Weeks 3-5: Inkslingers & Wordsmiths - AKA: Comic Books - Art Spiegelman's Maus

This week we read Maus Book I & II. No matter how many times my students or I read it, it always hits hard. Spiegelman really paved the way for comics to be taken seriously. In fact, the Pulitzer Prize made a special category for Maus because it wasn’t fiction and they were like “What is this beautiful painful thing and how do we talk about it?”.

If you don’t know much about Maus, it’s a work of graphic nonfiction, a memoir of Spiegelman’s process of understanding his father’s time in Auschwitz. It’s actually that and so, so much more. The characters are masked as animals (Jews as mice, Nazi’s as cats, etc.) and this is a deeply symbolic representation of identity. The book doesn’t shy away from the impossible horrors of the Holocaust, or what it means to be a child of a survivor.  

Art Spielgelman’s  Maus

Art Spielgelman’s Maus

Alongside Maus, we read a great article by Susan Ketchum Glass “Witnessing the Witness: Narrative Slippage in Art Spiegelman’s Maus.” What really hits home with this book is the literal palimpsest nature of the text. Not only is Art interviewing his father about his survivor story, he presents two selves for each of them. There’s Artie (as a young man), Art as the author of the text wondering if he has the ability to make such a thing, Vladek (the young man in Auschwitz), and Papa (Art’s aging father he is interviewing). At times these four selves collide on the page in ways that are only possible in the comic book landscape. Literally, past and present are represented in ways that shows the impossible and ever present nature of trauma, survivor, PTSD, and being a child of survivors. While many of us might not have family who survived the Holocaust, many of us can still relate to the painful trauma that parents carry from other forms of diaspora, immigration, and otherness.

As a kid born in America with parents on both sides who’ve had to survive something, the book gives me hope and teaches me patience. My father was a 1-year-old during the eve of India’s Partition and he was carried by my Sikh grandmother in gruesome circumstances to the new land south. My mother’s family fled Germany to Poland, etc. during WWII but she was born post-war with the scars of the past still looming. My parents did everything to make sure we succeeded. They instilled an impossible work ethic, but somehow they also gave me enough room to be creative, which, if you’re a child of immigrants you understand how crazy that is.

The Holocaust is still an extraordinary horror that we should never forget. Perhaps, too, regardless of our family’s history we can try to understand our identities in relation to theirs. Maybe this is what life is, essentially. Trying to move forward by understanding what’s behind us. Not freeing ourselves from the past, but honoring it, and through that process, giving ourselves permission to continue.

If you haven’t read Maus, please do. It’s one of the most important books. Period.



Week 2 // Inkslingers & Wordsmiths: Graphic Memoir

This Week: Persepolis & McCloud

 This week we are reading book one of Persepolis alongside Scott McCloud’s supercritical and still mind-blowing-after-all-these-years book, Understanding Comics. McCloud’s book to me is still the best book out there about writing, reading, and making comics. If you haven’t read McCloud yet, please do! Read it cover to cover. Read it again. Then read your favorite comic book and finally understand why you felt what you felt at certain times. MIND BLOWN.

So, let’s start with the first couple chapters of McCloud. One of the coolest McCloudian ideas that you can ponder for eternity is his diagram of “The Picture Plane.” This diagram essentially illustrates that there are three points that make meaning: icons, reality, and language. As an image slides along from close to photograph all the way to abstraction or symbol to language our brains make meaning in different ways. The more photographic an image, the less wiggle room our brain has to make new meaning. The more symbolic the image (a smiley face for example) the more we put meaning onto that image ourselves. Think: emojis. SO MUCH MEANING IS MADE from such a small icon. Feast your eyes on “The Picture Plane” below, which can be found on pp 51 in his Understanding Comics.

Scott McCloud  Understanding Comics , pp 51.

Scott McCloud Understanding Comics, pp 51.

A Few Key Points from McCloud’s Understanding Comics

*I’m not going to go over all the key concepts in his book, because you should really buy his book (as my students have). But here are some teasers.

Icon: 'Any image used to represent a person, place, thing, or idea.'

The 'universality' of a cartoon image: 'when you enter the world of the cartoon -- you see yourself. ... We don't just observe the cartoon; we become it.'

Combination of 'iconic characters with unusually realistic backgrounds ... allows readers to mask themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually stimulating world.'

Characters drawn more realistically are 'objectified.'

In comics, words are the ‘ultimate’ abstraction.

The picture plane as a triangle with Reality at the left bottom corner, Language at the right bottom corner, and Picture Plane or Art Object at the pinnacle. The Picture Plane is 'where shapes, lines, and colors can be themselves and not pretend otherwise.' 

Closure: a comic shows parts of thing that the observer then perceives as the whole.

The gutter: the space between the panels of a comics; our imagination takes the two images that border the gutter and transforms into a single idea.

"If visual iconography is the vocabulary of comics, closure is its grammar."  OMG I LOVE THIS LINE.

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is one of the best books written in any genre in the past twenty years. Yes, I am a fan. :) It’s so powerful that it inspired a generation. She takes so many risks and the narrative and illustrations are authentic and raw. While some early on criticised her illustrations for being rudimentary, the claim was strangely silly. If you consider McCloud’s idea of “The Picture Plane” and the simplicity of her character renderings, Satrapi’s coming-of-age-tale becomes universal. We can see ourselves in her character’s position, dealing with all the sorts of things that teens deal with. And with something they shouldn’t have to: war.

This week in my course we are applying McCloudian theories of comic storytelling to Persepolis. Some panels defy categorization. Some of my favorite pages exist outside of time — the image is literally panel-less and seeps into our consciousness FOREVER.

If you are reading the book, pay attention to moments where the image and text juxtapose each other, as well as scenes, pages, and panels that change your connection to time. When an image doesn’t have a panel framing it, it defies gravity. The simplicity is the point.

I also love hearing from authors, no surprise, so here’s an interview with Satrapi where she talks about the book.

Next week? Book Two of Persepolis!