Spiegelman’s Movements Through Time and Space

Over at Hooded Utilitarian, Noah Berlatsky writes about the bad design of this page, from Art Spiegelman’s highly-praised graphic novel Maus:

11-page-from-Maus

About the layout, Berlatsky mostly critiques Spiegelman’s drawing (the Nazi flag, for instance, is an unconvincing attempt to portray motion, angled oddly to fit in the image) and the way the page is set up for a melodramatic reveal (the final panel reverse-shot POV). There’s certainly an inelegance to the way the page progresses, which Berlasky calls “ham-fisted,” and I’m inclined to agree. He also devotes a paragraph to the way Spiegelman depicts motion.

The sense of motion is really confused too.The train goes from right to left up top, but in the next row of panels the direction of reading makes it seem to go left to right. Spiegelman tries to fix this by shifting the image leftward in the second panel so you can see the next window, but that doesn’t so much create leftward motion as it just makes the motion of the page even more or a mess, especially since the window borders and the panel borders are exactly parallel, and so tend to visually distract get confused with one another.

Here is where I part ways with Berlatsky–I especially don’t find the use of square windows within square panels to be distracting at all (it’s rather clear from the drawing we’re supposed to be looking at passengers on a train). Nor do I get the impression the train has changed direction between the opening shot and the tier which follows–rather the opposite, considering the reactions of characters and the very leftward shift between panels two and three Berlatsky claims makes the page even more of a mess.

This page does, however, give me another example of something I’ve previously talked about: the portrayal of right-to-left action while reading left-to-right. Having never read Maus (despite its status in the comic book canon), I can’t say how this works into the whole narrative, but it’s actually a rather plain design. Even though motion within the narrative and the direction it is being read in are opposed, Spiegelman makes a point on the second tier of portraying narration and dialogue in chronological order: captions for past tense (evoking voice-overs from film) starting on the top and left, word balloons for the narrative present beneath them and to the right. He somehow makes what should be tense and uncertain instead cohesive.

Where Spiegelman’s much less successful is how the final shot, of the Jews (represented as mice) seeing the swastika in a courtyard, relates to the previous three panels. The first panel, the train crossing the bridge, is meant to be an establishing shot: it’s all wide angle and serves as a backdrop upon which the other three panels will be overlaid (suggesting they are moments within the first panel, which Charles Reece notes in the comments section of Berlatsky’s essay). Panels two and three fit within this model, but panel four does not. Given how close those rooftops and the flag are to the train, there’s absolutely no way that panel exists in even remotely the same space as the first (otherwise there would be rooftops in the establishing shot). It’s almost as if Spiegelman has lurched a few hundred yards into the future, in a hurry to put his figures in close proximity to danger. The effect is akin to a cheap shock, rather than the artful mood he’s trying to establish, since the first and last panel exist on separate planes of existence from one another.

This is exacerbated by the pedestrian manner in which each image is composed: the distant establish to closeup reaction to reverse-cut reveal is an easy game to play, especially if the only effort to establish what the reveal is meant to be is contained entirely within narration. Motion might be unified, but the space it exists in is arbitrary.

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