The first volume of Art Spiegelman’s Maus includes a large half-page panel featuring the artist’s father, Vladek, at home with his extended family after he sneaks across the border from the Protectorate to the Reich. A small close-up frame of the older retrospective Vladek riding his exercise bike appears in the upper left, an inset in the larger picture of the Spiegelmans and the Zylberbergs at their dining room table in Sosnowiec. Though only one of the hundreds of panels that constitute Spiegelman’s memoir, that panel alone deftly demonstrates the intricacy of his narrative; his deceptively simple words and drawings create a layered meta-memoir that simultaneously depicts the present and the past, intersections of mundane moments of ordinary life and the horrors of the Nazi regime.
Overlaying the larger panel of the family at home in 1940 with the smaller image of the aging Vladek underscores the presence of the past that pervades the panels of Spiegelman interviewing his father decades later. Spiegelman further emphasizes the presence of the past with Vladek’s speech balloon, which breaks the border of the smaller panel to enter the scene in Sosnowiec. The spilling, or bleeding, of his words into that long-ago night may evoke in readers thoughts of the memoir’s subtitle: My Father Bleeds History. More than thirty years after the Holocaust, the wounds remain.
At first glance, the image of the Spiegelmans and the Zylberbergs around the dining room table is one of domestic bliss. When Vladek first speaks of the memory, he notes the lack of change—or what appears to be the lack of change. In his words, “When first I came home it looked exactly so as before I went away” (74). The unconventional syntax of his speech denotes that English is not his first language, but perhaps the most striking element of the sentence is the central placement of the word “looked.” The panel offers a look into a seemingly ordinary evening at home. The men’s suits and the women’s dresses and pearls typify their pre-war affluence, which Vladek mentions in the narration that concludes the panel. There Vladek says, “It was still very luxurious” (74).
Along with the family’s clothing, the dining room illustrates the luxury: the spacious hall that comfortably seats four generations, the upholstered chairs, and the wainscoting. But the words that conclude the panel undercut those creature comforts. The sentence that ends with “luxurious” is followed by these words: “The Germans couldn’t destroy everything at one time” (74). That line reminds readers that the destruction they don’t see in the panel is just around the corner, perhaps just outside the window that offers a view into the dining room.
Readers see the family through the panes of the window, which Spiegelman draws at an oblique angle, indicating that something is askew. The shift in Vladek’s final line—from “luxury” to “destruction”—shifts readers’ perspective on the scene as well. With Vladek’s final words, the dark, heavy window grilles become the bars of a cage. Readers see the family as the storyteller-survivor does, both as the happy family they were and the prey they would become.
Writing of Maus, Hillary Chute, author of Why Comics?, has observed that “the ways in which the past invades the present recollection, or vice versa, gradually grows more ominous” (346). That intersection of the present and the past, which Spiegelman so skillfully draws, may be particularly menacing to readers now. In 2020, we are as far removed from the publication of Maus as Vladek was from the Holocaust when he recounted his story to his son. Yet Spiegelman’s panels remind us that the distance of the past is scant. On the eve of an election in a democracy strained and polarized, that is ominous indeed.
Chute, Hillary. “History and Graphic Representation in Maus.” A Comics Studies Reader, edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester, UP of Mississippi, 2009, pp. 340-62.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986.