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Maus, Modernism, and the Mass Ornament

Spiegelman’s Low Modernism

A seemingly minor episode in Françoise Mouly’s biography holds special significance for the intersection of comics and the avant-garde during Art Spiegelman’s early career. In 1975, having arrived in New York with only $200 in her pocket and eager to improve her English by reading comics, Mouly had a part in Richard Foreman’s play Pandering to the Masses: A Misrepresentation, performed by his Ontological-Hysteric Theater at 491 Broadway. Despite her shaky command of English, Mouly had no trouble slipping into her role. Almost none of the dialogue was delivered live by the actors. The avant-garde director, seated on the edge of the stage with an electronic keyboard that spliced together music and speech, narrated the entire event. The play was a hit. “This is an outlandish investigation of inner space,” a New York Times reviewer enthused, “a dream-like exploration of the associative method.”[1] It is from a similar interest in art as “happening,” a dreamlike realm devoid of narrative structure—what by extrapolation from Foreman’s “total theater” might be called “total comics”—that Spiegelman’s underground comics emerged.

Spiegelman dazzled avant-garde audiences with comics and cartoon fans with avant-garde effects to defy expectations on both sides, thwarting panel sequence and linearity the same way Foreman choreographed words, things, and bodies in his deceptively “pandering” performance. It is fair to say that despite the play’s title, Foreman was hardly an accessible playwright; and even though he hired actors who merely “stood still for hours onstage, shifting poses only once or twice,” his performance art is all about creative improvisation. [2] Both he and Spiegelman sought a quality at once unaffected and rigorous, a way of employing nonsense to explore how the human mind constitutes creative meaning. In this view, “pandering to the masses” calls for a descent into the underground of the human mind where its primal consciousness unfurls. To Foreman, this meant diving into his own subconscious, where he would curate stage-worlds that served as representations of his own psyche. For Spiegelman, the avant-garde energy of countercultural New York fostered a comparable style of free association, from the cryptic surrealism of his late-sixties drawings for MAD cofounder Wally Wood to much of the New Wave design and pulp cubism of the artwork collected in Breakdowns (1977) and within the pages of RAW magazine in the early 1980s. In his telling, “comics are a way of putting id creatures on paper”; they “have a pipeline to something very basic about the way people think.”[3]

And yet, even as he and Mouly were introducing US audiences to experimental comics, Spiegelman was gradually coming to terms with comics as a medium of mass entertainment, both in the sense that it drew large audiences and in the sense that Foreman understood his own art: as a foray into the mass mind, into processes and connections that transcended individual differences. When he shifted gears from absurdist, opaque drawings to revisit his expressionist strip “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” (1972), serialize his family memoir in RAW, and publish the first volume of Maus in 1986, Spiegelman was “pandering to the masses” in a different way than Foreman’s disorienting compositions did. Maus discarded the radical avant-garde of Breakdowns and the overstated high modernism of the “Prisoner” strip (“part Caligari, part Munch”).[4] It opts instead for what we may call the “low modernism” of a spare form and stringent storyline that addressed the twentieth century’s most catastrophic mass event with both candor and humility.

Spiegelman studiously eschewed the lowly associations of the comics form, widely perceived as a “gutter medium” or “junk literature,” for many years.[5] Maus itself, with its historical setting and poignant story, couldn’t be farther from the typical DC Comics superhero fare of the 1970s, so Spiegelman could hardly expect it to be read by millions. Nevertheless, he changed his drawing style to engage audiences beyond the avant-garde magazine reader, fashioning Maus as a more reader-friendly twin to his riskier magazine project with Françoise, which favored the kind of art “that would find [him] with a smaller and smaller audience.”[6] “A certain kind of comics,” Spiegelman observed in 1979, “comics that are interested in the form itself, that deal with the form as its subject matter, one could only take so far without really losing the bulk of the people who would otherwise comprise my audience.”[7] In a radical departure from the more rarified RAW, Maus blends highbrow artifice, intimate testimony, and unfussy storytelling to create a visual surface that levels the playing field between cartoonist and reader; “all of the things I was trying to deconstruct for a decade,” Spiegelman recalls, “I was trying to reconstruct in Maus” (Sabin, “Interview with Art Spiegelman,” 121). As part of this reconstruction, stark expressionist lines were replaced with less distinctive shapes better suited to a narrative of mass slaughter because less inclined to aestheticize it. Above all, the shift signaled Spiegelman’s refusal to draw comics in the modernist tradition of exclusivity and superior talent that had been the province of RAW. Arguably even RAW, despite its gourmet pretensions, cultivated only a mock-exclusive tone; one issue was called “Open Wounds from the Cutting Edge of Commix,” another “A Comic Book for Damned Intellectuals.”

While the woodcut style of “Prisoner” suited its serious subject—the suicide of Anja Spiegelman more than two decades after surviving Auschwitz—for the longer narrative the laboriousness of the engraving process threatened to limit its accessibility. Beside stopping the narrative flow, “it insisted on [Spiegelman’s] superiority to the reader, in the sense of, ‘I have a certain expertise at making this thing that looks like wood engravings that you don’t have, so shut up and listen’” (Spiegelman, Meta-Maus, 143). For Spiegelman, leaning too much toward modernist art amounted to a “mock-respectability, an ersatz respectability,” which demoted comics to the rung of imitators, belittling the diagrammatic essence that remains their stand-out feature even when a cartoonist draws especially well.[8] Instead, Maus featured fleetingly sketched scenes, while Meta-Maus, the book-length making-of to the graphic memoir, makes no secret of Spiegelman’s multiple attempts to get his angles right (Spiegelman, Meta-Maus, 178). In its stodgy panel design, tremulous lines, and notational writing style, Maus clearly courted the wide readership that would in fact appreciate his book at the dawn of an era that marked the rise of the graphic novel in the esteem of cultural tastemakers and in the bestseller charts.

Spiegelman aims for a mythic, archetypal effect in the minimalist way he tells the story of a crime that touched millions during and after World War II. And yet, from the suspicion of the comics medium voiced by Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, to Art’s own remorse about exploiting his family in “Time Flies,” Maus is shot through with doubt about the ethics of applying a mass medium to the representation of mass murder. After all, the father’s narrative of survival threatens to erase many others, perhaps less known or more unassuming. It is not by accident, then, that having settled on Vladek as the book’s main interest, Spiegelman goes on to downplay his father’s uniqueness by fleshing out anthropomorphic rodent crowds huddling behind Vladek in almost every panel set in the ghetto or the camps, as if apologizing for the artistic mausoleum he builds for his family while other victims lie anonymously in mass graves. The covers of the two volumes—a couple’s portrait for the first, an orderly group of mice in camp uniforms for the second—suggest that Spiegelman wants to both immortalize a single story colored by eccentricity and commemorate the large-scale killings.

Spiegelman’s vision of mass extermination is, however, much different from the “six million emaciated Oscar statuettes” that Schindler’s List—a frequent target of his critique—conjured up for him.[9] What gives strength to the book, beyond the survival narrative itself, is its unflinching mechanics of repetition. The Auschwitz-centered panels are weighed down by an endless procession of victims, with inmates reappearing in consecutive panels until they do not—and their absence calls attention to itself. Maus brings to life the statistics of the camps by making the mouse masses an integral part of how the book comes together as a graphic narrative sustained by inter-panel repetition and the mechanical pace of camp life. Comics itself is, of course, a cumulative art that relies on seriality and repetition. Simply holding a book of comics primes the reader for an experience of ordered accretion, of amassment. After all, in Maus Spiegelman is “taking a life and putting it in rows”—the end result of panel breakdowns, comics’ key organizational device (Bergdoll, “Art Spiegelman,” 9). At the same time, as Michael Silverblatt noted in an interview with Spiegelman, “the concentration camp experience is . . . the experience of repetition—repetition with terror,” which generates harmonious forms despite its intrinsic cruelty.[10] Mass images, then, afford Spiegelman the architectonic rigor he needs to accurately represent the squalor of the camps while also reminding his readers of the fascist aesthetic on which the genocidal system was founded. Mass emblems also make it easier for the cartoonist to throw away all flourish and decorative trappings; because “if you only have . . . an inch and a half of space or less, by two inches or three inches in which to draw thirty people, you’re not going to get involved in a lot of extraneous nonsense. You’re going to go for the immediacy and the urgent sign” (Silverblatt, “The Cultural Relief,” 131).

The presence of mass images thus seems essential to the book’s project, and yet they have completely escaped critical attention. Generally, the visual style of Maus has been discussed as a function of the book’s necessarily partial memory archive. “The minimalism of [Spiegelman’s] comic book panels is a silent acknowledgement of the failure of any post-memory,” wrote Hamida Bosmajian.[11] And Nancy K. Miller analyzed the back covers of the two volumes in light of the memoir’s “intergenerational matrix of identity.”[12] Certainly, this narrative-oriented approach is not without merit, not least because it has cemented the status of Maus in the history of literature. Yet it overemphasizes the book’s literary attributes, rewarded of course by the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in Letters and further nominations and wins in fiction categories.[13] Since mass themes are generally the province of visual art, discussions of their use in Maus would have unpacked important aspects of the book’s approach to camp representation. There might be several reasons for this oversight; most likely, mass images simply do not fit the dominant perception of Maus as a self-reflexive text that interrogates its own process.

While Spiegelman can demystify his father’s survival and his mother’s silent passing, desacralize the Jewish experience of the Holocaust, and lambast the Holocaust culture industry, he cannot make any pronouncements, redemptive or otherwise, about the other victims on the page. Quite the opposite, the mass of victims makes a mockery of the idea of collective responsibility, commitment, and compassion. It also queries the putative possibility to remember; surely not everyone’s fate can be recalled, not in light of the sheer number of victims of the mass exterminations. That being said, the central dynamic of mass representation, namely the aesthetic of repetition, does hold a prominent place in readings of the book. Michael Levine, for one, in his analysis of Art’s smoking in Maus, highlights the repetitive rhythms of the drawing process, punctuated by the alternating movement of inhaling and exhaling. Levine’s image of the “chain of cigarettes”—each smoked cigarette materializing in miniature the bodies turned to ash in the Auschwitz cremation pits—articulates the compulsion toward repetition and revision that underlies Spiegelman’s panel streams.[14]

My contention will be that in verifying the book’s modernist credentials and claim to fame, Maus’s scores of victims and panoramic sites of disaster are at least as important as Vladek’s moving testimony. I draw attention to mass imagery in the memoir to show that Spiegelman’s figuration of crowds reflects the deep-seated modernist paradox pitting individual expression against mass behavior. Specifically, Spiegelman’s fraught allegiance to both mass culture (the comics medium) and high modernism (through his affinity for the avant-garde) manifests itself with particular clarity in the way he represents crowds as victims, witnesses, and literary publics. I am interested in this interplay of modernity and mass experience in Maus not least because it illuminates the contest between exclusive and popular aesthetics around which the post-Maus history of comics has revolved. When he encases his narrative within the larger frame of mass mobilization and political spectacle in Nazi Germany, on one hand, and the sheer scale of mass genocide on the other, Spiegelman not only elevates comics to the standards of modernist art, he also exposes the complicity of the aesthetic avant-garde with the development of fascist myth-making. Of course, the throng of inmates we encounter in Maus is partly the result of the Holocaust’s mass victimology. Yet the way the crowds are drawn bespeaks Spiegelman’s desire to both evoke and betray the mass aesthetics of the interwar era by crafting a particular (non-trivializing, non-infantilizing) brand of “low modernism” that reaches a mass readership without making light of the millions who lost their lives in the Nazi death camps.

The artistic success and cultural longevity of Spiegelman’s art may indeed rest, to an extent that has yet to be recognized, on the way mass murder and mass audience are made to resonate with each other in the mass ornaments of Maus. In pursuing this argument, my first point is that mass imagery in Maus is best understood at the confluence of the Holocaust’s enormous scale and the monumental ambitions of interbellum visual art, particularly in its anti-fascist incarnations. Second, I elaborate on the book’s anti-ornamental style, which resists both the decorative grandeur of Third Reich representation and the artistic privilege of high modern art, while aligning itself with the socio-egalitarian ideology of the woodcut tradition. Third, I show that in formations which may be grouped under the category panopticomics, Spiegelman arranges the inmate crowds into an obscene mirror image of Nazi military formations, but undercuts their harmonious design and propagandistic function by delving inside the crowd to linger on emotional close-ups. In looser, less regimented panels, I argue, Spiegelman infuses the camps’ visual congestion with a sense of authorial guilt about his book’s complicity in recreating it. Finally, I revisit the distorted drawings of the “Prisoner” strip at the center of Maus I to reflect on the fate of the solitary dead, specifically on suicide as a private exit from mass detention and the communal showers of poison gas. Mass-Maus, I conclude, dramatizes the central tension facing ambitious comics art, that between the desire to achieve high artistry and the hope that comics can remain true to what Spiegelman termed their “populism, their ability to float through culture without getting zapped by the anti-aircraft missiles of cultural attention.”[15]

A Holocaust of Crowds

Marching troops, exalted mobs, overcrowded camps, and mass graves define the Holocaust as a convergence of mass hysteria and mass murder. Meta-Maus showcases a quote from Winston Churchill’s 1959 Time-Life book about the Second World War that speaks about “the mass of miserable humanity herded into the concentration camps.”[16] It is an apt citation inasmuch as the scope of the genocide is known to us mainly through images of crowds—often throngs of anxious prisoners eager to be selected for labor, not the gas—or large displays of personal possessions plundered from victims (like shoes or hair). Mass processing became a necessity for the Nazi extermination system not least because killing each victim one by one was costly, tedious, and taking too large a toll on the psyche of German soldiers. One high-ranking opponent of Hitler’s regime—opposed to the Führer’s methods, that is, not to the murders themselves—cried when he heard members of the SS report that “it wasn’t exactly pretty to spray with machine-gun fire ditches crammed with thousands of Jews and then to throw earth on the bodies that were still twitching.”[17] Gas chambers and crematoria conveniently concealed the victims from their exterminators and Allied forces tempted to intervene. The impact of Maus as a document of this slaughter rests to a large degree on Spiegelman’s willingness to expose the congestion in the camps in ways that, first, articulate the enormity of allowing such mass cruelty to unfold unimpeded and, second, hold up a censorious mirror to visual Modernism’s geometrical cleanness and cult of order.

Attention to its mass imagery inevitably aligns Maus with a persistent debate around the rise of post-Enlightenment mass culture. When the science of mass psychology developed in the second half of the nineteenth century in response to industrial urbanization, French social psychologists Gabriel Tarde and Gustave le Bon—mindful of the mutinous revolutionaries who had stormed the Bastille—maintained that the mentality of the crowd is always barbaric, enslaving, and irrational. In the interwar period, the impact of the masses as political actors and consumers appeared to herald the downfall of Western culture itself. Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses shuddered at what he perceived as the conformity of the multitude and the resulting dehumanization of the individual: “There are no longer protagonists,” he lamented, “there is only the chorus.”[18] Other intellectuals welcomed the shift, arguing that it enabled progressive art and cultural production. And if the Swedish cultural historian Stefan Jonsson is right, in Crowds and Democracy, masses “were even seen as the covenant for a more advanced community that would turn human labor and technology into means for achieving truly human ends.”[19] Belying this utopian diagnosis, Maus tells a story of mass slaughter driven by mass magnetism in an era of mass politics that allowed a demagogue like Adolf Hitler to make a fortune and unmake the German republic by selling 12.5 million copies of his ideological manifesto Mein Kampf by 1945.[20]

The Holocaust occurred just as the exaltation of expressionism collided with the media of mass propaganda to produce a regime that by every conceivable means, ranging from typography to architecture and from cinema to weapons design, aestheticized politics and offered it up for mass consumption. The crowds swarming inside Spiegelman’s book must be understood through this imbrication of fascist aesthetics and modernist culture. That being said, both in the text’s quivering style and in the paratextual endpaper images, Maus reverses the premises of fascist mass rituals—with their collective apotheosis—channeling instead the mass martyrdom they obscured. Unlike militant crowds, the groups of camp inmates we encounter in the book didn’t willingly gather to march or to riot. And while individuals did surrender their autonomy in the camps, they didn’t gain a collective identity; in fact, they surrendered everything else, too. Deprivation and abuse fused them into a mass that lacked a purpose or cause. If for Le Bon and Tarde the crowd devolves into a mass of mindless automatons at the mercy of a demagogue, in Auschwitz there is no power to speak of and no rallying cry.

Because studies of crowd psychology have focused on dynamic masses vitalized by a common spirit, they aren’t as useful in understanding mass victimhood. Instead, to elucidate the centrality of the Holocaust’s vast death toll to the aesthetics of Maus, I want to recruit a different set of voices than what is typical of crowd analysis. First, Spiegelman represents not only multiple mouse victims but many SS cats, too, in the panels that depict Auschwitz executions. He does so, I believe, in order to stress that every perpetrator featured in the book must be regarded as a single cog in the machine of organized mass perpetration. To understand the book’s consistency in grouping victims and executioners, I turn to historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, even though his views on the anti-Semitic cruelty of ordinary Germans are controversial, because he provides unparalleled insight into the mechanics of mass murder. Second, Spiegelman bestows inordinate attention on a particular kind of crowd, the indistinguishable corpse heap—informed partly by a clandestine photo of the Auschwitz burning pits that became a visual shorthand for the Holocaust. The voyeuristic, pornographic quality of these images as icons of inhumanity has been examined at length. More apposite though for a discussion of mass violence in Maus are, as we shall see, Elias Canetti’s thoughts on the symbolic density of the corpse heap in his anthropological study Crowds and Power.

For Goldhagen, to simply describe the phenomenology of killing is to evacuate its emotional meaning, which is why he asks that we apply our imaginations to making the numbers come alive: “When writing or reading about killing operations, it is too easy to become insensitive to the numbers on the page,” he cautions in Hitler’s Willing Executioners. “The Jewish victims were not the ‘statistics’ that they appear to us on paper. To the killers whom they faced, the Jews were people who were breathing one moment and lying lifeless, often before them, the next.”[21] The gruesome act of killing must emerge in its full reality if we are to understand how perpetrators could suppress their emotions and persevere, as they did, for many years. Goldhagen describes the public, collective massacres in grotesque detail: “Blood, bone, and brains were flying about, often landing on the killers, smirching their faces and staining their clothes. Cries and wails of people awaiting their imminent slaughter or consumed in death throes reverberated in German ears” (Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, 22). Such scenes exhort us to contemplate every single murder—many carried out independently of military operations—with unremitted outrage, anguish, and revulsion. Spiegelman elicits similar emotions from his readers by taking the time to draw clusters of prisoners and tormentors in sequential panels that envision the drawn-out routines of humiliation in the camps.[22]

The many above-ground, wall-less tombs on the pages of the book draw viewers in and choke them up by harnessing the emotive power of the corpse pile (Maus II:41, 43, 49, 72, 87, 95). The visible piles may well be mere tributaries to the larger stacks of bodies inside the camp barracks, yet what they lack in size they make up for in density and detail. Spiegelman draws the corpse heap as a single creature with dozens of heads, arms, and legs, amorphously folded together in a way that contrasts with the Brownian motion of living crowds.[23] The resulting arrangement dramatically enhances the impact of Maus as a document of modern mass warfare. And Cannetti is, to my knowledge, the only theorist to address mass death as a form of crowd symbol. In one section of his study Crowds and Power, he is fascinated by what he calls “stagnating crowds”—a category that comprises the corpses of fallen enemies on the battlefield. “From the earliest times,” he writes, “war reports have been characterized by these twofold statistics: on the one side, so many men on the move; on the other, so many dead.”[24] As a testimony of the Holocaust and military modernism, Maus captures the moment when the mass production of death enabled a small number of fighters to inflict a stupendous loss of life among its designated enemy group.

In marking this milestone, Spiegelman implicates himself and his readers in a process of memorialization that requires mass recollection before it can recover individual histories and work to prevent similar acts of concerted violence. Spiegelman opposes what he terms the “closed-off martyrology that doesn’t necessarily open up into what it is to be a passive witness to ethnic cleansing.”[25] Not only those directly affected by the exterminations but their contemporaries and offspring, too, are touched by the events. When Maus II records Vladek’s death, it pointedly juxtaposes it with Françoise’s first pregnancy and the publication of Maus I (II:41). The book, then, fashions itself as an elaborate testament for those buried in mass graves and for those who received adequate tombstones (reproduced on the last page, II:136), as well as a guide for living survivors and those yet to be born, for present and future readers. Despite its invisibility, the most important crowd of all, Canetti reminds us, is posterity itself (Crowds and Power, 46).

Maus and Anti-Ornamental Style

Such mass recollection of genocide necessitates a language that does not exclude, intimidate, or aestheticize. As it shuttles between camps in Poland and the family’s postwar home in Queens, Spiegelman’s narrative consistently mobilizes subdued styles for its crowded locations. The New York City scenes convey the urban bustle of early American comic strips, many of which accurately reflected the overcrowded conditions of the modern metropolis. “I love to walk over to Broadway,” Mickey Dugan aka the Yellow Kid once noted, “because there are so many there, and I am not so few myself.”[26] Set in the polyglot, packed tenements of New York City’s Lower East Side in the 1890s, Sunday supplement comics like R. F. Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley and Rudolph Dirk’s The Katzenjammer Kids employed a cramped panel design that replicated the riotous experience of tenement life.[27] Particularly in the “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” sequence at the center of Maus I, Spiegelman evokes this buzzing, multiethnic setting of belle époque urban America, but mixes it with the angled modernism of European woodcut art to create a hybrid of ornamental avant-garde and lowbrow pandemonium.

It is the camp scenes, however, that best exemplify the book’s synthesis of exclusive and popular art forms. On the one hand, the dense prisoner ranks hark back to the stark materiality of wood engraving, reproducing its ability to focus on the individual even in the most congested frames. It was this humanistic touch that brought avant-garde woodcut art closer to the masses and inspired the working-class progressivism its luminaries embraced.[28] On the other hand, the echoes of fascist formations percolating even through the apathetic crowds of Auschwitz raise the question of how art and politics colluded to reach mass publics and sweep them into the collective hysteria that triggered the extermination of the European Jews. Wary of the mass iconography coopted by the Nazi propaganda machine, Spiegelman infuses Maus with throwbacks to both “high” expressionist art and the leftist sensibilities of the messier wordless novel, thus occupying a fraught position between the crowds mobilized by interwar socialist unrest and the sterile parades who marched alongside Hitler.

Specifically, Maus bears traces of the elite expressionism practiced by Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and other members of Die Brücke, a movement which in the postwar era still seemed unsavorily tied to romantic notions of Germanness, despite having been branded as degenerate by the Nazi regime. Most of Spiegelman’s expressionist influences, however, originate in woodcuts by artists who were politically active on the left and whose works were banned to make room for Nazi propaganda. Georg Alexander Mathéy, whose 1916 woodcut Brennende Stadt (Burning Town) depicts the ravages of war among distraught crowds that echo the Jewish masses of Maus, lived abroad between 1929 and 1940, like many other graphic artists who had fallen out of favor with the Nazi leadership.[29] Flemish wood engraver Frans Masereel, who illustrated several socialist and pacifist magazines that were banned in Nazi Germany, dedicated an entire book of chiseled engravings—The Idea (1920)—to the power of the masses and their paradoxical indifference to the ideals of progressive art. Considering their focus on the role of the artist in an age of mass apathy and war, many pages of Masereel’s book would not seem out of place in Maus I. What brings out Spiegelman’s allegiance to the progressivist wordless novel is clearly his predilection for amorphous crowds, which artists on the left favored over the one-man drama and neatly designed marches in engravings by Richard Schwarzkopf, to name but one prominent example in the nationalist repertoire.

Art historian Christine Poggi has usefully contrasted the left-wing aesthetics of graphic arts in pre-WWI Europe—which gravitated toward urban spectacle, popular entertainment, or pacifist critique—with the panoramas and political montages favored by the fascist and Stalinist regimes. To counteract the association of crowds with dictatorship and war, she argues, after 1945 “representations of the masses as a surging force devoted to a leader or a cause receded in favor of celebrations of the individual.”[30] Yet through imagery that poignantly revisits the large-scale disasters of World War II and recalls the mass victimology of the Holocaust, epitomized by disorderly ranks of camp inmates, Maus partially contradicts Poggi’s argument. Not only does Spiegelman re-engage the tainted iconography of wartime masses, he also incorporates the elevated viewpoints of modernist panorama (by crafting the story of Mauschwitz writ large) rather than submit to the safer dictates of subjective history (i. e. the biography of a single “Maus”). Nevertheless, Spiegelman deliberately distinguishes the jagged mass of Maus from its polished counterpart on the Nazi parade grounds by choosing a drawing style that punctures the ornamental surface of the mass symbol.

The Mauschwitz deportees aren’t vehicles of a galvanizing power, heaving with shared purpose, or in any way like Marinetti’s “great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot.”[31] The “work” in the tin shops outside the camp, carried out under superficially legitimate pretenses, makes a mockery of the productivity touted by propagandistic images and slogans. The shapelessness of inmate crowds is less exhilarating than piteous; they don’t propagate sentiment, in fact they reduce its range, and no hypnotic leader can disturb the passivity reigning over all. The prisoners’ lethargic actions and the perfunctory rituals of their executioners are utterly purposeless and defeated. These small-time killers fail to embody the pathos of Nazi rhetoric—what Saul Friedländer referred to as the intoxication or ecstasy that seized Nazi leaders, an elation partly generated by the large number of their victims, and Dominick LaCapra dubbed “the Nazi sublime,” a transgressive, quasi-religious aesthetic sustained by marches of gigantic scale and fanatical speeches to a spellbound audience of up to half a million.[32]

For Siegfried Kracauer, the mass ornament is “an end in itself . . . whose closure is brought about by emptying all the substantial constructs of their contents.”[33] The coherence of the decorative mass rests, then, on the gulf that separates it from its constituent minds. Measured against this formula, Spiegelman’s crowd imagery is decidedly anti-ornamental. Though the most memorable crowd studies in Maus are, as we shall see, showy, usually wordless tableaus in line with Kracauer’s formalist description of monstrous masses (the front pastedown and flyleaf sketches, along with POW marches, ghettos, and selection tables in I:49, 55, 59, 83, 88, 90; or the communal shower scenes in II:26), they are frequently paired with more workmanlike, verbose crowd panels that zoom in on single schematized figures (for instance in the series of panels where the block commander addresses the crowd, looking for someone who speaks English, II: 31). Spiegelman applies this magnifying lens to both imprisoned mice and their feline guards, who mill around the camp in scattered groups and parrot Nazi authority by compulsively ordering inmates into neat ranks.

In addition to counterbalancing stark aerial views with more intimate angles, Spiegelman adopts a strikingly non-decorative graphic style. Driving the book’s visual hesitancy is the implication that the geometric beauty of expressionist art—on display in the “Prisoner” strip—parallels the Nazi state’s aesthetic inebriation with ritualistic marches, sumptuous architecture, and cult eschatology. After all, Spiegelman wanted his work to be palatable for readers who might balk at the sight of overflowing extermination camps drawn in the style of Nordic expressionism that received official blessing from no less a figure than Joseph Goebbels. Certainly, the title illustrations throughout the book and the endpaper sketches do hint at the rawboned style Spiegelman opted against but do so in a way that acknowledges the proximity between ornamental masses and aesthetic fascism. The most potent mass imagery in Maus resists the cooptation of art by messianic politics by reproducing symbols of fascism only to strip them of their mystical halo. Spiegelman’s consciously artisanal craft negates the privilege of the artist’s hand, which both liberates him from accusations of complicity with a despotic regime and democratizes the technical expertise needed to cartoon the Holocaust.

Walter Benjamin memorably argued that fascism mobilizes aesthetic form to buttress its political agendas and give rapt masses the tools to express themselves. “The logical outcome of fascism,” he writes, “is an aestheticizing of political life.”[34] In this view, fascist leaders subdue their followers by pressing political rhetoric into vacuous, ritualized aesthetic forms, and Spiegelman appears to share this understanding of somber formalism as incompatible with justice. To counteract the fascist primacy of form over ethics, he adopts a vernacular style characterized by the opposite of perfectionism, polish, or enchanting power. It is true that Meta-Maus reveals each panel was in fact fastidiously revised, but the artist’s goal was historical accuracy rather than formal idealism. Where they do surface, expressionist techniques in Maus illustrate how the choreography of demonic crowds in fascist art devoured its viewers with its coaxing, proselytizing allure. Translated into the terms of comics art, such panels, which I refer to as panopticomics, establish the crowded conditions in the camps as the function of a fascist regime’s “final solution.”

Panopticomics: Mechanics of the Macabre

Spiegelman’s Mauschwitz is inseparable from the semantics of the mass. All camp activities depicted in the book involve a shared experience designed to facilitate the extermination process (making it more akin to factory farming and the mass slaughter of animals) while inflicting humiliation and shame. In one episode, inmates are fed at once, from the same pot of soup; mice standing in line hold on to their bowls solemnly and peek over the shoulders of the throng to estimate how much will be left when they reach the head of the queue (II:49). Each inmate’s life is shaped by this accumulation of bodies in limited space, with meagre resources, for an unknown length of time, in an atmosphere of arbitrary violence and senseless cruelty. Crowds of hungry inmates are only one of many intermittent mobs that punctuate Vladek’s account of the camps. I will first detail the design and focalization of living crowds in dynamic panels, before moving on to inert masses, the literal “still lifes.” The way the two types shade into each other reveals the individualizing techniques Spiegelman employs to disrupt the hypnotic effects of political formalism.

For a book that aims to represent industrial killing sites, Maus is remarkably free of technical detail. Instead, Spiegelman prefers to picture automation indirectly by juxtaposing mechanized and human labor, machines and their operators. When Art’s psychiatrist, Pavel, himself a camp survivor, explains to his patient which tools were probably available in Vladek’s tin shop, Art complains that he hates to draw machinery; and yet Spiegelman sketches both a cutter and a drill press (II:45). To be fair, he outlines them only hastily in a panel that pinpoints the role of mechanization in reducing inmate bodies to surplus biomass. In the deep, factory-like interior, Vladek and his Kapo occupy the foreground, while other tin-cutting mice recede into darkness at the far end of the room. Along the narrow hall we see ghostlike inmates working what looks like three drill presses and two cutting tables. Rather than simply recreating these instruments, Spiegelman points to their vaguely threatening, weapon-like presence. The mindless mechanics dramatized in these panels exposes the sadism of tasking prisoners with the manufacture of fuses for German automatic weapons, after Krupp’s facility for artillery detonators in Essen had been bombed.[35] Far from controlling the machines, the mice operating the drill presses are themselves fodder for their sharp blades and guillotines. With a striking economy of means, the scenes of mass labor in Maus epitomize the larger machine of the war that masticated all, metal and flesh alike.

The equipment inside the extermination chambers is even more resistant to description; after all, gassing and cremating the captives involved chemistry and pyrology, not mechanics. Stumped by this figurational challenge, Spiegelman pictures dazed crowds to convey the absurd magnitude of the killing operation. Again and again he draws cypher-like bodies gathering in groups which the guards’ batons sculpt into limp, shifting formations of unimaginable vulnerability. The Appel panels in particular press dense masses into narrow frames by reducing human silhouettes to unfinished shapes at the front, or a messy black-and-white mosaic in the distance (II:50). Despite the guards’ efforts to count the prisoners, the bodies made equal and boxlike by prolonged starvation defy administrative order. Spiegelman’s pointillist approach seems, in retrospect, quite brazen and risky, saved only by his intuition that comics’ inherent reduction of difference would not cancel out each victim’s humanity.

Livelier panopticomics locate the genesis of Spiegelman’s style in the architectural imaginaries of the woodcut medium. When Vladek joins a group of war prisoners volunteering to replace German workers called to the front, Spiegelman depicts forced labor in the class-struggle vein of modernist woodcuts (I:55). Some prisoners wield their shovels and picks with stoicism, others inspect them warily as if holding such tools for the first time. Dwarfed by colossal guard figures, the workers’ silhouettes nevertheless exude an uncanny power. Their slumped outlines echo Giacomo Patri’s White Collar: A Novel in Linocuts (1940), in which busy armies of workers aren’t so much crafting goods as becoming docile subjects. Much the same way modernist engravings integrate modern man within futurist architectures, in Maus the coercion of camp captives finds its formal equivalent in what may be called bio-architecture. From the guards perched in observation towers to the Jewish fugitives hiding in cellars, Spiegelman captures a structural hysteria affecting both buildings and the body. Dovetailing with this biopolitics of the crowd is a mass bureaucracy that assigns (or withholds) paper documentation to incarcerated subjects. Passports, stamps, and coupons traded around the camp—scraps of which later appear in Meta-Maus—are no less dehumanizing than the multiple classifications the captives endure, or the constant surveillance by SS guards and their Sonder-lackeys.

Vladek’s struggle for safety and elbow room in the midst of this systemic mania is key to the book’s anti-fascist point of view. Earlier on I noted that the Jewish crowds gathering for selection in Maus don’t resemble the hushed troops looking on while Hitler strode between the Ehrenhalle and the Ehrentribüne in a ceremony to commemorate the dead. Spiegelman’s comics break the panoptic gaze in two ways. First, unlike the marching masses that dissolve into a single, potent field, Spiegelman’s scrappy crowds are broken by gaps and streams weaving around vans and registration tables (I:90). And two, the book’s panel design puts pressure on fascist architectonics by lingering on scrupulously drawn, deep crowds. In a telescopic swoop that starts with the outbreak of war (I:32) and ends with the borderless frame of the Spiegelmans’ double headstone (II:136), Maus veers from mass psychology to personal experience, from the multitude to the individual, and from the long shot to the close-up.

To formally sabotage the panoramas underpinning Vladek’s account of the Nazi deportations, once in Auschwitz Spiegelman often has his father’s alter ego speak to us from inside an inmate crowd. In several scenes, Spiegelman appears torn between a documentary, wide-angle shot of the camp grounds (II:50) and a more empathetic instinct to rope the reader down into the paralyzed assembly (II:54). Depending on which impulse he decides to follow, the mass of mice spreads out in small dots against the blank horizon (II:84–85), or is compressed into a single face drawn in harrowing detail (II:88, top panel). The book ingeniously reconciles these perspectives by dwelling on nodes and hubs in the camp’s processing system—the Appelplatz or the selection table—which give Spiegelman the chance to use his (admittedly limited) physiognomic artistry to rescue individuals from bureaucratic anonymity. Another canny compromise allows Spiegelman to assume the view of a group photographer (as in the soup serving scene, II: 49), which perspective-wise lies somewhere in between the artifice of the photo session that produces Vladek’s uniformed portrait after the war (II:134) and the morbidity of Dr. Mengele’s physical examinations (II:58).

Group portrait with mouse mass for the front and back endpaper to Maus
Fig. 1. Group portrait with mouse mass for the front and back endpaper to Maus: A Survivor's Tale. I: My Father Bleeds History (New York: Pantheon, 1986).

To understand how the group-portrait format (shoulders and up) helps compartmentalize the masses, let us consider the iconic front and back endpapers of Maus I, for which Spiegelman sketched a solemn mouse formation that does not appear anywhere else in the book (Fig. 1). In lieu of inmate uniforms, the members of this group wear suits, shirts, ties, glasses, or hats—one female even pairs her formal outfit with a string of pearls. Their downcast expressions, the Stars of David pinned to their lapels, and the way the light falls on only one side of each face suggest this is a portrait of Jews in distress, and yet they could not be any more remote from each other. Social loneliness is indeed a common theme in discussions of the concentration camps; Jean-François Lyotard, among others, struggled to envisage a sense of community among the prisoners. “In the concentration camps,” he writes in The Differend, “there would have been no subject in the first-person plural. . . . we did this, we felt that, they made us suffer this humiliation . . . There would be no collective witness.”[36] The frontal gaze inscribed not only in the endpaper image but throughout Maus likewise imagines the barracks as a collective space that paradoxically thwarts connectivity. “It was room hardly to move,” Vladek remembers, let alone interact or socialize (II:30). Inside the cavernous buildings, bodies in striped overalls melt into wood beams. It is unclear if the shapes fading out at the back are other rows of inmates, or mere shadows on the wall—so indistinguishable from ghosts have they all become (II:25, 26, 28).

In line with Lyotard’s denial of camp collectivity, the endpaper portrait in Maus I renders a haphazard assembly of individuals who inhabit the same space but do not partake of the same experience. In that sense, it unsettles what has universally been accepted as the genocide’s collective tragedy; while the collective identity woven into the Shoah was burnished by persecution prior to internment and by cultural memory in its aftermath, inside the camps it was undetectable. Framing the book in this way justifies, on the one hand, Spiegelman’s decision to focus on a single story among many: in Auschwitz, he implies, everyone lived and died alone. But it also points to the reasons why listless masses, like the one etched in this drawing, could never carry the threat of insurrection. Cowed by starvation, scrutiny, and trauma—unaware, that is, of their own aggregate power—the camp prisoners remained locked in their private experience. Paradoxically, then, considering the revolutionary origins of mass politics, pressing these broken subjects into crowds resulted in nothing less than the complete annihilation of their collective agency, as the endpaper lithograph in Maus II (Fig. 2) emphatically attests.

Front and back endpaper lithograph for Maus: A Survivor's Tale. II
Fig. 2. Front and back endpaper lithograph for Maus: A Survivor's Tale. II: And Here My Troubles Began (New York: Pantheon, 1991).

Gazing at the viewer is a tidy formation of mice clad in inmate gear, having shed all accessories and gender markers like ties or pearls. Selfless, sexless, and vaster this time, the group recedes deep into the background all the way to the upper edge of the page, which violently crops off several heads. Seeing the integrity of the bodies vitiated in this way reminds us that they “counted” only in the most basic, administrative sense. Max Weber explained in Economy and Society why the mass administration required by the modern state rests on a complex bureaucratic system, and his ideas have repeatedly been brought to bear on the Holocaust’s coordination and management challenges.[37] In the words of sociologist Ronald J. Berger, the bureaucratic power mobilized by the Nazi state facilitated mass crime “by demanding efficiency and impersonality in the achievement of goals, by providing subordinates with authorization from superiors, by separating and diffusing responsibility, and by routinizing tasks.”[38] This organizational point crops up mainly in discussions about the accountability of desk murderers (like Adolf Eichmann and Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller) known to have performed mundane tasks whose technicality obscured their lethal outcomes. Spiegelman’s endpaper portrait puts a different spin on this by making visible the product of the extermination system—an anonymous mass of Muselmänner—in a style that replicates the camps’ maniacal order and exposes the barbarity of its spurious, mock-mathematical rationalizations.

The inside pages of Maus also visualize the inhuman geometry of the camp, most strikingly in scenes that mirror the camp’s surveillance system, with guards towering over meek crowds (II:25, 30, 31, 50). It is hardly an unusual technique, if we remember that a key objective of the panopticon theorized by Michel Foucault was to tame disorderly crowds, to “avoid those compact, swarming, howling masses that were to be found in places of confinement, those painted by Goya or described by Howard.”[39] Besides, we have seen the Auschwitz watchtowers and machine-gun carrying guards many times before. What Spiegelman adds to these familiar motifs derives from the architecture of comics, namely the transversal repetition of symbols across the book and the layered surface of each panel. The elevated view of the endpaper mouse formations, for instance, recalls the swastika hovering over the town that the Spiegelmans pass through on their journey to the resort where Anja is to receive treatment for depression (I:32). The Nazi symbol induced a delirious irrationality in its followers, channeling what Emile Durkheim called the “collective effervescence” of the crowd, through its ability to elicit ecstatic energies by suspending social norms and unleashing transgressive passions.[40] In the ghettos and camps, by contrast, the swastika and watch guard projected the power of the state to separate, confine, and discipline the Jewish masses. At the page level, the vertical axis of Maus II’s content page picture, which places a camp guard between the barbed-wire fence below and the crematorium smoke swirling above, also capitalizes on the elastic configuration of comics. But can the verticality of the medium capture the techniques of mass control without becoming complicit in their hierarchical obsessions?

Breaking Formation

Spiegelman appears concerned that the techniques of comics might tacitly degrade the victims of the camps’ disciplinary apparatus. He always seemed torn about the need to show the violence—“because not showing it would be to not acknowledge what actually was done and done routinely”—and the fear that detailed reconstructions would result in Grand Guignol, splatter-style exploitation (Spiegelman, Meta-Maus, 215). Similarly, the endpaper portraits can be said to uncomfortably implicate the rigorous art of cartooning in the repressive order of the camps. Even if drawing mice in formation hardly amounts to manually lining them up for selection or the firing squad, the portraits are permeated with the fear that severe formalism might ultimately transmute into an imitation of mass crime. Spiegelman resists this analogy by being as disorganized as possible, or by drawing fences and chimneys so rickety they would not withstand a gust of wind. His insistence on drawing Maus with scratchboard tools and brush, in what must have been a physically punishing process, further substantiates his scruples.

Detail from Maus: A Survivor's Tale. II
Fig. 3. Detail from Maus: A Survivor's Tale. II: And Here My Troubles Began (New York: Pantheon, 1991), 58.

It is the scenes of prisoner selections that are most visibly laced with self-conscious anxiety. Especially apposite is one selection panel in which thirty-odd inmates are prodded into formation before Dr. Mengele (II:58; Fig. 3). The symmetry of the image conjures up modernist obsessions with the geometry of the body and its vulnerability to heavy-duty war machines. When the panel-border slices through the queue, leaving a festoon of legs dangling at the upper edge, the unspoken contention is that what severs these bodies—with the precision of saw blades on a cutting table—is the cartoonist’s pencil itself. In this light, the tin shop of Auschwitz comes to evoke the artist’s own studio, since both play a part in cutting out the pattern of Vladek’s story from the larger fabric of the war’s anonymous fatalities. Even the medium’s sequential structure carries uneasy echoes of the camp’s inhuman selection procedures. Across multiple panel sequences in the book’s second volume, it is difficult to separate the movement of our eyes from the searching gaze of the selectors (II:32). The barebones drawings further compel readers to inspect the crowds closely as they look for signs of Vladek among the prisoners reclining against the wall. The repetitive style demanded by the recurring selections leaves us no choice but to become reluctant witnesses to the rows of inmates gradually thinning out; one small panel that registers the disappearance of Mandelbaum, for instance, features half as many prisoners as the panels before it and betrays no logic in the guards’ preferences (II:34).

In fact, the panel sequences in this section of the book are eerily effective in representing the absurdity of the selections. Their irregular transitions contrast the well-organized, compact masses of Nazi spectacle with the random fashion in which prisoners were removed and executed. When an SS commission comes to the tin shop to select prisoners for forced labor, “the unlucky ones” are picked from a lineup of mice whose triangular heads, propped only by the stripes of their uniforms, render them all but indistinguishable from each other (II:55). This particular procedure takes up four panels, each recording a different version of the same group as it becomes smaller and smaller. Spiegelman takes a gamble here on the ability of the comics narrative to use repetition and the decoding of difference to advance its plot. As our gaze shifts from panel to panel, it feels as if the reading process itself had something to do with the disappearance of the unlucky inmates, who might not vanish at all if we chose to avert our eyes.

Spiegelman is acutely scrupulous about becoming a tacit victimizer himself. When he goes out of his way to craft unruly, irregular-sized panels, he recounts the inmates’ humiliation with self-exculpatory hesitancy and unease (II:26–27). The panels loosen and blur before our eyes in direct proportion to the camp’s demands for mass order: Inmates are rounded up, registered, and branded; they are made to huddle under “live” showers (as opposed to those emitting Zyklon B); they are forced to run naked in freezing temperatures under the watchful eyes of SS guards. We search in vain for emotional cues, for signs that somewhere, somehow humanity remains intact. It is for this reason—as an offstage way to imbue the cold images with emotion—that many Holocaust films soak the Auschwitz setting in metaphorical meteorology: rain, snow, storms. Here, the mice simply blend into their crosshatched surroundings. This style choice allows Spiegelman to organize the panels around line thickness, density, and angles, rather than a clear-cut distinction between the bodies and their exterior, or the camp and its environs, an effect that weakens the force of the drawing as potentially a secondary form of imprisonment. Spiegelman in this way uses the diagrammatic essence of comics to create a symbolic camp, getting its “campness” across (to paraphrase a statement he made in an interview), while holding on to the viewpoint of those inside and to the moral high ground (see Tucker, “Interview,” 201).

Maus also enlists comics dialogue to demonstrate that drawings of the camp must be both accurate and tactful. When word balloons rise from the crowds marching in the shadow of smoke towers, they hang by extremely long strings; at this point, we infer, the minds of the inmates and their suffering bodies are barely connected. What is more, the book’s restrained captions clearly draw on the lyrical terseness of comics. Vladek is reluctant to disclose more than is absolutely necessary, but his tight-lipped style takes on added weight when the omitted language signifies the elision of a person from the camp. After a Belgian is selected for the gas on account of a rash that disqualifies him from labor duty, he cries and screams all night in the wooden barracks, which Spiegelman draws like a set of pantry shelves. “What could I do,” Vladek laments in the caption below; “I couldn’t tell to the Germans they won’t take him . . . and the next day, they took” (II:59). The drawing—a row of three-level bunk beds—cannot show what was taken, nor does Vladek elaborate. The doomed Belgian slips through the cracks of the barrack beds, of the panel sequence, and of Vladek’s wide-meshed syntax in an intentional oversight that harnesses the leaky temporality of comics and dramatizes the camp’s regime of terror. When multiple panels solicit attention, it requires strenuous work to keep track of what happens in each of them and in the gutter space. Drawing Auschwitz in comics form can become an ethical minefield, if for no other reason than due to such abrupt transitions between panels, which resonate with the untimely disappearances of single mice from the mouse mass.

The sketch-like quality of comics harbors even higher risks for the representation of inmates as biomass. Familiarity with Canetti’s writing on the corpse pile in warfare alerts us to this issue, but the mass graves in the book yield other echoes, too. To understand why Spiegelman draws the dead mice as a single body with many heads, it is useful to recall Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s description of the crowd as multiplicity—not a numerical aggregate of subjects, but a single, plural entity in itself. In Maus, the closely packed corpse mass becomes a substitute for the body on which instruments of repression and abuse are indiscriminately applied. Consequently, a mound of mice behaves less like a colony than a many-headed body whose parts are being lopped off one by one. Maus relies on such variations of the amorphous mass to draw a synecdochic picture of what was done to every single inmate, using the anatomy of the crowd as a surface on which to map the agony of each tormented or lost life. And yet by fusing individual selves in this way, Spiegelman once more risks accusations of complicity with the camps’ depersonalizing practices. In fact, “becoming mass” is a fraught metaphor throughout the second volume, from the group portrait on the cover to the recurring motif of smoking crematoria that emulsify bodies into powdery ash. “In Kafka,” Deleuze and Guattari write, “it is impossible to separate the erection of a great paranoid bureaucratic machine from the installation of little schizo machines of becoming-dog or becoming-beetle.”[41] Maus, whose themes and metaphors overlap so vividly with “The Metamorphosis,” similarly enfolds the camp’s machines of mass control within the psychic (and finally chemical) transformation that converts a living body into a bulk of ground particles.

Nowhere is this remorseful rendition of dead biomass more clearly in evidence than at the cartoonist’s work desk in “Auschwitz (time flies)” (II:41). This much-discussed scene distills Spiegelman’s qualms about imposing a personal perspective on the suffering of millions in what to uncharitable eyes could amount to a vain and perverted rewriting of history. Art’s self-importance in his high chair is undercut by his awareness that his Holocaust story is in many ways undeserved, which is why the cartoonist simply literalizes the object of his guilt––the camp’s countless walk-ons and extras—in a pile at his feet, suggesting that their weight on the narrative has rattled his artistic authority. The animalism of this mass is unnerving and worth looking into, not least because at first glance it might seem less distressing than a mound of human corpses.[42] It also has closer referents in the present world, and Spiegelman actually visited a slaughterhouse in Poland in a bid to “understand the routine indifference of mass killing.”[43] The body pile arguably contributes to the book’s overall negotiation between singularity and multitude, to the degree that in amassing dead animals instead of dead people, it tricks the viewer into feeling at ease, or just slightly nauseated, by the homogenization of flesh. The skeletal figures—nothing more than blobs and hatched lines, dots and triangles forming closed eyes and mouths agape—merge seamlessly to form what Canetti would call a “stagnating mass” (Crowds and Power, 30). That underneath the outer layer of humanoid white lumps, we cannot discern any heads or limbs at all, strikes me as more affecting, not less. The crosshatch-work dissolves figurative clarity in a way that indicates the loss of a moral compass, too.

Since there are no visible contours to each corpse, readers are left to figure out where one scrawny body ends and another one begins in a borderline insensitive act that foregrounds the book’s discomfort with its own voyeuristic method, as well as with the inherent imprecision of the comics medium. Maus is both motivated and hamstrung by a desire to honor the experience of one Auschwitz survivor without eliding the mass of less fortunate inmates, as a filming crew do when they step onto the body pile to hoover up the words of the celebrated artist (II:42). And while the book does achieve an adequate balance, it is not only by pairing Vladek’s close-hatched narrative with larger-format mouse masses writhing in the camp’s burning pits, but by devoting the book’s centerpiece “Prisoner” strip to Anja Spiegelman, one of the camp’s belated fatalities. It is here that Spiegelman adopts a high-modernist drawing style in the vein of Ward and Masereel, yet he does so self-reflexively, refusing to participate in its coercive power. Instead, he repurposes the ornamental tools of graphic avant-garde in the service of private and historical commemoration.

Coda: Freedom from the Phalanx

The crowds we encounter in modernist woodcuts often gather around a corpse. They do so memorably in Masereel’s The Sun and The City, plagiarized to great effect by Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 film Berlin: Symphony of the City in scenes that Kracauer famously dismissed as “formal expedients,” vehicles of a toothless, shapeless political critique.[44] More in line with Masereel’s anarchic crowds than Ruttmann’s symphonic masses, Spiegelman’s endpaper group portraits convey—despite their apparent paralysis—a muted social protest, especially if we regard them less as formal abstractions than documents of injustice. More than mere décor, this mouse mass is made to passively spectate while deaths unfold which they are helpless to avert and unable to mourn. Regarded in relation to the funereal, voyeuristic lineage of woodcut crowds and to Spiegelman’s family plot, the shock ingrained in these pained faces ultimately draws attention to the mother’s suicide. Anja’s death echoes the suicide of her sister Tosha, who poisoned herself along with the three children in her care, including Art’s older brother, Richieu, when she realized they were about to be deported. Like Tosha, Jews who committed suicide in the mid-1940s often did so in response to the deportations; many of them were women, usually older than 60 and widowed. Since they were socially isolated and reluctant to leave their familiar environment, their suicide—by poisoning mostly, especially with barbiturates—can be seen as a desperate gesture of self-assertion. One suicide note stressed that its author wished to “depart from life voluntarily” rather than accept the gas.[45] The “empty bottle of pills nearby” (I:100) suggests that Anja might have shared this view, even though unlike these women, who thought they were facing inevitable death, by 1968 Anja was safe in Rego Park. In that sense, her death can be seen neither as a means to evade deportation nor as a declared political protest; and yet Spiegelman’s packed panels suggest that Anja, who could never match her son’s nimbleness in climbing the corpse piles of Auschwitz to capture the individual experience of genocide, nevertheless mounted an individual protest of her own as a way to distance herself from the vacuous group identity forged by the camp.

Detail from the comics strip "Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History"
Fig. 4. Detail from the comics strip "Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History," included in Maus: A Survivor's Tale. I: My Father Bleeds History (New York: Pantheon, 1986), 100. 

For the aftermath of such a taboo death, the “Prisoner” panels are strangely crowded (I:100, 102; Fig. 4). With a mixture of curiosity and concern, dozens of people walk past the subway entrance, gather outside the Spiegelmans’ home, console the bereaved, hover over the casket, and look on as a distraught Vladek collapses onto the coffin. Freed from the crowds of Auschwitz, Anja retreats just long enough to crop herself out of the picture, before she is engulfed again by rubbernecking Jersey commuters. The historian of Nazi Germany, Christian Goeschel, has noted that in Auschwitz and other camps, the extreme conditions strengthened the inmates’ self-preservation instinct, effectively preventing willful deaths. The inmates’ depersonalization inhibited all types of self-awareness, including suicidal thoughts. “For all the arbitrary decisions that governed life and death in the camps,” Goeschel explains, “the highly-regimented rule-bound environment gave inmates a structure to their lives” (Suicide, 117). The external structure he speaks about proved stronger than any internal will to die. Yet equally decisive, I would add, was the lack of privacy for an act that is rarely performed in public. The Spiegelman of Maus sees in Anja’s death a successful attempt to withdraw from the constraints of collective belonging and from the memories that bound her to the concentrationary crowds, still inscribed, years later, in the numbered tattoo on her forearm that “she’d say . . . was a telephone number she was trying not to forget” (Weschler, “Art’s Father,” 75). The real “prisoner on the Hell Planet,” surrounded by stacked cells where invisible others are dead or dying, is Anja herself.

We see her in these pages for the first time without a mouse mask. In one panel, she lies obscenely in the undignified grave of a bloodied bathtub. Before that, she makes a failed attempt to speak to her son, entering his room in a frilly robe that makes her look sedentary or convalescent. She isn’t thin, like her mouse alter ego on earlier pages, but a full-bodied woman, a little doughy, haggard, and worn down by mental illness. In spite of these demeaning markers, she takes her leave with mindfulness and dignity. Her retreat recalls the separation of a widow and her infant from the ravages of mass warfare in Käthe Kollwitz’s engraving Die Witwe II, which the artist lyrically annotated in a diary from 1917: “Only shades. Dark streaming water. Contours of a body. Focus on her head. She smiles proudly, secluded, but already departed. . . . Entirely separated from the living.”[46] Anja, too, leaves the scene by “going under,” as if trying to subvert, redefine, and overcome her victimhood. From a face in the crowd she becomes the main attraction, an individual now sufficiently in control to forge a path through the masses and select an exit of her own choice. In focusing on Anja’s belated departure from the camp, Spiegelman merges the atomized crowds of urban modernism with the spiritually eviscerated masses of wartime, many of which were corralled into camps by crowds of willing executioners—some with rifles and patrol dogs, others safely remote, armed only with the pretense or privilege of ignorance. The book’s overt intention to attribute accountability, both to those who carried out criminal orders and to those who passively stood by, complicates its relationship with its mass readership. The continuum between the camp crowds, the masses who did too little to oppose the fascist regime, and the memoir’s own ever-growing circle of readers constitute an unmistakable undercurrent and the lynchpin of my engagement with Maus.

The panels that narrate the end of Vladek’s captivity foreground this impossibility to formally isolate his story from the pressure of its unnumbered, additional protagonists. When the front comes within 25 miles of Auschwitz and the camp command decides to take prisoners back into the Reich, the fences that restrained the inmate crowds (inside the camp and on the page) give way to a human avalanche so dense and panicked that it tilts the panels to one side (II:81). While the figures may be sparsely drawn, their cumulative effect—each body a perfect replica of the one next to it, all carved by the same events—solicits acute attention. The prisoners are thrown by the hundreds into cattle trains, where they climb and lie on top of each other “like matches, like herrings,” or like the pills Vladek keeps counting with a fixation that echoes and mocks the administrative absurdity of the camps (II:85). The scene inside the cattle carriage, where Vladek climbs into a makeshift hammock from which he glances down at his fellow travelers with a mixture of pity and anguish, sums up the tension among the prisoners on their way to becoming mass. The crush inside the carriage poisons the air as each inmate becomes, through murder or biohazard, a potential danger to the others. Their bodies huddle so tightly that even collapsing on the floor is an impossible luxury; those who buckle must use knives to fend off the stomping feet of those left standing, if they are to claim sufficient ground to die on. The crushing effect of mass incarceration culminates in this image of the dead and dying side by side inside the carriage. In the absence of funeral rites and relieved to have enough sitting room, surviving prisoners come to view the dead as nothing but befouling ballast.

Spiegelman opted not to show Vladek emerge from the cramped carriage, because in some ways he never did. To Françoise’s musings that she would rather kill herself than endure the deprivation and abasement Vladek barely survived in Auschwitz, Art retorts that his father did not, in fact, make it through in one piece, his outward intactness belying deep psychological fractures (II:90). Vladek’s persistent drive to manufacture penury and shortage by hoarding odds and ends is further confirmation that he was so deeply scathed by the camps, he became attached to the specter of death as a permanent appendage to his life. And yet the sense of lack that suffuses his lifestyle is also shadowed by a memory of excess, encompassing both the extremity of the camps and the sheer mass of people who did not survive them, an excess that manifests in the mass of symbolic scraps he compulsively collects, as if to compensate for everything that was taken away from the inmates during their prolonged imprisonment. Therefore, much as Spiegelman might be inclined to see in his father an individual survivor, Vladek is perhaps best understood as a plural persona who carries with him—like stripes on his uniform—the memory of Auschwitz’s 1.1 million non-survivors. By the same token, the author of Maus stands in for the countless readers who have retraced Vladek’s story on the page. Together, father and son limn the extent to which the Holocaust galvanized an unprecedented level of collective perpetration and collective guilt in what remains modernity’s most shocking and mysterious mass event.

Perhaps despite Spiegelman’s autobiographical project, Maus seems fully aware of its composite conscience. The book confronts every new generation of readers with the fresh accusation that however much time has elapsed, the chimney stacks are still smoking outside our windows, carrying spores of guilt that no one is immune from. Spiegelman’s decision to use a mass medium for this narrative—and his ability reach an unusually large number of readers for a literary memoir—presses the point that the unwitnessed violence of the camps must be memorialized as a high-visibility mass event. Honorable and persuasive as it may seem, his argument is not without fault. Hannah Arendt notoriously insisted that partitioning guilt among a large number of people (such as “all Germans”), while therapeutic and integral to the process of Holocaust remembrance, ultimately relieves everyone of blame. “It is quite gratifying to feel guilty if you haven’t done anything wrong: how noble!”—she snickers in the final pages of her report on the Eichmann trial, where she ridicules the exaggerated outbreaks of guilt among German youth on commemorative occasions, “[w]hereas it is rather hard and certainly depressing to admit guilt and to repent,” or to hound and punish “men in positions of authority and in public office who are very guilty indeed but who feel nothing of the sort” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 251; emphasis in original). It bears recalling that by the time Maus was completed, the liberation of Auschwitz was forty-five years in the past and most of its perpetrators had died, transferring to survivors and posterity in general the cursed custody of their crimes. Shifting between a single protagonist and background crowds conveys Spiegelman’s conviction that many other experiences are synthesized in Vladek’s story, much the same way that many sketches by camp survivors and anti-war lithographs came to bear on the style of individual figures in the book. This multiplicity also requires, for Spiegelman, the attention of a numerous and diverse readership to negotiate and advance the public reckoning with the guilt of Western governments, ethnic Germans, and the leaders of Jewish organizations for a crime they failed to condemn and disrupt.

Caught between the numberless dead and the living publics tasked with remembering them, Spiegelman devises a visual style that speaks about, and to, the masses, without setting itself apart from them. The book’s emblems of mass behavior draw on the imagination of the crowd in the woodcut arts of the Weimar republic, yet unlike that tradition, which openly staked a claim to aesthetic value for the emerging art of wood engraving, Spiegelman anchors his “adult” comics in the popular mechanics of cartooning. By overlaying the aesthetic of woodcut modernism over the democratic shapes of underground comix, Maus modulates the mass hysteria of fascism into the softer key of a cautious (and cautionary) personal tale that clamors for attention by being attentive to the wider panorama of wartime suffering. The crowds of Maus may seem, at first sight, merely incidental to the book and certainly not important enough to warrant detailed examination. And yet, through their striking symbolism and coherence, we can approach Maus as a work that, far from simply departing from high modernism in favor of “low” art, crafts its own “low modernism”—a style that casts a suspicious light on the nexus of fascism and the avant-garde, elevates the entire comics medium, and comments on the era of mass modernism that witnessed both the rise of comics and propaganda’s golden age.


[1] Mel Gussow, “Stage: Zesty ‘Pandering,’” New York Times, January 16, 1975.

[2] This is what Mouly apparently did (see Nadja Spiegelman, I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This: A Memoir [New York: Riverhead Books, 2016], 140).

[3] Roger Sabin, “Interview with Art Spiegelman,” in Art Spiegelman: Conversations, ed. Joseph Witek (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), 95–121, 108, 109.

[4] Lawrence Weschler, “Art’s Father, Vladek’s Son,” in Witek, Art Spiegelman, 68–83, 77.

[5] Dean Mullaney, “RAW Magazine: An Interview with Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly,” in Witek, Art Spiegelman, 20–34, 25.

[6] Art Spiegelman, Meta-Maus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus (New York: Pantheon Books, 2011), 38.

[7] Alfred Bergdoll, “Art Spiegelman,” in Witek, Art Spiegelman, 3–19, 7.

[8] Joseph Witek, “Interview with Art Spiegelman,” in Witek, Art Spiegelman, 267–300, 268.

[9] Ella Taylor, “The 5,000 Pound Maus: On the Anniversary of Kristallnacht, Art Spiegelman Revisits His Legacy,” in Witek, Art Spiegelman, 191–95, 194.

[10] Michael Silverblatt, “The Cultural Relief of Art Spiegelman,” in Witek, Art Spiegelman, 126­–36, 129–30.

[11] Hamida Bosmajian, “The Orphaned Voice in Art Spiegelman’s Maus,” in Considering Maus: Approaches to Art Spiegelman’s “Survivor’s Tale” of the Holocaust, ed. Deborah R. Geis (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003), 26­–43, 34.

[12] Nancy K. Miller, “Cartoons of the Self: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Murderer—Art Spiegelman’s Maus,” in Geis, Considering Maus, 44–62, 47.

[13] The fictional status of the book became an object of controversy when Maus was placed on the NYT fiction (rather than non-fiction) bestseller list. Here I am referring to the book’s literariness rather than its facticity.

[14] Michael G. Levine, “Necessary Stains: Art Spiegelman’s Maus and the Bleeding of History,” in Geis, Considering Maus, 63–104, 97.

[15] Brian Tucker, “Interview with Art Spiegelman,” in Witek, Art Spiegelman, 196–219, 202.

[16] Winston Churchill and the Editors of Life, The Second World War (New York: Time Incorporated, 1959), 550. The reference appears in Spiegelman, Meta-Maus, 42.

[17] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin, 2006), 101.

[18] José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (New York: W.W. Norton, 1932), 8.

[19] Stefan Jonsson, Crowds and Democracy: The Idea and Image of the Masses from Revolution to Fascism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 188.

[20] Othmar Plöckinger, Geschichte eines Buches: Adolf Hitlers “Mein Kampf”: 1922–1945 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2011), 188.

[21] Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 22.

[22] See Art Spiegelman, Maus (New York: Pantheon, 1992), II:25–27, 30–32, 34–35, 49–50, 54–58, 64, 66, 81–88, 91–97, 105–108.

[23] On crowd psychology and molecular physics, see Rachel Crossland, Modernist Physics: Waves, Particles, and Relativities in the Writings of Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[24] Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984), 71.

[25] Susan Jacobowitz, “‘Words and Pictures Together’: An Interview with Art Spiegelman, in Witek, Art Spiegelman, 152–62, 159.

[26] Edward Waterman Townsend, The Yellow Kid in McFadden’s Flats, illustrated by Richard Felton Outcault, (New York: G. W. Dillingham, 1897).

[27] On newspaper comics and the architecture of immigrant neighborhoods, see Scott Bukatman, Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 187.

[28] Political printmaking was at the forefront of anti-fascist art movements. In fact, the artistic direction of the International Exhibition against Fascism held in France in 1935 was entrusted to Frans Masereel. See Jean-Michel Palmier, Weimar in Exile: The Anti-Fascist Emigration in Europe and America, 1987, trans. David Fernbach, (London: Verso, 2006), 294.

[29] The progressive printmaker Käthe Kollwitz was spared the camp but forbidden to exhibit. Lynd Ward luckily had enough time to learn wood engraving from a German master before returning to New York in 1929. See Art Spiegelman, “Reading Pictures: A Few Thousand Words on Six Books Without Any,” in Lynd Ward, Prelude to a Million Years; Song Without Words; Vertigo, ed. Art Spiegelman, (New York: Library of America, 2010), ix–xxv.

[30] Christine Poggi, “Mass, Pack, and Mob: Art in the Age of the Crowd,” in Crowds, ed. Jeffrey T. Schnapp and Matthew Thiews, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 186.

[31] F. T. Marinetti, “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,” in Let’s Murder the Moonshine: Selected Writings, ed. R.W. Flint, trans. R.W. Flint and Arthur A. Coppotelli, (Los Angeles, CA: Sun and Moon Classics, 1991), 47–52, 50.

[32] Saul Friedländer, History, Memory, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 106–11; Dominick LaCapra, Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 14.

[33] Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 76–77; emphasis in original.

[34] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version,” in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 19–55, 41; emphasis in original.

[35] Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of European Jews (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 999; Benjamin B. Ferencz, Less Than Slaves: Jewish Forced Labor and the Quest for Compensation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 89.

[36] Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 97–98.

[37] Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 223.

[38] Ronald J. Berger, The Holocaust, Religion, and the Politics of Collective Memory (New York: Routledge, 2017), 17.

[39] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage, 1979), 200.

[40] Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 171.

[41] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (London: Continuum, 2004), 38.

[42] Oren Baruch Stier, Committed to Memory: Cultural Meditations of the Holocaust (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), 53.

[43] Michael Fathers, “Art Mimics Life in the Death Camps,” in Witek, Art Spiegelman, 122–25, 123.

[44] Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947), 185.

[45] Christian Goeschel, Suicide in Nazi Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 111.

[46] Käthe Kollwitz, Die Tagebücher, 1908–1943, ed. Jutta Bohnke-Kollwitz, (Berlin: Siedler, 1999), 343; translation mine.