Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus” is a graphic novel. This term does not seem to be clearly defined, however. At least, it is fairly recognizable to see how Spiegelman attempted to portray his father’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor using a minimalist drawing style. Almost all the frames are full of words. That probably explains why it is rarely considered as a comic book. However, the comic part of the novel plays an important role in the novel as Spiegelman seems to intentionally transmit some of his messages to the readers via his drawings.
It is absolutely necessary to understand why Spiegelman chooses to depict Germans as cats, Jews as mice and Poles as pigs. They are important signifiers. Cats tend to pursue mice. It indicates the relationship between Jews and Nazi Germans. Throughout the novel, we can see a large number of scenes when Nazi Germans try to chase Jews. Also, as the main topic is racism, it is not hard to realize Spiegelman’s attempt to let the readers distinguish between races to emphasize the treatment of one over another. To borrow a phrase from Scott McCloud in his book, “Understanding comics: the invisible art”, Spiegelman seems to know how to “make the reader work a little.” It does not seem to be clear why Spiegelman chooses to represent the Poles as pigs though. However, I believe that Spiegelman wants to choose an animal that does not signify any orientation towards any race. We can see in the novel that sometimes, pigs do help mouse and sometimes, harm them. Pigs don’t seem to like cats, however, they still sometimes want to please them.
There should be another reason to explain Spiegelman’s depiction. In the second part of the novel, sometimes the characters wear pig or mouse masks to disguise themselves or just pretend to be other animals. Spiegelman’s way to portray people as animals does help in this case. It effectively indicates when disguisement occurs. In a graphic novel that is filled with words, this depiction seems to be expressive enough to let the readers be aware of some characters’ conspiracies.
Spiegelman seems to purposefully adapt a minimalist drawing style, especially in depicting humans’ faces. I think his message goes against racism. We all are the same. According to McCloud’s ideas about abstraction, Spiegelman makes them abstract to the highest degree. A few dots and lines are enough to make a human face. Nothing else is necessary. Classifying ourselves into anything is rather absurd.
This depiction does have a drawback, however. It is funny to know that the author actually has trouble choosing an animal to represent Françoise. At the beginning of the second part, Artie struggles to choose between a number of possibilities like mouse, rabbit and cat. She is French so she could be a rabbit. She is then converted to Judaism to please her father-in-law so she should be a mouse now.
The novel has other signs as well. One of them is the road that looks like a swastika at the end of chapter five in the first part. It is when his parents do not know where to go in Sosnowiec. It symbolically signifies the Nazism. However, I think the relationship can be indexical too. The Nazism refers to a cruel and belligerent force. Therefore, it can signify a feeling of hopelessness when dealing with something unpleasant as well.
Overall, the comic part seems to play an important role in the success of the novel. Although they are simple drawings, they are intentionally simple and surprisingly expressive.