This Artistic Choice Joins Maus and Watchmen | CBR

Art Spiegelman’s Maus has recently been in the news quite a bit, and its heavy post-modernist structure makes this hard to argue for. The structure of Maus is meant to feel disjointed, and one of the strangest sequences comes from Volume I: My Father Bleeds History. In Chapter 5, Spiegelman is given one of his old comics, one which really exists, entitled “Prisoner on the Hell Planet.” This comic recounts his mother’s suicide. It’s the only instance in the book where non-animal characters exist. It stands out from the rest of the comic not only with this but in a multiple-page narrative retelling Art’s suffering that’s rimmed in black rather than the white of the rest of the book.

A very different comic book, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, also uses a comic book set in a completely time and place in order to tell a different surface-level story. “Tales of the Black Freighter,” introduced in Chapter 3 of Moore’s seminal work, tells the story of a shipwrecked crew. Within a superhero comic, having another comic with its own style and structure seems very strange, much like Maus’ comic book within a comic book seems very nearly misplaced. In reality, though, these comic books are included in the masterworks in order to complete an element of narrative that stretches back to the days of Shakespeare, also in an unexpected form: Comic relief.

RELATED: Why Maus Opened the Door to Comics as Literature in Schools

Shakespeare’s plays aren’t well-known around the world because they are particularly good. Good though they are, their popularity comes down to two factors. Firstly, they were widely and readily available when literacy first became a standard for people rich and poor. Secondly, they didn’t drill in so deep the finer points of literature without a backup. In a word, if one doesn’t understand the broader narrative and its more complex turns, the Comedic relief will give a shorter, easy-to-follow version of what is taking place. Much like the laugh track of a sitcom or the short cartoons broken into pieces of network television, this makes for lighter fare that, even if one doesn’t understand how the jokes came about, they can get a quick summary and a quick laugh before continuing about their day.

In the same way, both Watchmen and Maus use a shorter version of the entire narrative to get across the objective succinctly. In Maus, the short comic sets up a major conflict in Art’s relationship with his father and explains why he isn’t close with the Jewish community. It also quickly identifies the trauma of seeing an event that left no true survivors, even as some lived through it. In Watchmen, the comic shortly narrates the search and identification of humanity and corruption. Both of these serve to simplify the exposition and story into a simple, easy-to-understand narrative that complements and explains the narrative where it takes place.

RELATED: Watchmen’s Canceled 1980s Film Was Faithful to the Comic, But Failed the Characters

Though both of these texts swap narrative styles to get across a message, there is more than the simplification of a message as the rhetorical objective. In Watchmen, for example, the swap in art style is less severe than in Maus, but the genre switch is distinct. Watchmen jumps from a story about superheroes trying to live with their actions and the changing world around them to a story about a freighter shipwrecking. This genre switch serves to simplify the narrative and make the story into a foil for the full text, yes, but it also allows for a completely different kind of narrative to take off. It shows the universality of the narrative in Watchmen and essentially serves as a metanarrative. Not only is oppression and allegiance to the past malevolent for the Watchmen, but it is just as true for a crew of shipwrecked sailors, and it is just as true for the reader.

In Maus, the genre of the comic-within-a-comic is essentially the same. It’s a short trauma narrative with post-modern influences. It’s the art style here that changes everything, though. Though switching back to humanity, its images are shocking when compared to the mice who populate the entirety of the book. To the reader, who is now used to the mice being mistreated, the reintroduction of humanity causes a distinct and intentional cognitive dissonance, shocking them out of any apathetic attention they’ve started to half pay.

RELATED: Fundraiser to Provide Students With Free Copies of Maus Smashes Goal

Considering these things together, one can see the purpose behind this insertion of a meta-narrative into one of the same type. The cohabitation of different genres is quite common, but the presence of a medium within itself is relatively rare. When it does happen, however, it’s generally for a particular purpose, as proven by both Maus and Watchmen.

By using the medium within themselves, both comic books tell an important story to parallel their own in the vein of Shakespeare that also breaks readers out of their expectations. Readers become more engaged, and the risk of putting one comic inside of anywhere proves to be just another part of these masterworks.

KEEP READING: How Satanic Panic and Nerd Culture Relate to Maus

from Ultimate Comic Blog

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