Dr. Spiegelman or: How I Stopped Prejudging and Love Comics.

Posted: May 23, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

No matter what we would like to believe, we are all prejudiced.  That term has an ugly connotation in the twenty-first century.  Prejudice automatically gets associated with the prejudgment of a set of people based upon such social constructs as race, gender, or sexual orientation.  In reality, this is just one kind of prejudice, though admittedly the most infamous. Humans prejudge things all the time, and I am a human.  I have never tasted insects, and there are many people living in the world who love to eat them, but I have made an uninformed prejudgment that I would not like them. This is prejudice.

Though I try not to prejudge people, I have no problem prejudging cultural matters. I will avoid television’s latest extreme reality talent show extravaganza like the plague; instead I will watch some PBS programming. Superhero movies?  No thanks.  I will spend my two hours enjoying a nice documentary.  And, if I won’t waste two hours on a movie that doesn’t live up to my snobby standards, I most definitely will not be spending a day reading a book that I believe will not expand my intellectual horizons. Here is where my cultural prejudices reach a climax. I prejudge romance novels, crime stories, adolescent literature, and many other forms of writing that I believe would not be worth my while. Not surprisingly, this feeling of inexperienced distaste colored my opinion of that seemingly most pop culture of genres; ‘graphic novels’. I will admit it; when I thought of graphic novels, I thought of comic book conventions. I thought of super-hero fans meeting at the local Radisson.  I thought of teenagers who are obsessed with Japanese style anime or manga due to the works’ infamous graphic violence and sexuality.

I can now admit that I was wrong. My prejudice was ignorance. It was misplaced. What disabused me of my prejudice was reading a book of amazing historical significance: Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking work, Maus. Maus is a bit difficult to describe.  In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Spiegelman began to record conversations he had with his father about the latter’s days in 1930’s Poland, and his experiences during the Holocaust as a Polish Jew.  From these interactions, Spiegelman produced a unique memoir. He wrote the chronicle as a ‘comic book’/graphic novel.  The book revolves around the elder Spiegelman’s memories, but also the difficult relationship between a father that survived Auschwitz, and a son who grew up in 1950’s and 60’s America.  To make things even more revolutionary, in true comic fashion, Spiegelman depicted the Jewish victims of the story as humanized mice and the Nazis as humanized cats.

If you have never heard of Maus, your reaction to my description may be a bit dubious.  This is how I felt before I read the work. At best, I believed that this ‘comic’ strip adaptation of the Holocaust would be ineffective.  At worst, I was worried that the aesthetics of the work would simplify and trivialize the central event of the twentieth century. What concerned me about a comic book adaptation of history is what concerns me about Hollywood depictions of history.  A ‘bad’ movie that covers a historical theme does more harm than good. Hollywood creates a dualistic history of good vs. evil in order to speak to an audience’s perceived desire for massive problems easily solved. This is how I prejudged Maus, but I was looking only at the negative. If a poorly made film can trivialize history, a powerful movie can make history come to life much more effectively than written accounts.  Maus has the same capability.  It has the visual power of an incredibly well done film, but the depth of a 300 page written work.  Reading this book makes the reader FEEL history; the pain of humanity. Humans are incredibly empathic, and a visual work such as Maus grabs our emotions.  It plays with them and destroys them. It does this even though it depicts the Holocaust using animal characters to relay human history. Representing people as mice and cats is actually incredibly effective. When Spiegelman portrays dead mice in the crematoria, you feel physically sickened.  The artwork oozes sadness, despair, pity, anger, hatred.  This is possible because humans have an incredible ability to see humanity everywhere.  We see faces in the most mundane, least human artifacts. If you doubt this, Google ‘celebrity faces in food.”  The ability to see human faces in non-living objects or non-human life forms is known as pareidolia, and we all do it. Because of this, Spiegelman’s mice quickly transform to humans; his mouse tale becomes a tale of humanity.

A work like Maus shatters genre as it shatters your understanding of an event.  Reading it changed the way that I view ‘comics’ and the possibilities that exist therein.  As soon as I finished Spiegelman’s work, I began the lookout for other well-made graphic novels dealing with historical events.  My prejudice has been destroyed, and I am better off for it.

I do still hate American Idol though; with extreme prejudice.

  1. PG says:

    Maus is excellent. Spieglman was the keynote speaker at the AWP conference a few years ago…he was very engaging.

    I’m glad you’ve had a change of heart about graphic novels. It’s a common misconception that all graphic novels are about superheroes or that they are intellectually inferior compared to literary fiction.

    There are lots of graphic novels, some of which are outstanding, that read like traditional literary fiction/nonficton, but just happen to be illustrated. Maus is one. Persepolis is another famous one like that. “Blankets” is a favorite of mine that fits that category. Even some of the graphic novels that are fantasy, science fiction, or horror have surprising depth to them. “The Walking Dead” is one that immediately comes to mind. The story is really less about zombies and more about what happens to people when they are forced to survive and cooperate in the bleakest circumstances, and what pyschological and moral shifts will people make in such circumstances. There are large chunks of that series where a zombie is nowhere to be seen as the story focuses on the very real human drama.

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