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In his graphic novel titled Maus, Art Spiegelman chose to depict Jews who experienced the holocaust, but he drew them as mice rather than as human beings. Spiegelman also chose to draw the characters and events using a rather simple, literally “cartoonish” style – the kind of style one might find in a comic book rather than in a “serious” work of art. Why did Spielgelman make these choices, and (more important) what are the effects and effectiveness of the choices he made? One might answer these kinds of questions with answers such as the following:
- By presenting the Jews as mice, Spiegelman literalizes a common Nazi metaphor. The Nazis regarded Jews as subhuman vermin, like rats, and so Spielgelman, in a sense, takes them at their word. He presents mice as if they were human beings and human beings as if they were mice. He humanizes the mice, making us identify with them by seeing them as creatures very much like ourselves. For some reason, mice have often made appealing cartoon characters, perhaps because they are small, unthreatening, and even apparently friendly. By presenting humans as mice, Speigelman makes them seem no harm to anyone and thus makes the brutality with which they are treated seem all the more shocking and horrendous.
- At the same time, by presenting human beings as if they are mice, Spiegelman also distances us, in a sense, from brutalities from which we might simply turn away if the subjects depicted were undeniably human. At one point, for instance, Spiegelmen shows Nazi soldiers smashing young mice against walls, staining the walls with blood and killing the young mice by repeatedly smashing them in this way. As the father narrating these events reports,
Some kids were screaming and screaming. They couldn’t stop. So the Germans swinged [sic] them by the legs against a wall. And they never anymore screamed.
Spiegelman’s drawings of young mice being smashed against walls are difficult enough to look at. However, if the drawings had been of human children being treated in this ways, the drawings would probably be unendurable – almost pornographic in their depiction of suffering and evil. By drawing mice rather than humans, Spiegelman lets us imagine the suffering of humans without having to witness it so blatantly that it would literally be hard to stomach. By using a cartoonish, comic-book style to draw the mice, Spiegelman again creates some necessary distance. Otherwise his book would be almost too difficult, at least in some places, to read.
- Finally, by depicting humans as mice, Spiegelman tempts us to look at the holocaust with fresh eyes, from a fresh perspective. Sometimes it is easy to assume that we already know everything there is to know about the holocaust. Sometimes we assume that we have already seen everything there is to see. Spiegelman’s decision to use mice creates curiosity in us and makes us want to read and view in ways we have never read or viewed before.
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