As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I am a member of a generation who grew up reading comics. Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Woody Woodpecker, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Yogi Bear, The Flintstones… the list goes on and on.
All these had a common characteristic – they were “safe” for children. They were saccharine tales stripped off all the unpleasantness in life: one feels that the parents of Siddhartha Gautama (before he became the Buddha) would have approved of them. Even the fairy tales which had a lot of gruesome elements were sanitised for children’s consumption.
Don’t get me wrong. I do not believe that children should be exposed to the full horrors of life from a tender age onwards. Parents can take a call on this – as they have been doing, expertly or inexpertly for years. My focus here is on a medium, which has a lot of possibilities, being forced to sit in a corner and babble in baby talk.
I am talking about the medium of comics, or to give it a more fitting name, the graphic novel.
There was a time when horror stories, told in comic format, ruled the roost in the USA.
Entertaining Comics, or EC Comics, published horror stories, crime stories and war stories with vivid graphics that pulled no punches. The stories were uniformly gruesome, and must have given kids sleepless nights and “delicious nightmares” (to borrow a phrase from Alfred Hitchcock). I do not wish to enter into the debate whether the publications of such stories were ethical or not: they effectively went out of publication in 1954 because of the stringent guidelines put into effect by the “Comics Code Authority” set up by the Comics Magazine Association of America. It was a move ostensibly to save the youth. What it did, in my opinion, was to destroy (or at least temporarily deactivate) a powerful medium.
For me, a child of the sixties, all this history was unknown. For me, comics meant Disney and his contemporaries; telling cute stories of animals and fairies living in idyllic surroundings, where the most frightening thing was the bumbling Big Bad Wolf. Even the comics meant for “mature” readers, like Mandrake the Magician and the Phantom, contained a surprisingly small amount of violence or death. What it resulted in was my rejection of the format itself as not worthy of serious consideration.
Until I read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.
Persepolis I: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis II: The Story of a Return recount Marjane Satrapi’s life as a rebellious teenager in the Iran of the Islamic Revolution; her “escape” from the country; and her return to find a totally changed landscape. It is a novel, told in comic-book format, and she exploits the possibilities of the medium to the fullest extent.
The illustrations are all in stark black and white. The story is told in a straightforward fashion, with little embellishments – however, the inherent power of exaggeration available to the cartoonist makes the difference. I was especially impressed by the way violence was portrayed: graphic and shocking, yet not at all disgusting.
However, compared to Maus I: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: Here My Troubles Began, Persepolis is tame – because Maus takes that taboo subject, the Holocaust, and makes a comic-book out of it.
“The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but not human” – Adolf Hitler
Dehumanising the enemy is the first step towards eliminating them: which is what Hitler tried to do with Jews and nearly succeeded. In this book, Art Spiegelman tells us a story from that dark era – a very personal one, that of his father – yet distances us emotionally brilliantly by using Brechtian techniques.
Vladek Spiegelman, Art Spiegelman’s father, is a survivor of Auschwitz. He has a troubled relationship with his son: Vladek, a man of extreme miserliness and obsessive-compulsive traits, is very hard to get along with. He lives with his wife Mala (whom he married after Anja, Arthur’s mother committed suicide), with whom he has a love-hate relationship. Art, a child born after the Holocaust, is trying to tease out his father’s life story. It is the story of these interactions between father and son as much as the story of the Holocaust that these books tell.
The story of Art’s parents until their incarceration in Auschwitz is narrated In part one. Vladek, a handsome young entrepreneur in Poland, marries Anja, an heiress. They have a blissful life until Nazism starts rearing its ugly head, first in Germany and then in most of Eastern Europe. Anja and Vladek, returning from a sanatorium in Czechoslovakia where they had sojourned after Anja’s post-natal bout of depression, find Poland drastically changed – as Jews they were not safe any more.
However, the full extent of the Nazi design on Jews is brought home to Vladek when he is captured as a prisoner of war. He sees that Jews are treated differently from other POWs, and their ultimate destination is the grave: the question is only whether it shall be a slow death due to deprivation or a fast death by a bullet. Using his innate cunning, Vladek manages to escape and come back to his family.
By now, however, Poland is overrun. Jews live in ghettos. Spiegelman and his in-laws hide out for a time, but one by one their numbers get depleted as more and more people all either executed or shipped off to concentration camps. (Vladek and Anja send their firstborn Richieu with Tosha, Anja’s sister, to a “safe” ghetto – however, he is also killed by Tosha before she commits suicide, when they are about to be captured.) Ultimately, only Anja and Vladek are left – until they are also taken, betrayed by people who promise to smuggle them out to Hungary: the last in a line of betrayals.
Part One ends with the shocking discovery when Arthur learns that his father has destroyed all the notebooks his mother had kept, about her life in the concentration camp, after her suicide. As Art feels partly responsible for her death – it happened following his drug addiction, and institutionalisation in an asylum – he feels this act to be equivalent to murder: the murder of memories. Art calls Vladek a murderer and walks away in a huff.
In Part Two, Mala has had enough and left Vladek during their vacation, and he wants his son and his wife to move in with him, permanently – something which Arthur cannot imagine. However, they stay with him temporarily as Vladek continues with the story.
In the camp, the inmates are subjected to a slow, drawn-out death sentence as the guards play with them. There is no humanity here, it’s every man for himself, and the toughest shall only survive. And Vladek happens to be one smart, tough guy. He not only manages to survive, he manages to get Anja to survive, even to meet her inside the concentration camp. After the war, he manages to track his wife down, and start a new life.
After finishing this narrative which left me devastated, something was forcefully impressed upon me: the comic book format is the best format (perhaps the only format) to tell this harrowing tale.
Art Spiegelman uses a standard tool available to the caricaturist – anthropomorphism, or the attribution of human characteristics to animals. Here, the device is put on its head as human beings are transformed into animals. The Jews are portrayed as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs and Americans as dogs. Changing the characters into animals accomplishes two things – by taking away the individuality, we are forced to look at the big picture: and the race differences are emphasised so as to be insurmountable (a Jew and a Gentile are both human beings, but a mouse can never become a cat). So even when we are caught up in the story, the political subtext is never forgotten.
The cruelty of Auschwitz is emphasised by showing the Nazi cats playing with the Jew mice before killing them. The Nazi cats are not the cute ones out of Tom and Jerry, but have uniformly frightening visages which are set in permanent snarls. Mice are anyway “vermin” to be exterminated. But they are very clever and adept at finding holes to hide in – this is what many Jews did during that terrifying era (the Spiegelman’s hidey-holes are covered under the chapter “Mouse Holes” in Part One).
When the Jews are trying to disguise themselves as Poles, they are shown wearing pig masks tied at the back of the head. The use of this standard trope of comic-book disguise is brilliant here: its ineffectiveness is showed up, as well as the meaninglessness of dividing people into racial categories.
For me, the most impressive part of the book was the second one, where Art tries to come to terms with his father’s death as well as the ethics of making a book out of his life. Here, all the characters are shown as wearing animal masks, rather than as animals themselves – they have become more humanised and homogeneous, but the masks of race and nationality are not fully discarded.
As Art is interviewed by journalists from various countries, the panels depict, at the bottom, heaps of dead mice piled one on top of the other, their faces twisted in agony – this is superb use of the medium, not possible in a conventional narrative. Art regresses to a child, crying out for his dead mother, as the paparazzi bully him – a sequence both terrifying and comic.
(A funny tidbit:
An Israeli journalist asks Art: “If your book was about Israeli Jews, what kind of animal would you draw?
Art’s reply: “I have no idea… porcupines?”
A sliver of humour in a bleak narrative: I chortled at that!)
The troubled relationship between Art and Vladek is analysed in detail: and we get a glimpse of how Vladek changed into the self-centred, obsessive-compulsive miser that he has become. Did he survive because these traits were inbuilt, or did the camp life make him what he is? Tantalising question.
However, the penultimate panel of the comic is so very poignant and sentimental that it brought a lump to my throat.
Vladek is falling asleep, tired out after their very last session, and he tells Art: “I’m tired from talking, Richieu, and it’s enough stories for now…”
The dead son, the beautiful boy who should have had a bright future which was snuffed out by mindless race hatred – Vladek is talking to him here.
And I feel, to all such beautiful and unfortunate children.