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Comics and Trauma: A Postmortem and a New Inquiry

By Christopher Pizzino

The comic book has come of age; at least, so says the story that has proliferated in mainstream culture over the past three decades. The graphic novel has—we are told—made comics respectable, and the “low” status of the traditional comic book is a distant memory. We are meant to assume that any lingering connections between comics and the juvenile, the illiterate, or the delinquent can be ignored in the wake of highly praised achievements in book-length comics. Looking at the secure cultural position of, say, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, now recognized as a powerful witness to the trauma of the Holocaust, we could easily assume that the mainstream narrative is correct. It is likewise easy to ignore those elements of comics history, and comics culture, that exist outside the convenient frame provided by the phrase “come of age.”

In Arresting Development: Comics at the Boundaries of Literature, I have recently argued that what doesn’t fit inside this oft-repeated phrase is much larger, and much more crucial to an understanding of comics, than what does. Here I will extend that line of thinking, and argue that the way comics creators do the work of witnessing is deeply attuned to problems of cultural status, which continue to affect the medium’s destiny. In the way they bear witness to traumatic phenomena, comics creators—most notably those working in the US, where comics are not on equal footing with other media or with literature as such—have a bracingly unorthodox approach to witnessing. They show a keen awareness of the dynamics of cultural legitimation, and take a stance toward it that is decidedly improper by the lights of more legitimate culture.

A signal example of this impropriety is an anecdote Spiegelman has told several times concerning Maus‘s reception. Asked by a German journalist whether he thought it was in bad taste to make a comic about the Holocaust, Spiegelman responded in the negative, retorting that the Holocaust was in bad taste. I will return to this remark at the conclusion of my analysis of Maus, but I cite it here to allow its complex unseemliness to resonate. An indecorous joke, to be sure, but a curiously paradoxical one: the atrocity it treats with levity is also the source of authority to which it appeals. More curious still, this levity is precisely the creator’s attempt to witness in a newly responsible, self-aware mode. Spiegelman speaks not as a respectful observer—mature, cultivated, up to the task of witnessing “right”—but as a rigorous cynic, unwilling to assume he can lay claim to the title of good witness or good citizen. We have here, in a tasteless joke, the mind-set most typical of the great US comics creators of Spiegelman’s generation—a self-reflexive, implosive attitude I locate, on the comics page, under the term autoclasm (self-breaking).

On the way to a discussion of autoclasm in Maus, I will offer a postmortem examination of a concept I put forward a few years ago and subsequently rejected: comics as a traumatized medium. Like politics, academic discourse is a putatively grown-up realm that allows for the “take-back,” a practice children learn in the schoolyard. Most academics would hasten to point out that when we take an idea back, our motive is not to follow a political trend or create a new public image, but to correct error. This was indeed my motive when, in Arresting Development, I included a brief retraction of the idea of comics as a traumatized medium.1 But the fact is that no matter how properly motivated it might be, an announcement of a change in scholarly direction is certified by the aura of legitimacy surrounding academic endeavor. This legitimacy should, in the ideal case, come from responsible attention to evidence and method. But a sense of legitimacy can sometimes be generated by a mere rhetoric of intellectual rigor that overshadows, and stands in for, the thing itself.

The bolstering effect of such rhetoric is perhaps unremarkable; certainly it is ubiquitous. Yet it has special relevance here—and demands a more lengthy postmortem than I have yet attempted—because, as I have already indicated, the study of comics demands sustained attention to questions of cultural power and prestige. To some observers, the growing presence of comics studies in a range of academic venues is the final proof that comics have come of age. The rise of the graphic novel; its increasing presence in secondary schools; the growth of a diverse market of graphic novels aimed at adult comics readers; the increasing transmedial influence of comics; the establishment of a culture that gives awards, generates canons, and so forth: all these factors have—so goes the thinking of many books and articles—been cemented by the fact comics are taken seriously, and studied intensively, by a growing number of adults with PhDs.

I believe these assumptions are mistaken, and that the status problems of comics are quite real and ongoing (a point argued at length in the first chapter of Arresting Development). The related work undertaken in this essay is not only to expound the reasons that the concept I am retracting is unworkable, but also to discuss the conditions in which it was attempted and the purposes it was meant to serve. As we will see, these conditions and purposes are linked to problems of status that continue to shape the fate of comics. Thus, in my postmortem, as in my new line of inquiry concerning comics’ relation to trauma, close attention to questions of legitimacy will be necessary.

The Wrong Similitude

The concept I am taking back was first suggested in a talk given at MLA in 2012, subsequently published in ImageTexT in 2013, and then elaborated in a keynote address given at The University of Florida’s annual Conference on Comics in 2014. For readers familiar with trauma theory, the idea of comics as a traumatized medium may call to mind some strong objections to metaphorical or other non-therapeutic uses of the category of trauma; such objections will be discussed presently. While developing the concept, I certainly knew it to be a metaphorical application of trauma—more precisely, a similitude—that not everyone would find acceptable. But my immediate concern was its usefulness for understanding the cultural conditions of comics in the US, and specifically the relationship between the medium’s past and present.

The similitude emerged from research on the era of the graphic novel—a period beginning in the late 1970s and continuing to the present, during which the term and the books it names have circulated more and more widely—and on this era’s relationship to comics’ travails in mid-century US culture. While investigating how contemporary comics creators understand themselves and their work, and how they parse their relationship to their medium’s past, I observed three trauma-like features. First: marked attention to and elaborate recollection (accurate or not) of the moment of the 1954 comics code, which so decisively shaped comics’ fate, and of the circumstances leading up to the code.2 Second: strong suspicion of and resistance to notions of growing up or coming of age that have circulated in journalistic (and, in many cases, scholarly) accounts of comics since the emergence of the graphic novel. Third: a tendency to discuss, and to picture, status concerns on the comics page, often in ways that seem deliberately implosive or self-cancelling, that is, autoclastic. These features of contemporary comics struck me as testifying to a culture, and a creative atmosphere, marked a great deal more strongly by mid-century condemnations of comics than is generally acknowledged.

The historical moment when the medium was subject to widespread public condemnation, threats of state and federal censorship, and ultimately to a decimation of its readership is not distant from us. Some living comics creators were profoundly affected by it—hundreds never published comics again after 1954—and in at least a few cases, their subsequent conduct suggests that their experiences might have been, in a specific and clinical sense, traumatizing.3 But awareness of this moment is often clearly expressed in the work of creators born decades later, and in ways that do not look like straightforward historical documentation or cultural recollection. Rather, there is a marked impulse to make the worst period of comics history visible, and a constant attention to problems of status—including problems of creative and career limitation—related to that moment.4 Thus, the similitude of trauma seemed to me well worth pursuing. It was appropriate, I believed, to describe a scenario in which the violence done to comics had inflicted damage severe and complex enough to result in repetitive articulation of that damage, resistance to the idea of “moving on” from it, and self-thwarting aesthetic tendencies; again, all these features of contemporary comics resemble models of traumatic experience and its aftermath.

However, trauma proved to be the wrong similitude. The more closely I examined the relationship between comics’ past and present, the more I discovered conditions to which trauma did not apply as even the most general of likenesses. It became increasingly clear that however harmful the medium’s mid-century circumstances might have been, current conditions are not nearly as good for comics as a host of observers seem to assume. What contemporary comics creators express does have to do with the medium’s difficult past. The extent of the damage done to comics, and its implications for culture at large, have still not been fully articulated, and more than a few contemporary creators seem determined to fill the gap. Yet some of the problems comics faced in postwar US culture are present now; they are factors with which creators still struggle, not historical phenomena alive only in cultural recollection and disposition. What I initially grasped as cultural memory with, I believed, trauma-like components is actually a response to ongoing conditions of marginalization. Thus, the figure of trauma, as a dynamic of forgotten and/or repeated past suffering, has little application to contemporary comics as a whole.

Cultural Trauma and Hegemony

Having given this brief account of how my thinking changed, I turn to the larger implications of metaphorical uses of trauma as a category—and, presently, to the question of how comics might aid our understanding of such uses. To begin with a common-sense acknowledgment: some will see my account as beside the point at best. In his critique of some tendencies of trauma theory, Wulf Kansteiner argues that studies of trauma based in linguistic, literary or cultural analysis tend to “elide the moral differences between victims, perpetrators and bystanders of acts of violence,” resulting in a nebulous sense of trauma with little genuine usefulness for victims (194). From this point of view, to speak of a traumatized medium would be to go one step beyond the already-questionable practice of confusing different roles (the term “roles” is inadequate here) in actual occurrences of trauma by reinforcing the idea that trauma can be experienced at second or third hand—through cultural representation—so strongly as to blur the line between persons and works of art. This blurring might conceivably be justified by the fact that the trauma in question (if it is indeed trauma) is intrinsically linked to creative endeavor, namely the making of comics. But regardless of this fact, and regardless of the depth or historical scope of the damage done to comics, Kansteiner would doubtless argue on principle that trauma ought not to be used to describe it, so that the concept might be reserved for more medically specific and historically urgent matters.

It’s tempting to insist, with appropriate haste, that I imagined no one would be confused about which parts of the concept were a comparison of likeness not intended to claim the status of persons for art, and that I believed neither my concept, nor the practice of thinking about trauma in cultural or metaphorical terms, would harm anyone. But—to disclose a less comfortable truth—while confident no victim of trauma could be damaged by my similitude, I did wonder how, were it to gain any currency, it might be judged by anyone who thinks as Kansteiner does. Frivolously misappropriating the concept of trauma is not something anyone wants to be accused of, but my concern was mainly tactical. Wishing to draw attention to a problem of substantial dimensions in US culture, I sought a persuasive and accurate figure for describing that problem. While believing my similitude was fruitful, I knew it might be judged an abuse of a vital concept—which would do little to encourage serious attention to the historical fate of comics.

In early stages of research I chose to put the similitude forward, but in the period of Arresting Development‘s completion, as I sifted historical and contemporary evidence more finely, a clearer picture of comics’ present conditions emerged, one that excluded trauma and suggested other paradigms more specific to comics and to their distinct cultural condition. By then, I could well appreciate Kansteiner’s claim that “[i]t is difficult to resist the considerable gravitational pull of the trauma paradigm and develop categories of emotional-psychological engagement and disengagement that are more subtle and more precise than the robust notion of trauma” (195). In this postmortem examination, I feel driven to ask why this “gravitational pull” is so strong. Discussing what he sees as the unhelpfully nebulous category of “cultural trauma,” Kansteiner expresses bafflement on this point: “… the question remains why we would want to… subsume the very different cultural experiences of trauma and with trauma under the vague rubric of cultural trauma” (211). For Kansteiner, the tendency to expand usage of the concept of trauma in increasingly “cultural” or metaphorical ways—my own usage would clearly fall under this heading—is an inexplicable conceptual abuse taken to equally inexplicable extremes.

But the answer to Kansteiner’s question is more specific, and—as we will see presently in the example of Maus—contemporary comics can give us a vivid picture of it. I suggest that roles (again, an inadequate term) in and around occurrences of trauma are often confused, and use of the term has become increasingly “cultural” in its application, because the category itself is now inextricable from many efforts to gain recognition and legitimation of suffering. I imply no critique of this inextricability. When we examine the key role the category of trauma has played in pressing instances of medical, cultural, political, and moral legitimation, for tasks as various as the diagnosis and treatment of veterans with PTSD, the fight to improve legal protections for victims of sexual violence, and the labor of documenting and publicizing large-scale historical atrocities (most notably, in the context of trauma theory, the Holocaust), it appears both inevitable and right that the concept of trauma is not a neutral diagnostic tool; it is and ought to be a ground of struggle for recognition and legitimation in the name of justice.5 And insofar as trauma theory is a practice with real medical, economic, and political aims, it is inevitably transformed, and perhaps mistranslated or distorted, on the way to achieving certain effects.

Moreover—and this, I believe, is where Kansteiner’s thinking hesitates to go—it is inevitable that the struggles of witnessing will be played out in the arts and humanities, extending and complicating the processes outlined above. The work of witness mandates not only historical and scientific documentation, medical diagnosis, and legislative change, but also the production of images of trauma, their reproduction, circulation, and interpretation, the complex arts of relation and identification that make use of those images, the difficulties of hearing testimony rightly at a mediated distance from it, of speaking at second and third hand for or about victims who might not speak for themselves (or who might speak for themselves, but in quite different terms), and all the other practices of communal and self-other relations that surround traumatic phenomena.6 And while such practices ought—here one can only agree with Kansteiner—to avoid confusing different roles when possible, such confusion is produced within, and to some degree by, the cultural process of witnessing, which takes place at various distances from the original events to which it is addressed.7

Some theorists of trauma in literary and cultural study might, for different reasons, be just as hesitant as Kansteiner to entertain the line of thinking I am suggesting. In her widely cited Unclaimed Experience, Cathy Caruth—condemned by Kansteiner as a signal instance of “survivor envy” because of her all-encompassing and culturally-oriented theories of trauma (204)—suggests at several points that a confusion of roles has a special, even unique relationship to trauma. Caruth argues that, by generating and propagating absence or lack, trauma both calls for and resists representation. As part of this argument, Caruth seems to assume that complex and uncertain relations among victim, perpetrator, bystander, and witness are intrinsic to traumatic phenomena in ways that are not the case for other scenarios of suffering. In one of her key examples, the story of Tancred’s killing of Clorinda in Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, Caruth identifies “the story of the way in which one’s own trauma is tied up with the trauma of another, the way in which trauma may lead, therefore, to the encounter with another, through the very possibility and surprise of listening to another’s wound” (8). This formulation strongly implies there is something native to trauma that complicates self-other interactions and breaks down relations among roles. And if this is so, the dominance of the concept of cultural trauma is its natural destiny (an idea further implied by Caruth’s historically wide-ranging assortment of actual and fictional examples).

This generalized approach to trauma is, of course, anathema to Kansteiner. Even if we do not take his hardline position, Caruth’s assumptions ought at least to call for comparative study to ask how other, non-traumatic kinds of suffering might generate complex scenarios of mediation and confusion of roles. But the very “gravitational pull” Kansteiner notes—created, I am suggesting, by political and cultural conditions rather than by anything native to traumatic phenomena as such—makes it difficult to answer his demand for new “categories of emotional-psychological engagement and disengagement” that might allow for such comparison (Kansteiner 195).8 If we want a broader, more complex spectrum of possibility for documenting, witnessing, and redressing human suffering, where can we turn?

Witnessing and Legitimation in Comics

Comics can intervene at precisely this point, illuminating the dynamics of identification and legitimation surrounding trauma, and suggesting openness to a plurality of models for describing suffering and its aftereffects. My thinking here is informed by Hillary Chute’s transformative ideas about comics’ power to express suffering. In Graphic Women (2010) and Disaster Drawn (2015), Chute argues that comics’ way of bearing witness to trauma is—by the standards of most models current in the humanities—distinctly unorthodox. Comics undertake what Chute calls “the risk of representation. Specifically, in comics produced after World War II, despite the prevailing views of representing trauma after the Holocaust, we see that trauma does not always have to be disappearance; it can be plenitude, and excess of signification” (Disaster Drawn 5). In Chute’s view, comics resist an emphasis on silence, the forgotten, and the hidden that characterize standard models of trauma in favor of glaring, seemingly excessive visibility.

Further, Chute suggests that in the context of journalism and autobiography, the drawn line of comics is especially useful for this kind of witnessing. She speaks of “the force, or force field, of the mark and line to impart information both external to the maker and also personal to the maker. The distilled register of the cartoon and the drawn line creates an enveloping, idiosyncratic world of expression that can be powerful for witness” (Disaster Drawn 168). In Chute’s model of the expressive power of comics, we see potential for some of the phenomena that, I have been arguing, often accompany traumatic witnessing—particularly a confusion of roles and a displacement and re-presentation of traumatic force in new contexts—produced not by lack or absence, but by visual “presence” and “plenitude” in the distinct “world of expression” that comics create. Thus, comics resist what Kansteiner calls the “gravitational pull” of standard models for understanding and witnessing trauma, challenging received concepts—such as Caruth’s assumption that unstable relations among roles in traumatic witnessing necessarily derive from absence or lack—and suggesting other possibilities.

If such resistance and potential derive, as Chute suggests, from the “force field” of the graphic line in comics, I would argue that they are also motivated by the medium’s strong attunement to dynamics of legitimation, which are now central to the function of trauma as a category. A crucial example of this attunement is Maus, a powerful work of traumatic witness that also has much to say about the dynamics of cultural legitimation in which the book itself is now caught up. In a revelatory reading of the relationship between Maus as a finished work and the extensive documentary materials Spiegelman used in its construction, Chute expounds in detail how the comic “draws on archives, including official archival materials such as posters and photographs, to open and recirculate them in its comics form” (190-191). But in addition to this material remediation and recirculation, Maus is also focused on the kinds of displacement and confusion that often occur in the process of traumatic witnessing. Most centrally, and from the very first, Spiegelman evokes such displacements and confusions through the book’s use of animal cartoons to represent ethnic and national groupings: Jews are mice, Germans are cats (regardless of whether the persons so represented experienced the events of the Holocaust directly or not), non-Jewish Americans are dogs, etc. This has long been a point of controversy among readers—ongoing, as anyone who has assigned the book in a university setting can attest—and it is central to what Maus has to say about how witnessing is influenced by questions of recognition and legitimation.

The way Maus speaks to these matters has, unfortunately, been one of the reasons it is sometimes treated as suspect. In The Shape of the Signifier, Walter Benn Michaels reads Maus as a clear example of what he sees as the reductiveness of contemporary identity politics. Asking whether Spiegelman’s animal characters are “a successful parody of Hitler’s dehumanization of the Jews” or whether “the parody end[s] up repeating that dehumanization” and other pressing questions, Michaels then claims that Maus asks “the questions without making it possible definitively to answer them (actually while making it impossible to answer them)” and that “Spiegelman registers—instantiates—the posthistoricist commitment to seeing the world as organized by identities” (129). This view of Maus ignores its author’s loudly professed skepticism towards identity politics.9 Yet even in the absence of what Spiegelman has said in interviews, a close examination of the way he deploys his animal cartoons makes it doubtful that his motive is identitarian; rather, he bears witness to historical events in which categories of identity were decisive (Jews were murdered on the basis of their identities), and he does so as a survivor’s son, necessarily caught up in his parents’ story.10 He is, moreover, addressing matters of identity consolidation and the confusion of roles that traumatic events produce in the course of struggles for recognition and legitimation, whether or not the witnesses are the children of survivors. In other words, Spiegleman’s animal figures announce that Maus is very much about the complications of traumatic witnessing as they unfold in cultural expression.

Michaels acknowledges that the animal groupings in Maus are tied to such struggles and complications, but he does so with the assumption that the text presents its identitarian groupings as authorized in advance. For instance, he links the fact that all of Maus‘s American Jews are depicted as mice to the foundation of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, and describes a process that makes “the victimization of Jews a fact of American history” while also framing the Holocaust as “a crime of identity” (131). In this view, regardless of what Maus does or does not achieve in terms of documentary witness, its cartoon animals repeat and reinforce a sense of Jewish identity that is now prominent in US culture. Admittedly, this argument for Maus as identitarian does suggest the degree to which some readers today might be ready to accept its animal groupings at face value.

But such readings ignore the complexity with which Maus examines the processes of legitimation that Michaels seems willing to oversimplify.11 Of particular interest is the way Spiegelman responds to the success of his work in the latter portions of Maus. Serialized in Raw from 1980 to 1985, the first portion of Maus appeared as a bound volume in 1986 and received considerable acclaim. Subsequent installments, published in Raw from 1986 to 1991 and collected in a second volume (together with a final chapter) in 1991, clearly respond to this acclaim, “reflexively commenting on [Maus‘s] production and interrogating the staging of ‘the Holocaust'” (Rothberg, “Talking Jewish” 674). In these later installments, Spiegelman displays in detail his feelings about, and incisive critiques of, the legitimation that—at the outset of his project—was not available to him as an underground cartoonist.

Autoclastic Witnessing in “Time Flies”

These critiques come to a head at the opening of “Auschwitz (Time Flies)” (hereafter “Time Flies”), the second installment following the publication of the first collected volume of Maus, and the first occasion on which Spiegelman had an opportunity to respond, in the work itself, to his new level of fame. The opening page of “Time Flies” shows Spiegelman sitting at his drawing table, working on the installment of Maus we are reading, and reflecting on his new circumstances.[Figure 1] He explicitly notes when, in calendar time, his cultural status changed (“In September 1986, after eight years of work, the first part of Maus was published. It was a critical and commercial success” (41.4)), and specifies his current, temporally brief distance from the change (“I started working on this page at the very end of February 1987” (41.2)). As Spiegelman discusses the choices that now lie ahead of him as a result of Maus‘s success (“I’ve gotten 4 serious offers to turn my book into a T.V. special or a movie. (I don’t wanna)”), we see that his creative space is surrounded by, or immersed in, the circumstances of the Holocaust (41.5). A guard tower and a wire fence are visible outside his window, and bodies representing those killed in the camps lie piled below his drawing table, surrounded by buzzing flies. Even at first glance, this image brings attention to both its ethical urgency and its potential failure; the creator makes visible the bodies of Holocaust victims, but he has drawn them as an element his cartoon representation of himself is steadily ignoring as he works on the next installment of his now-successful serial.

Figure 1

In this confrontation with cultural legitimacy, the implicit pun on “drawing” is complex and multiple. Spiegelman has drawn himself into a Holocaust setting; he feels surrounded by the presence of victims and confined by the act of representing them. Yet, while rendering the bodies of the dead on the page, he shows himself looking away from them to the page he is drawing—that is, towards a secondary representation, a sign of what it attempts to evoke (like the buzzing flies drawn to the bodies, flies drawn throughout the scene by the creator’s hand). Further, Spiegelman has drawn a host of others to look, not at the victims, but at his “critical and commercial success.” On the second page of “Time Flies,” a crowd of journalists, some accompanied by camera operators, enters his studio to ask questions about his work, followed by a grinning huckster who offers to help him make money by selling replicas of the vest Spiegelman often portrays himself as wearing (42.6).[Figure 2] In the course of this scene, the pile of corpses is excluded from the frame—a choice Spiegelman highlights by making the first panel of the page, the only one in which the corpses are still visible, slightly taller than the others, resulting in a deliberately uneven grid—but we are aware that the people invading the studio must be stepping among, or on, these unseen bodies (42.1). Clearly, Spiegelman sees the cultural and economic legitimation of Maus as quite different from the question of its success as a work of witness, and however much he may feel caught up in his account of his father’s survival story, he is now faced with another struggle whose immediate demands threaten to eclipse the real work. Though committed to witnessing his father’s experience in Auschwitz, Spiegelman fears he might become simply a shill for Maus; thus, he also risks “drawing flies” by allowing the most essential purpose of his work to die.

Figure 2

Notably, Spiegelman’s mouse-self, which by now the reader has come to regard as his conventional appearance in the work, is not present; rather, we see what is presumably a human figure wearing a mouse mask. The only mice on the page are the dead ones on the studio floor (and on the sidewalk outside the studio (43.3-4)). Other living figures in the scene are masked in their various animal identities, and one of these figures (itself in a mouse mask) questions the effectiveness of Spiegelman’s groupings by asking what animal Spiegelman would choose to represent Israelis. Spiegelman’s response is “I have no idea…. porcupines?” (42.5). Like several other passages in the latter chapters of Maus, this exchange underscores the contingency of the animal groupings Spiegelman deploys. They are offered as one way of organizing complex historical experience, and Spiegelman’s uncertain response suggests that they could be organized differently. Moreover, the fact that a reporter asks this question in the context of Maus‘s success and the creator’s ascent to fame underscores the way Spiegelman connects witnessing to the dynamics of legitimation. The cultural status and authority granted to Maus upon its first collected publication raises new questions about its representational strategies, prompting Spiegelman both to picture his own real obligations as a witness and to indicate the potential inauthenticity of his new status.

This passage from “Time Flies” illustrates Michael Rothberg’s claim that Spiegelman “heretically reinserts the Holocaust into the political realm by highlighting its necessary imbrication in the public sphere and in commodity production” (“Talking Jewish” 671). “Time Flies” also enacts what I call autoclasm, whereby Spiegelman attacks his own authority to reframe the political and cultural terms of the Holocaust. The initial image of the masked self at his drawing table, surrounded and confined by images of the camps, shows that Spiegelman habitually links the experiences he is witnessing to the act of witness. Here we see the confusion of roles that so often accompanies witnessing in its various political, ethical, and cultural contexts. However, the strength of the creator’s identification with his subject matter is clearly inauthentic. Spiegelman obviously has not undergone, nor can he fully comprehend, the experience of a survivor. More disturbingly, the guard tower and the mouse corpses are, in a sense, mere reflections of the creator’s state of mind; the Holocaust becomes the way Spiegelman expresses his feelings at this moment of his creative life. Spiegelman is obviously quite aware of the narcissism of this use of others’ suffering and death, and his drive to picture this narcissism, to make it a readable part of the act of witnessing, disrupts and strengthens the act of witness.

This dynamic reaches its crisis point when Art, overwhelmed by the pressure of the huckster and the questions of the journalists, shrinks in size, yells “I want… I want… my MOMMY!” and starts to bawl like a child (42.7-8). Spiegelman pictures himself as prone to immature regression in the face of cultural pressure that, while clearly difficult, is not itself traumatic. Yet Spiegelman’s mother did in fact take her own life in 1968 (an event that may well have been traumatic for her son), and her suicide was clearly related to her time in Auschwitz. Autoclasm usually expresses, in dizzying fashion, two incompatible things at once—in this case, an urge to get free of the stresses and entanglements of newly legitimate status, and a desire to use that status to express, in a harrowingly direct way, the losses of the Holocaust that have directly touched the creator. In autoclasm we see one of the strongest features of contemporary comics: a deep attunement to, and elaboration of, the complex and often contradictory dynamics of cultural status, and of the way those dynamics, in all their historical and cultural specificity, inexorably shape what the creator draws.

What makes “Time Flies” especially striking as an example of autoclasm is Spiegelman’s Sisyphean determination to work out the implications of his newly paradoxical position and explore in full its possibilities and perils. Immediately following the crisis moment of childlike regression is an optimistic exercise in discrimination—among types of representations, roles, and varieties of artistic labor—that offers a sense of how and why the project of witnessing can continue. What enables these kinds of discrimination is, very pointedly, the therapeutic process. Still shrunk in size, Art leaves his studio and goes directly to a session with Pavel, his analyst. Pavel is a Jew who survived Terezin and Auschwitz, and both his therapeutic wisdom and his authority as a survivor are clearly valued. Over the course of his session, Art gets new insight into his relationship with his father (for whom Pavel is clearly a useful point of transference—a more salutary confusion of roles than what we see at the start of the chapter), confronts the paradoxes of traumatic witnessing, and addresses some of the practical problems of the portion of Maus he is currently working on.12 Here, Spiegelman would seem to be anticipating the objections of a Kansteiner or a Michaels by highlighting the specificity of his relationship with a figure who—as both analyst and survivor—aids the act of historical witness and clarifies key boundaries that can make witnessing possible. As Art leaves Pavel’s office, reflecting on the benefits of his sessions, he returns to adult size over the course of three panels, indicating (through another obvious pun) the way the therapeutic process allows for the creator to realize measurable growth (46.8-10).[Figure 3]

Figure 3

Yet the complications of witnessing immediately threaten to undo this growth, and Spiegelman proceeds to court the kind of condemnation he seems to anticipate. Shortly after he sits down to listen to recordings of his interviews with his father, Art shrinks once again (47.1-4).[Figure 4] The exact cause of this regression is not clear; it could be the process of witnessing itself, the psychological struggle prompted by the voice of Art’s now-dead father, or a sense of guilt or other conflict prompted by memories of this particular interview session, in which Art, frustrated by his father Vladek’s accounts of squabbles with his second wife, screams “ENOUGH! Tell me about Auschwitz!” (47.3). Both Kansteiner and Michaels, for different reasons, might point to such a moment of interpretive uncertainty—in which, as readers, we do not know if the shrunken Art is an exhausted witness undone by his labor, a belittled son crushed by the memory of his difficult parent, a troubled researcher plagued with guilt at his bullying methods, a victim of personal historical trauma himself, or some combination of the four—as symptomatic of a collapse of roles. Such a reading might assign delinquency to Spiegelman and demand that, in the interest of proper witnessing and attention to historicity, he take up the responsibility of explaining who or what causes this developmental regression—and, perhaps, that he say why he finds it acceptable to interrupt the act of witnessing with a childish gag.

Figure 4

But this kind of autoclastic gesture is how comics display their maturity (if that is the right word for it). Spiegelman offers his digressive, self-thwarting tactics of witness as a way to be responsible in the midst of complex dynamics of legitimation. By presenting himself as a narcissist and a bawling toddler, he disrupts an image of developmental progress that, in so many cultural narratives, assures us—rather, provides the sense of assurance—that proper political, ethical, and cultural distinctions are being made. As Chute amply demonstrates, Maus is a meticulously researched work of witness that makes sharp distinctions in its documentation of evidence; in measurable ways, it is an empirically rigorous account. What concerns Spiegelman in “Time Flies” is the way that, no matter how carefully researched and presented, his work is drawn into cultural and political processes that are necessarily messier, and more self-mystifying, than the creator is able to control. He can, however, picture these problems on the comics page and make them intrinsic to responsible acts of witness—at the cost, paradoxically, of deliberately weakening his own position of authority, and potentially being seen as narcissistic and childish.

Faustian Bargains and Chicken Fat

The autoclastic elements of “Time Flies” are more explicable if we pay attention to what Spiegelman has repeatedly said about the legitimation of comics in the US. Given that he is probably the most widely respected, culturally authoritative comics creator working in English, one might expect his view of graphic novels’ gradual acceptance in the mainstream to be approving and optimistic. But from his earliest major interviews in the early 1980s until now, Spiegelman has insisted that in the era of the graphic novel, comics have been making a deal with the devil. In the phrasing of one recent interview, this “Faustian deal is worth making” because “it keeps [Maus] in print.” Nevertheless, this “deal” can have the downside of making comics “arid and genteel,” and “it is important to have work that isn’t easy to assimilate on that level”—that is, on the level of literary, culturally respectable consumption (“Public Conversation” 24).

These remarks are not mere lip service to some notion of cultural broad-mindedness. Passionate on the subject of pulpy or otherwise “low” newspaper strips, Spiegelman has often talked about the influence of Mad magazine on his work, and has been unapologetic about his commercial work for, among others, Playboy and the Topps novelty company. He is, of course, also versed in and attached to more respectable culture of various kinds, and critics who compare Maus to the great achievements of high modernism are not wholly mistaken. But to allow such comparisons to overshadow Spiegelman’s deep suspicion of legitimation—expressed in “Time Flies” even more vividly than in his interviews—is to gentrify Maus in ways that validate this suspicion in full.

One way Spiegelman expresses his low-cultural attachments is his use of chicken fat, a cartoonist’s term coined by revered Mad illustrator Will Elder (the acknowledged master of this practice) that refers to small gags crammed into a larger narrative or scene. Chicken fat, as Spiegelman explains in the same interview mentioned above, is a seemingly immature, apparently digressive practice that can enrich a comic’s interpretive possibilities (“Public Conversation” 22, 24).13 One key instance of chicken fat in “Time Flies” occurs in the therapy session with Pavel. Spiegelman breaks the text’s animal metaphor by showing a dog Pavel owns, as well as a picture of his cat. To ensure readers will notice this detail, Spiegelman adds a narrative box reading “Framed photo of pet cat. Really!” that has an arrow pointing to the photo (43.8).[Figure 5] This seemingly tangential gag both deepens interpretive possibility by suggesting how important sessions with Pavel are for Art to maintain his sense of present reality, and disrupts narrative gravity by undercutting the animal metaphor that enables Spiegelman’s project of witnessing. Of course, the therapist who is the possessor—in a sense, the wielder—of this bit of reality is himself a cartoon figure in a mouse mask, and the photo in question is yet another drawing, underscoring Spiegelman’s vision of the work of witnessing as a highly mediated process in which various roles and modes of representation often overlap. Yet beyond such reflexive mediation, the self-defeating nature of this particular gag—the insistent “Really!” is scarcely a sign of authority—signals a commitment to disrupting this process forcefully enough to question not the value of witnessing as such, but the cultural dynamics of its dissemination and legitimation.

Figure 5

To ignore such moments is to create an “arid and genteel” Maus whose legitimation is secure, and whose distinct power is thereby diminished. Trimming the chicken fat from this work, if only by critical omission, normalizes its approach to the process of witnessing and risks ignoring uncomfortable questions about the relationship between witnessing and status that Spiegelman is at pains to make visible. It is scarcely accidental that early criticism on Maus was suffused with the kind of regulatory impulses Spiegelman seems deliberately to defy. Faced with his extraordinary achievement, most critics and reviewers acknowledged that Maus was a successful comic about the Holocaust. However, they often registered their own surprise that such an achievement was possible, and there was a strong sense that Maus was an exception to a rule that could be allowed to stand. In the succinct phrasing of Thomas Doherty: “In the hands of cartoonist Spiegelman, a conceit obscene on its face—a Holocaust comic book—became solemn and moving, absorbing and enlightening” (70, italics mine). And the default obscenity of “a Holocaust comic book” was often explicitly linked to the mass-cultural status of comics. The cultural gatekeeping in such criticism was, among other things, intended to safeguard the moral and political value of traumatic witnessing, but it did so by way of an attachment to legitimate forms that was ill-equipped to notice much of what is distinctive about Maus. Thus, moments in the text that seem deliberately to pursue a kind of impropriety, and to challenge self-reinforcing cultural mechanisms for establishing status, have often been ignored, undervalued, or misread.

Especially instructive in this regard is Andreas Huyssen’s reading of the passage from “Time Flies” on which I have focused. Committed as he has long been to challenging high-low cultural divisions, Huyssen would seem well qualified to read Maus without interference from any gatekeeping impulses. He does read it as offering a way to think about traumatic witnessing, and representation of the Holocaust in particular, outside of the “modernist dichotomy that pits Hollywood and mass culture against forms of high art,” and he values Spiegelman’s deliberate violation of “the prohibition against graven images” that still influences what we find permissible in representations of trauma and atrocity (125, 123). In his interpretation of “Time Flies,” however, Huyssen seems to change course, arguing that the chapter is “as close as any in the work to traumatic silence and the refusal to speak” (134). More precisely, he argues that “Time Flies” is about refusal, or at least hesitation, to show; he reads the human figures with animal masks as a sign of Spiegelman’s acknowledgment of the limits of Maus‘s pictorial strategy: “It is as if the image track could no longer sustain itself, as if it had collapsed under its own weight. The mimicry reveals itself to be a sham. The mask reveals the limits of his project. The ruse doesn’t work any longer” (134). Huyssen sees Maus‘s animal figures as too cumbersome for the book’s purpose and yet too light to cling to the subjects they enfold, as both heavy-handed oversimplification and flimsy deception. This reading reverses Huyssen’s initial priorities, and suggests that there is, after all, some price to be paid for breaking “the prohibition against images.”

However, there is little in the quality of his line, in the self-reflexivity of his pictorial vocabulary, or in his unapologetic stance towards his chosen medium, that will support the idea that Spiegelman could be so conflicted about doing what the comics creator must do: make pictures. The “image track” in Maus is presented as neither more nor less of a “sham” or “ruse” than the verbal components (notably, the latter participate fully in several instances of chicken fat). Huyssen notes that the “great commercial success” of the first volume of Maus is part of what prompts Art’s crisis, and he reads the interactions with the reporters and the huckster as Spiegelman’s distress at the thought of “the Holocaust as part of the culture industry” (133, 134). But while “Time Flies” portrays the commodification of the Holocaust as distressing, indeed horrifying, what prompts Art’s crisis is, to cite the precise words of the text, the “critical and commercial” success of the first volume—which is to say, its legitimation rather than simply its commodification (41.4, italics mine). To mark Spiegelman’s concerns in “Time Flies” as aversion to “the culture industry” is to miss the fact that Spiegelman is primarily suspicious not of the mass-cultural aspects of his medium, but of the literary status that, among its other effects, leads critics to write about Maus. We must recall his idea of the Faustian bargain. The fact that Maus stays “in print” as a commodity (which must be bought and sold in order to be read) is the positive side of the bargain; “genteel” status is, in Spiegelman’s view, the devil’s share (“Public Conversation” 24).14

Witnessing in Bad Taste

Lest my reading of Maus seem too “low” to sort with its maker’s own creative and ethical ambitions, let us now recall Spiegelman’s off-the-cuff retort that the Holocaust was in bad taste. It is worth comparing this remark to Adorno’s frequently-cited observation that “[t]o write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” (34). In a careful analysis of this claim, Michael Rothberg argues that it has often been misread as a critique of the failure of postwar cultural expression to encompass atrocity. On the contrary, Rothberg argues, Adorno indicts cultural expression as part of what produces atrocity. Assuming an “intimate connection between bourgeois culture and modern terror,” Adorno’s remark divorces the Holocaust from the possibility of artistic response (“After Adorno” 51). Thus, whether it is read accurately or not, Adorno’s remark has this in common with Spiegelman’s sentiment: a rejection of aesthetics as a guide to witnessing.15

In other ways, however, the two sentiments cannot be reconciled. Spiegelman assumes that insofar as it demands a vast work of witness, the Holocaust is joined, in however tendentious a fashion, to the arts. The best approach to this joining, in Spiegelman’s view, will not be regulated by questions of propriety, and will not be naïve to the complex dynamics of legitimation. Thus, in typically autoclastic fashion, Spiegelman expresses his thoughts on witnessing and “taste” so as to undercut their authority. And here the real difference emerges. Though Adorno would probably have found this fact abhorrent, his remark—whether it is affirmed or denied, read accurately or wrongly—is understood to be in good taste; unlike Spiegelman’s disturbing quip, it can never be judged a bad joke. For sensibilities such as Spiegelman’s, however, the unassailable propriety of Adorno’s remark might be what is most suspicious about it. Perhaps Adorno loses sight of the way that even philosophical prohibitions against questions of taste retain a valence of “culture”—and, more broadly, the way that atrocities that would seem to defy any artistic response nevertheless will be caught up in cultural representation, and struggles for status and legitimation, in the course of attempts to bear witness to them.16

If comics are especially attuned to such matters, this has a great deal to do with the medium’s long history of marginalization. Postwar comics creators have had to pay frequent attention to high-low cultural distinctions, and to all the other dynamics that have forced the medium into the Faustian bargain of which Spiegelman remains wary. While the idea of comics as a traumatized medium is a dead end, what should remain very much alive is our understanding of comics’ ability to approach traumatic phenomena, and other kinds of suffering, with responsible complexity. To an appreciation of the “force field” Chute delineates as a special quality of the cartoonist’s art, we should add awareness of how the low cultural position of comics has inspired creators to highly advanced understandings of the way traumatic events, and other forms of suffering, work themselves out in culture.

To build such awareness is, hopefully, to deepen our understanding of the ways the process of witnessing can achieve real effects, in culture and elsewhere. It is also, inevitably, to work towards the legitimation of comics. However, this legitimation will hopefully acknowledge that one of the most valuable things comics offer is their power to dispel the aura of cultural respectability with which many critics have often tried to surround the medium (or at least the subset of the medium called by the name “graphic novel”). There is no better school for cultivating this paradoxical attitude—committed to cultural transformation beyond high-low distinctions and wary of the very image of progress this phrasing implies—than the pages of comics themselves, where we find contemporary creators interrogating their own cultural position with a rigor that—of necessity—might look tasteless.


My thanks to Donald Ault, Mel Loucks, and all who organized the University of Florida’s Annual Conference on Comics Studies in 2014. I am indebted as well to the conference participants for lively conversation on the subject of comics and trauma. My heartfelt thanks also to Anthony Lioi, Channette Romero and Christine Nicklin, who have generously acted as sounding boards for my thoughts about comics and trauma in the past few years.

[1] See Pizzino, Arresting Development 70-71.

[2] On the subject of historical memory in comics culture, see Pizzino, “The Doctor Versus the Dagger.”

[3] On the destruction of many creators’ careers after 1954, see Hajdu, Appendix. Hadju also provides an instance of a former creator, Janice Valleau, whose feelings about the end of her career after the code suggest possible trauma; see 3-5. Such speculation on the part of one who does not wield professional medical expertise regarding trauma is obviously of limited value. I confess further that my sense of the way censorship (or the threat thereof) can affect a creator’s later experience, perhaps even to the point of trauma, has been influenced by a particular case of a well-known mid-century creator who, in later years, has become increasingly unwilling to discuss his controversial pre-code comics work. I here respect his wish to avoid association with his comics career by omitting his name—a gesture that, of course, indicates the depth of the problems one confronts in assessing the aftermath of the code for the creators most directly involved.

[4] See Pizzino chapters 3-5.

[5] For useful brief surveys of the historical growth of medical, legal and cultural discourses around the concept of trauma, see Leys, Introduction and Luckhurst chapter 1. For more detailed accounts of early chapters of this history, see Micale and Lerner, eds.

[6] Examining the historical trajectory of the tendencies he condemns, Kansteiner observes that “[a]s more and more proponents of trauma research left behind the concern with the concrete psychological dynamics set in motion by events such as the ‘Final Solution’ and the Vietnam War and turned trauma into a widely employed conceptual tool, they tended to obliterate the very historical precision and moral specificity that the concept had originally helped to establish” (194). Yet this obliteration of precision is, to some degree, already present in any category that links two such different historical phenomena as the Holocaust and the Vietnam War. However precise its medical applications may be, trauma is still a category of diagnosis that, in the course of marking a particular phenomenon as traumatic, does not necessarily respect the complexities of a given case (or acknowledge the moral difficulties of treating atrocities as “cases”). Moreover, such diminishment of precision is an inevitable effect of the fact that trauma has rarely been used for “pure” diagnosis, and is routinely engaged as a way to struggle for recognition in contexts of political, economic, and cultural hegemony. And, again, such struggles often entail the kinds of misidentification, blurring of boundaries, and speaking for or identifying with other subject-positions that Kansteiner finds objectionable.

[7] The difficulties of witnessing attendant on these realities are powerfully expounded by Felman and Laub; see chapter 2.

[8] My argument here might prompt the question why, of the various concepts that might conceivably play the same part, trauma in particular has been assigned a central role in struggles for recognition and legitimation. Here I can only suggest, in the briefest fashion, a possible reason: trauma’s capacity both to extend and to challenge traditional human rights discourse. Two aspects of trauma are relevant here. First, in its applicability to many different personal, communal and cultural scenarios across many lines of difference, the category of trauma offers—or at least appears to offer—a broad spectrum of interpretive, political and social possibility for redress and change. Second, trauma emphasizes the ongoing after-effects of suffering, and the need for extensive legal, medical and cultural interpretation of it, thus unsettling conventional notions of personal and communal progress.

[9] See Spiegelman’s interview with Juno 14, 16.

[10] Additionally, the energy with which Spiegelman interrogates his animal depictions ought to indicate that he is not, as Michaels argues, posthistoricist—a point Chute likewise helps to establish in her discussion of Spiegelman’s careful attention to historical detail, and his even more careful parsing of which events he is reporting from a firsthand witness, and which are mediated by additional witnesses; see Disaster Drawn chapter 4.

[11] Michaels’s view also ignores the fact that Spiegelman has expressed pointed skepticism towards institutions such as the U.S. Holocaust Museum; again, see his interview with Juno 14, 16. Also relevant in regard to Spiegelman’s creative intentions is the moment of Maus‘s inception, about which Spiegelman observes: “We weren’t then as we are now, in a culture saturated with Holocaust stories that feel safely in the past to most Americans—and can seem like a genre, even, to be dipped into for its pathos and historical lessons” (Chute interview 42).

[12] For Spiegelman’s thoughts on Pavel as a father-substitute, see Driefus interview 35.

[13] For a longer discussion of chicken fat, see Pizzino, Arresting Development 123-24, 129, 131-32.

[14] Michael Rothberg observes that there are “many places” in Maus “where Spiegelman rebels against the terms of his success; such cleverness, however, reminds us that this very rebellion constitutes a large part of the artist’s appeal” (“Talking Jewish” 667). Certainly there has been a critical appreciation of Spiegelman’s “cleverness,” but, as my reading of Huyssen is meant to indicate, there have nevertheless been limits to what many critics find appealing in Maus, and strong tendencies to overlook those elements of the comic where Spiegelman challenges “the terms of his success” in ways that also challenge tradition critical priorities for evaluating works of witness.

[15] I must underscore the fact that this brief summary of the ways Adorno’s remark can be read is wholly indebted to Rothberg’s thorough account of its uses and abuses; see “After Adorno.”

[16] Rothberg also points out that Adorno himself modified this position somewhat in later writings; again, see “After Adorno.”

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. “Cultural Criticism and Society.” Prisms. 1967. Trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber. Cambridge, MA: The MIT P, 1981. 17-34. Print.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. Print.

Chute, Hillary. Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2016. Print.

—. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. New York: Columbia UP, 2010. Print.

Doherty, Thomas. “Art Spiegelman’s Maus: Graphic Art and the Holocaust.” American Literature 68.1 (1996): 69-84. Print.

Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Huyssen, Andreas. Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2003. Print.

Kansteiner, Wulf. “Genealogy of a Category Mistake: A Critical Intellectual History of the Cultural Trauma Metaphor.” Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice 8.2 (2004): 193-221. Print.

Leys, Ruth. Trauma: A Genealogy. Chicago: University of Chicago P, 2000. Print.

Luckhurst, Roger. The Trauma Question. London: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Michaels, Walter Benn. The Shape of the Signifier. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004. Print.

Rothberg, Michael. “After Adorno: Culture in the Wake of Catastrophe.” New German Critique 72 (1997): 45-81. Print.

—. “‘We Were Talking Jewish’: Art Spiegelman’s Maus as ‘Holocaust’ Production.” Contemporary Literature 35.4 (1994): 661-687. Print.

Spiegelman, Art. Interview with Andrea Juno. Dangerous Drawings: Interviews with Comix & Graphix Artists. Ed. Andrea Juno. New York: Juno Books, 1997. 6-27. Print.

—. Interview with Claudia Dreifus. The Progressive 53.11 (Nov. 1989): 34-37. Microform.

—. Maus> Vol. 2: And Here My Troubles Began

—. “Why the Holocaust?” Interview with Hillary Chute. MetaMaus. Ed. Art Spiegelman and Hillary Chute. 10-80. Print.

Spiegelman, Art and W.J.T. Mitchell. “Public Conversation: What the %$#! Happened to Comics?” Critical Inquiry (Spring 2014): 20-35. Print.

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