattoo which was so symbolic of the fact you became a number not a person; and the lines of naked, skeletal figures waiting for the selection that would decide on work or extinction. A limited, but effective, use of photographs strengthens the visual power of them, and they “serve the same function as the diagrams, maps, and schematics: they acknowledge the significance of personal memory in the context of large-scale historical events” (Elmwood 713).

          This reminds readers that there is no History of the Holocaust but histories, individual and private in the context of ‘official’ accounts. It warns us of the dangers of falling into the ‘cultural memory’ mindset. This is not to denigrate the ‘official’ symbolism of the Holocaust, the use of a chimney in the frames, often intruding into adjoining frames, resonates immediately with readers about the fate of millions, the trains pictured entering the infamous gateway, taking numbers to their death, with their steam from the engine mimicking the smoke from the chimneys and its metaphor for death. The power of an image to engage with the reader, replacing words that would struggle to encompass the range of cultural responses and impossible though it might be to avoid these images in any representation of the Holocaust, Spiegelman handles the iconic imagery in a way that resists their tendency to become banal. “In his depiction of smokestacks, barbed wire, wooden bunks and trains, Spiegelman often calls attention to their iconicity through graphic means, by blatantly repeating the exact image over and over again” (Elmwood 715). 

          Perhaps one of the most original uses of imagery available to a graphic novel, is the “use of coded animal identities for the ethnic and national groups” (Rothberg 666). Initially, this may seem to trivialise the sacred memory of the Holocaust; it was people who went to their deaths in millions, human beings, not animals, but it is from this image that Spiegelman gets his power to shock. It forces us to “confront “the Holocaust” as visual representation” (Rothberg 666) and displaces our sense of the comfortable past that we think we know, it jars us out of our ‘identikit’ that we carry. Roger Sabin believes that “by [de-] anthropomorphicising events, the horror was personalised in a way that it could not have been if the characters had been depicted in human form” (Sabin 182).

           This portrayal works to his advantage in a number of ways; they remind us that the Jews were as mice, helpless when caught by a cat, toyed with until they were dispatched; it thus allegorises the Nazi ideology of reducing the Jewish race to one anonymous mass, with no individuality, dehumanised: “the Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human” (Orvell 119). Yet it is also reflecting the perspective of the Jews as victims of the Nazis. But it also functions on another level, as an ironic device with reference to Nazi ideology. In the Nazi propaganda Jews were portrayed as vermin, so Spiegelman reproduces this in his graphic novel and consequently reveals its absurdity by caricaturing. This technique also allows Spiegelman to highlight the problems of identity as the child of a survivor, who feels the weight of his father’s experiences bearing down on him but is unable to fully integrate into his father’s cultural identity having missed the formative experience. Spiegelman shows in Maus II a picture of him working at his desk, as a human but wearing the mask of a Jew. He has to put on this mask of Jewishness, but feels at times it is only a mask and that he has a role to play.

          The use of a graphic novel allows a number of disjunctions, working to its advantage, to shock us out of our complacent ‘cultural memory’; the escapism of cartoons with the horrific reality of the Holocaust; complex characters portrayed by simplistic animals; private history against public history; horror against humour.

          However, the use of a graphic format to portray the Holocaust, whatever the visual and textual advantages, will fall foul of the Adorno statement about poetry being barbaric. Adorno was arguably generalising about any non-literal cultural production representing the Holocaust, he “posited the idea that an act of aesthetics inevitably involved the transfiguration of the concentration camp realities, diminishing the suffering of their victims” (Pfefferkorn 88). Maus II is compromised by its use of anthropomorphic characters; it becomes aestheticised and therefore ‘barbaric’. It is not alone in facing this criticism, it would appear that when representing the Holocaust form and function are inextricably linked, the content may be a survivors story, but the form this representation takes, unless a ‘literal’ representation, will be aesthetic and therefore ‘barbaric’.

          As Doherty writes “poetic license and tolerant forbearance are not granted automatically” (Doherty 71). Maus II and Life is Beautiful do not have the seriousness and moral restraint that representations of the Holocaust seem to require We do have a paradox here since it is generally agreed that the Holocaust is to be remembered by as large a number of the public as possible, but certain mass cultural representations are not considered proper.

          Recent interest has grown in the Holocaust, and the disadvantage of writing under Adorno’s shadow will have to be surmounted. The concern of aestheticising the Holocaust with the use of metaphor and allegory will need to be renegotiated; “to leave Auschwitz outside of metaphor would be to leave it outside of language altogether” (Geis 4). Yes, the disadvantage, stylistically, is that Maus II, in the graphic novel “inevitably trivializes the events and reduces the characters to stereotypes” (Geis 5), and it does suffer in that form and content are inextricably bound up in Holocaust portrayal, but it has the advantage of being able to “say so much with so seemingly little” (Geis 6), and in the end it is a dereliction of humanity to deny “the possibility of informing, educating, sensitising the millions of men and women who would normally say “Hitler, who’s he?” (Insdorf xi).

-Phil Hemming

Works cited

Banner, Gillian.  Art Spiegelman.  London: Valentine Mitchell, 2000.


Benigni, Roberto. Dir., Life is Beautiful/La Vita è Bella [video recording].  London: Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 1999.


Clendinnen, Inga.  Reading the Holocaust.  Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 2002.


Cutter, William.  Literature and the Holocaust: A Review Essay”.  Modern Judaism 2.2 (1982): 213-220.


Doherty, Thomas.  Art Spiegelmans Maus: Graphic Art and the Holocaust”.  American Literature 68.1 (1996): 69-84.


Elmwood, Victoria A. Happy, Happy Ever After: The Transformation of Trauma Between The Generations in Art Spiegelmans Maus: A Survivors Tale”. Biography 27.4 (2004): 691-720.


Friedlander, Saul. Ed.,  Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the Final SolutionLondon; Cambridge, Mass: Harvard U P, 1992.


Geis, Deborah R. Ed., Considering Maus: Approaches to Art Spiegelmans Survivors Tale of the Holocaust. Tuscaloosa; London: U of Alabama P, 2003.            


Huyssen, Andreas.  Of Mice and Mimesis: Reading Spiegelman with Adorno.  New German Critique 81 (Autumn 2000): 65-82.


Insdorf, Annette.  Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust. Second edition.  Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1989.


Orvell, Miles.  Writing Posthistorically: Krazy Kat, Maus and the Contemporary Fiction Cartoon”.  American Literary History 4.1 (1992): 110-128.


Pfefferkorn, Eli.  Fractured Reality and Conventional Forms in Holocaust Literature”. Modern Language Studies 16.1 (1986): 88-99.


Rothberg, Michael.  “‘We Were Talking Jewish: Art Spiegelmans Maus as a Holocaust Production”.  Contemporary Literature 35.4 (1994): 661-87.


Sabin, Roger.  Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art.  London: Phaidon, 1996.


Spiegelman, Art.  Maus: A Survivors Tale.  Harmondsworth: Penguin, [1987] 1992.


Spielberg, Steven., dir.  Schindlers List [video recording].  London: BBC, [1993] 1997.


Thormann, Janet.  The Representation of the Shoah in Maus: History as Psychology”. Res Publica 8 (2002): 123-139.


Waxman, Zoë.  Testimony and Representation.  Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.


White, Hayden.  Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth”. Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the Final SolutionEd. Saul Friedlander. London; Cambridge, Mass: Harvard U P (1992):  37-53.



Copyright: 2008 Phil Hemming & H.E.A.R.T


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