Time of Lies: Abstract iconography in “Maus” Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoirs “Maus I” and “Maus II” present an approachable and sensory biography, a detailed and authentic retelling of a Holocaust survivor’s experience. The pictorial style of the memoir encourages the reader to visualize the text and more vividly relate to the experiences portrayed in the literature. The graphic and artistic aspects of the text employ devices that are unique to comics, in style and sequence, while drawing the characters as mice, which are visually simple, rather than realistic human representations of the characters.
By exploring various levels of detail within the memoir’s iconography, Spiegelman expresses a story in accessible terms and presents a unique perspective to the story of Vladek Spiegelman. However, the animal representations that are common throughout the memoir are increased in complexity within pages 41-47 of the “Time Flies: Auschwitz” chapter of “Maus II. ” In this first section, Spiegelman applies abstract elements to a metafictional section of the memoir, expressing the complexity of assembling the work and characterizing his process.
The abstract elements of “Time Flies: Auschwitz” bring into question Spiegelman’s opinion of his work, while exploring his identity and perceptions of reality. The tone at the beginning of “Time Flies: Auschwitz” is strained and mournful. Immediately, it is revealed that Vladek passed away in 1982 and Spiegelman presents a scene in which he is working on “Maus” series, a technique that falls under the category of metafiction. In the second panel, Spiegelman’s drawing of himself declares the metafiction by saying, “I started working on this page at the very end of February 1987” (Spiegelman II, 41: 2).
Spiegelman, within the panels, presents a calculative sequence, a series of statistics that presents chronological and biographical information about his personal life, the Holocaust and “Maus. ” Also considerable is the fact that this is the only time Art Spiegelman personally addresses the reader; in many ways, “Time Flies: Auschwitz” is Art’s story. The fifth panel of the first page of the section reveals Spiegelman sitting on top of a mass of mouse corpses, wearing a mouse mask. The tone is dark as Spiegelman says, “In May 1968 my mother killed herself. She left no note. ) Lately I’ve been feeling depressed” (Spiegelman II, 41:5). Many aspects of this section are different from the rest of the graphic memoir. Even aspects of medium are different, as Spiegelman write all of the dialogue of pages 41-46 in standard text, rather than the dialogue throughout the rest of the memoir, in which all the letters are capitalized. This suggests a different level of reality that complements the presence of metafiction. The animal iconography used in Vladek’s recounting of his story is quite simple.
For example, all Jews are mice and all Germans are cats within the memoir. By creating iconographical uniforms for certain kinds of people, Spiegelman suggests the universality of the Holocaust story and allows the reader to more easily identify with the characters. In “Understanding Comics,” graphic novelist Scott McCloud says, “The ability of cartoons to focus our attention on an idea is, I think, an important part of their special power, both in comics and in drawing generally. Another is the universality of cartoon imagery.
The more cartoony a face is, for instance, the more people it could be said to describe” (McCloud 31: 3-4). This argument is supported by the iconography presented by most of “Maus. ” There is virtually no difference between the faces of mice, between cats, between pigs, etc. Therefore, the reader identifies characters by their actions and other appearance. McCloud says, “Our identities and awareness are invested in many inanimate objects every day. Our clothes, for example, can trigger numerous transformations in the way others see us and in the way we see ourselves” (McCloud 38: 6).
This theme is displayed, for example, in Artie’s vest and elderly Vladek’s eyeglasses. By presenting iconography that is uniform, Spiegelman takes away the complications of a personal account and literally dehumanizes the characters involved, therefore telling a Holocaust story that is unique. In the first section of “Time Flies: Auschwitz,” Spiegelman introduces iconography that is far more complex than the animal iconography used in other chapters. The use of iconography is at its most abstract even though this is the section of the memoir that involves the exposition of Spiegelman’s process.
Here, Spiegelman presents human characters that wear various animal masks. This abstract aspect of Spiegelman’s portrayed “reality” suggests that uncertainty of identity is a theme that is important to Spiegelman. McCloud writes, “When pictures are more abstracted from ‘reality,’ they require greater levels of perception, more like words” (McCloud 49:3). The struggle of identity that comes with the presence of an author within a work cannot easily be expressed in dialogue alone.
In the first section of “Time Flies: Auschwitz,” Spiegelman utilizes abstract iconography to represent the sense of disorientation that is felt by the character. Here, pictures replace words to express Spiegelman’s emotional motivation, which can best be portrayed visually. However, it is entirely possible that Spiegelman is expressing generalizations in the form of concealed human faces, therefore complementing the uniformity of ethnic groups throughout the memoir. As Art is barraged by questions from the press on page 42 of “Maus II,” he creates a discussion about the interpretation of his work.
When asked what the project’s message was, Art says, “I-I never thought of reducing it to a message. I mean, I wasn’t trying to CONVINCE anybody of anything. I just wanted—” (Spiegelman II, 42: 2), further suggesting that the first section of “Time Flies: Auschwitz” is an exposition of Spiegelman’s artistic process in creating the memoir. Spiegelman is struggling with the complexities of creating his art. McCloud says, “Personally, I think we all have something to say to the world. The real question is, ‘will anyone listen? ’” (McCloud 178: 4).
This statement can be applied to “Time Flies: Auschwitz” in that Art struggles with the fear of how his work will be perceived by others. As Art receives more pressuring questions from the reporters, he begins to shrink, eventually to the size of a child. Art declares the metaphor by saying, “they’re gone. Sometimes I just don’t feel like a functioning adult” (Spiegelman II, 43:1). Art, in child form, walks through the streets filled with surreal concentration camp victims to see his shrink. The corpses work as icons to represent the nameless guilt that is affecting Art.
During the session with his psychologist, Art remains in child-sized form as he explores the struggles of trying to visualize and occupy the experience of a person in Auschwitz. When Pavel mentions the book, Art says, “My book? Hah! What book?? Some part of me doesn’t want to draw or think about Auschwitz. I can’t visualize it clearly, and I can’t BEGIN to imagine what it felt like” (Spiegelman II, 46:1). Perhaps Spiegelman uses iconography as a solution to this problem. By making the visual elements of the story and the characters less detailed, Spiegelman takes an objective approach to the haunting experience.
As Art walks home from his appointment with Pavel, he begins to brainstorm his project again, no longer distracted by his guilt and the memories of his father. Art says, “Gee. I don’t understand why…but these sessions with Pavel somehow make me feel better…Maybe I could show the tin shop and now draw the drill press. I hate to draw machinery” (Spiegelman II, 46: 8-10). Here, the moment-to-moment closure displays Art’s slow increase in size. Spiegelman suggests that Art can be himself when he is successfully concentrating on his book.
Then, on the next page, Art shrinks immediately upon hearing his father’s voice on the tape recorder, suggesting that it is the memory of his father that causes him to feel small. McCloud writes, “In the eighties and nineties, most of the counterculture of independent creators, working mostly in black and white, stayed to the right of mainstream comics art while covering a broad range of writing styles” (McCloud 56: 1). This statement can be applied to most of the “Maus” series. Spiegelman’s graphic memoir utilizes iconography that is simple in appearance yet complicated in interpretation.
In the first section of “Time Flies: Auschwitz,” however, Spiegelman incorporates complex iconography that suggests themes of identity and guilt, process and focus. The tone of this section is dark and evokes a sense of disorientation that is expressed through pictures as well as dialogue. Spiegelman seems to be posing a question, not only about the implications of his book, but the implications of his own memories of his father, and how the reader can relate to these elements. While wearing a mask of identity, Art gives an acceptable answer, “Who am I to say? ” (Spiegelman II, 42: 3).