This is probably my least favorite page in Maus.
This page doesn’t have the design problems that I taked about over here, and, which Mahendra Singh elaborated on.
The second page is cramped and confused; the first is not a masterpiece of design or anything, but the simple four panel grid at the top is effective; the flies the visual tip off to the gruesome reveal of the corpses around the drawing board.
What’s interesting, though, is that, while one is sub-competent and the other is effective, both use the same basic formula. You also see it here:
In each, the page is set up as a reveal. The top visuals keep your eyes focused on neutral images, and then the bottom opens up into the horrible truth. That horrible truth is always the same truth; namely the Holocaust, symbolized with a crude obviousness either by the (poorly drawn) Nazi flag, or the Auschwitz gate, or (most viscerally) by a huge pile of dead bodies. the importance of the Holocaust is emphasized each time both by its position as revelation, and by its scale. In his page design, Spiegelman tells us, over and over, that the Holocaust is huge and that it leaps out at you.
That is not, I would argue, an especially insightful take on the Holocaust; it turns it into a pulp adrenaline rush. Those pages each seem like they’d work as well, or actually better, if you substituted Dr. Doom for the Holocaust in each case. IF you’re going to set up a supervillain behind the curtain melodrama, best to be talking about an actual supervillain. Hollywood effects work best with Hollywood content; trying to add drama to an actual genocide comes across as cheap and presumptuous.
Interestingly, Spiegelman himself is somewhat aware of this, and on the page I’ve shown here, and in the following page, he tries to address it.
Spiegelman here is discussing, and decrying, the Hollywoodization of his book. These pages are from the second part of Maus, after the first part had gone the pre-Internet version of viral. The “reveal” of the final panel is both of the corpses and of the book’s success — the foreign language editions, the TV and movie offers. You could see the bodies as symbols of Spiegelman’s innocent alt-comix purity — a kind of spiritual death, underlined by the reference to his mother’s suicide. The off-panel declaration that “We’re ready to shoot!” links the media explicitly to the Nazi murderers; Spiegelman, as tortured artist besieged by popularizers and reporters, is positioned as a tormented victim of the gas chambers.
Defenders of Maus will no doubt argue that these pages are ironized. For example, Eric Berlatsky (that’s my brother!) writes:
Spiegelman is sure to implicate himself when he depicts Artie at the outset of chapter two of Maus II. Sitting at his drawing table, in front of television interviewers, Artie discusses the commercial success of the first volume of his book while sitting atop a pile of anthropomorphic mouse corpses. He is depicted not as a mouse, but as a man wearing a mouse mask, performing Jewishness for commercial gain. The simultaneously humorous and threatening depiction of the American advertiser offering a license deal for Artie vests (“Maus. You’ve read the book now buy the vest!” ) indicates how Artie (and Spiegelman himself) uses the past not merely to recall it in the present, but for his own profit and on the backs of the Jews his book is purportedly “remembering.” Artie displays a questionable connection to the past in order to participate in the circulation of power and profit.
Eric, then, suggests that Spiegelman is intentionally undermining himself; that he’s implicating himself in the marketing of the book and the performance of Jewishness.
I’d agree that the page raises the questions that Eric discusses. But is the effect really to undermine Spiegelman? The sympathy in that second page remains resolutely with Artie, who is being “shot.” He is the sensitive artist/victim (reduced to actually infantilized crying at the end) while callous reporters and interlocutors try to make a buck or score stupid points off the corpses stacked around his desk. The shallowness and duplicity of the media is emphasized by Spiegelman’s use of masks here; because they are drawn in profile, where we can see the mask-strings, the reporters comes across as macabre and deceptive.
Spiegelman is drawn in profile on the first layout, too. You’re in his head though, and he’s alone; it doesn’t feel like he’s concealing something, but like he’s trapped; the mouse mask victimizes him, and connects him to the dead victims (who aren’t wearing masks.) And then from that bottom reveal and through the next page, Artie is drawn mostly looking out at the reader; you can’t really see the mask. It’s as if the dead bodies have made him a “real” Mouse. In addition, the presence of the reporters ends up being validating; the contrast between their clear masks and his “natural” features shows clearly who has the right to speak — they’re crass desire to commercialize the corpses around his desk positions Artie as feeling caretaker; the only one who truly understands the horror. Thus, the dialogue is mostly the reporters asking aggressive questions and Artie as genius artist undermining them with wit and humble brag, followed by sensitive breakdown. The low point is probably when Artie blithely suggests he would draw Israelis as porcupines — a smirking one-liner that both dismisses the very real problem that Israel poses for Spiegelman’s Jews-as-mice-as-victims metaphor and glibly ties into ugly Zionist narratives positioning Israeli aggression as righteous defense.
The real failure of these pages, though, is Spiegelman’s utter refusal to grapple with his own responsibility for the commodification he’s supposedly decrying. IF you really don’t want your Holocaust story to be easily consumable, there are ways of doing that, from Celan’s impenetrable poems silence to Philip K. Dick’s oblique, quiet puzzle-box The Man in the High Castle. The critical and commercial success of Maus is not an accident; it’s the result of the deliberately unchallenging way in which Spiegelman presented the material. And that makes his wailing about the burden of success (which he, again, explicitly compares to the horrors of Auschwitz) insupportably presumptuous. The page itself, with its build-up to the big gothic reveal, uses pulp tropes to dramatize the Holocaust. The quite clichéd juxtaposition of feeling artist and unfeeing reporters/media is also an easy cultural narrative. Even the revelation of Spiegelman as man, rather than as mouse, doesn’t so much undermine the iconography (we still get the shock of anthropomorphic corpses) as it shows us the hand behind the image. Tortured genius is hardly a new marketing meme.
In short, Maus, in numerous ways, is an effort of deliberate middle-brow popularization. And part of that popularization is the elevation of Spiegelman himself; the genius interpreter, speaking from his pain as corpses overwhelm his drawing board. The bitter irony of Maus’ success is that the book’s defenders end up in the position of Spiegelman’s masked Nazi-like philistines,scrabbling joyfully amidst the corpses. And from the pile, finally, they lift Artie himself, circled by flies, the genius who realized that if comics marketed genocide, genocide in return would market comics.