Comic Studies: Wartime Autobiographix

The University of Dundee in Scotland recently launched the world's first mainstream postgraduate degree course (an MLitt) in Comic Studies. In this weekly column, I cover the course from a student's perspective, looking at and discussing what the term "Comic Studies" really entails.

It's week four of class, and everyone has arrived with their mountain of titles, the opinions flying faster than ever before. At the beginning of every meeting, we each recieve a handout comprised of a few questions to consider and a collection of excerpts from everyone's weekly journal on the set texts. This week the handout runs to three pages, and Dr Murray has decided that he'll lecture for a shorter time giving us longer for discussion. Here's what we learned...

There was a lot of reading for this weeks topic -- Autobiographix: Comics and History -- and the set texts were pretty dense: "Barefoot Gen" by Keiji Nakazawa and "Maus" and "In the Shadow of No Towers" by Art Spiegelman. Page count aside, these are all pretty weighty reads with the shadow of war looming large over them all.

"Barefoot Gen" was one of the only titles in this module I was completely unaware of. My feelings of ignorance were dwarfed only by my feelings of shame when I began to investigate the book, a semi-autobiographical account of a boy living through the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Hugely celebrated and well known by manga readers, why is this comic not on the many bookshelves across the country alongside "Maus?" I can think of few reasons other than the fact that the creator is not a Westerner, and because it is much harder to read about an atrocity committed by your own side of the world.

It's a harrowing read, and despite my initial resistance to the manga-style illustration (nothing against manga, but I've sadly never been able to get into it as a genre), I was soon hooked. As I said earlier, "Barefoot Gen" is semi-autobiographical as not all events were experienced by Nakazawa himself. It is, however, a faithful autobiography of his generation: everything in the book did happen to someone, and the fact that the story depicts real people suffering such unbelievable agonies and trauma is difficult to bear.

I learned a lot from a classmate's presentation on "Barefoot Gen," not least is that the more ridiculous "domestic violence" is actually how manga portrays exaggerated emotions. The incredibly cheerful covers are in stark contrast to the book contents, and the entire thing is a wonderful masterpiece.

"Maus" is a title I was far more familiar with, and it is indeed a very famous book. Spiegelman's magnum opus was thirteen years in the making, and was awarded a Pullitzer Prize Special Award in 1992 -- an amazing achievement for any work, but even more impressive for so called "low art."

"Maus" is the biography of Spiegleman's father, both his life in Poland during World War II and his later life as an old man in America. "Maus" is also somewhat of an autobiography, as Spiegelman struggles to juggle dealing with his elderly, cantankerous father and the weight of creating a comic depicting an event as terrible as the Holocaust. The word "maus" itself is German for "mouse," and the Jewish characters in the biography are all depicted as mice; a reference to the Nazis propaganda of portaying Jews as vermin, as well as the stereotype of Jewish people being meek and mild.

This animal metaphor is extended to the Nazis as cats, the Poles as pigs and the Americans as dogs. One initial reaction to the title was to misunderstand the purpose of this metaphor: in no way is Spiegelman actually comparing any of the people involved to actual animals, but by making the entirety of one "people" a particular species of animal, he highlights the ridiculousness of dividing people based on a single aspect of their identity. When Vladek, Art's father, is trying to pass himself off as a Pole in Nazi occupied Poland, he wears a pig mask over his face to blend in. But the fact is that Vladek is Polish as well as Jewish, deftly demonstrates the irrationality of dividing people into one or the other.

Later in the book, Spiegleman appears at his drawing board, wearing a mouse mask over his own human face. The metaphor is wearing thin it seems, or Spiegelman feels less like a Jew than he wishes to: often a common sentiment amongst second-generation Jewish people, cut off from the culture of their parents. Very rarely are real photos presented within the comic, and when they appear they're a particularly shocking reminder that the characters in the book represent very real people. This violent wrench between competing realities is effective and quite startling.

In essence, "Maus" is suffering depicted in art, both the suffering of the past and the present as Spiegleman relentlessly pushes his aging father for more and more information. On subsequent read-throughs, I found it more and more uncomfortable seeing the young Spiegelman hound Vladek for his story, demanding that he recount these harrowing tales when his father would far rather talk of more pleasant things. Spiegleman is haunted by the suicide of his mother, which he can't understand, and it's this almost desperate need for understanding, for closure, that drives the comic forward.

Order is the other major theme of the work -- an attempt to order the events of the past, to place them in small boxes alongside each other in sequence, to try and make sense of something that, really, can't possibly make sense. While panels in sequential art generally represent moments of time, here, they often represent fractured memories, restructured into an imposed order. The human brain does not remember things in strict sequence like this, yet at the same time, it demands it of others. At one stage, Spiegleman demands a timeline for his father's stay in Auschwitz, which Vladek cannot give him: "In Auschwitz, we didn't wear watches." Dissatisfied with this response, Art constructs a timeline of his own for the comic -- something his father is unhappy with.

The two very distinct time periods, the present day and war time in Poland, often bleed into each other. Not only can two panels side by side be set in different times, but the same panel can contain both. In one memorable scene, Spiegleman lays in front of his father, writing in his notebook, while his feet extend into the war time on the left of the panel. Past and present collide as one, giving the whole book a continuous tone of doom and disaster.

When Auschwitz is first shown, the illustration takes up half the page, going behind the panels above and extending right out to the bleed (the very edges of the page). The moment is enormous, all-consuming, and everything in the book is almost completely swallowed by the big heavy gates.

This is an interesting technique, and one which also appears in the other Spiegelman title we read, "In the Shadow of No Towers." Unlike "Maus," "No Towers" is far more autobiographic, documenting Spiegelman's experience and reaction to the fall of the World Trade Center on 9/11. It's also a lot harder to get ahold of, which may in part be tied to how difficult it was to circulate initially.

Printed on large, double-page spread sized card stock, "No Towers" is an intensely political and angry read. Spiegelman had lived in New York City for many years, and his young daughter had just started attending a school located directly below the Twin Towers. The book follows the event of the attack, the panic as he and his wife struggle to find their daughter and Spiegelman's subsequent descent into post-traumatic stress disorder. All of this is presented in a collage of strips and cartoons, conventional panels and exploding imagery, with recurring symbolism and themes throughout.

Spiegelman turned his fury on the US government for co-opting events for their own political ends, and could find no publisher willing to print his work in the US. The cover is the image he created for the "New Yorker" in the days after the attacks, but his actual strips proved far too controversial for an initially pro-war US. Turning to a more liberal European audience, his comics were printed there before being bound in this large, oversized tome. Spiegelman was perhaps just slightly ahead of his time -- he'd certainly not find it nearly so difficult to find willing US publishers in the current political climate.

The comic begins by detailing the events of the historic day, presenting various strips and images on the first page in a range of styles. It's chaotic and there is no set reading order -- begin at the top left, or the middle, or the bottom, if you prefer. The explosion of information creates fantastic tension, the human brain is alarmed upon being presented with such a taxing display of images. I had to take my time on every page, trying to absorb as much of the feeling and intent as possible. It's difficult stuff, as the fractured nature of the narration and the terrible events collide to induce a real feeling of panic even in the comfort of your own living room.

The ability that more conventional comics hold to impart complex information in a deceptively simple manner is not entirely lost. while it takes a while to absorb every page, many individual images are immediately interpreted. Vertical strips are used to great effect on every page, ensuring the skeletal spectre of a tower is never far from your mind. Repeated symbols are used to great effect, particularly the bloodied and tortured American Eagle. This is a comic that not only requires time on each page, but time spent then comparing pages, turning backwards and forwards through the book in order to create an even more layered experience.

As events progress, Spiegelman moves through terror, paranoia, stress, fury and then worst of all, resignation. He appears as his "Maus" persona at times, particularly at his most paranoid. He likens the smell of the smoke to how Vladek once described the smoke at Auschwitz.

Halfway through the book, the art and story stop. Instead, we turn to the one thing that helped Spiegelman to get through his dark periods. Not music or film or literature of course, but comics! The old "funnies" that lived once upon a time in every major newspaper in the land, now lovingly reprinted in this oversized format. Spiegelman introduces the strips with unabashed glee, pointing to various comics, both political and otherwise, that influenced his own cartooning in the aftermath of 9/11. If you, like me, are a huge fan of comics history, this is pure gold -- comics from the early 20th century being essayed about by Art Spiegelman, a master of the descendant genre.

This sudden switch has a rather powerful effect. The first half of the book is steeped in tragedy, trauma and doom, while the latter half is full of nostalgic charm, safety and warmth. Amongst the various reprints are "Krazy Kat" (George Herriman) and the wonderful "Upside Downs" (Gustave Verbeck) -- a strip that can be read as normal then turned upside down to read the second half of the story.

My own copy of the book is entirely unmarked on the inside, but terrifically scuffed on the cover. The iconic imagery is easily damaged, but the thick card stock itself will stand the test of time. Exactly as Spiegelman intended. Much to my disappointment, however, few people in my class had been able to get a hold of "In the Shadow of No Towers," and fewer still held it in the esteem that I do. It also seems to be the one title I can't stop writing about!

Next time: political comics and troubling criticism.

Laura Sneddon is a freelance comics journalist in the UK, writing for mainstream press and websites alike. You can follow her on Twitter and read most of her work at www.comicbookgrrrl.com. In her working hours she sells comics to an unsuspecting public and formulates her plan to become an evil professor of comics.

Fantastic Four Human Torch Thing feature
Fantastic Four's Dumbest Member Commands Marvel's Deadliest Army (Again)

More in Comics