Review of Art Spiegelman's Maus on CD-ROM

Randy Horton

Critical consumers should always question the value added to original media products adapted to CD-ROM. The consumer asks, "Have new routes of intellectual access to this material been created by the move to CD-ROM?" In the case of Art Spiegelman's CD-ROM versions of Maus, the new product does offer valuable features not available in the books. The user gains insight into the author's design process, access to related historical materials, and an ability to associate real faces and voices with the characters in the books.

The reviewer read both Maus I & II before the current semester. Both are fascinating works, combining genre elements from the documentary, the biographical novel and the comic book. Spiegelman succeeds in the difficult task of using the comic strip as a serious medium for presenting, with taste, the experiences of a survivor of the Shoah (Holocaust).

However, this reviewer is not a comic book fan, and found it difficult to become emotionally engaged with the characters in the story. At times, the characters of the story did not appear to connect to real people's lives. Given the reviewer's strong personal connection to this subject matter, this lack of connection to the material can probably be contributed to a lack of connection with the medium.

Unlike the books, this reviewer was immediately emotionally drawn to the CD-ROM presentation. On the disc's opening screen, a mice couple standing in front of a Nazi flag stares with a completely empty look at the reader while 1930's swing music plays. The music mocks the defeated stare of the mice, and mocks the viewer at whom the mice stare.

As the previous example illustrates, the addition of video and audio material to this product adds a personifying element. Reading a page from Maus and then listening to Vladek's voice speaking the original inspiration for the page creates a connection between the mice and the people they represent. The central metaphor of the books is now inescapable. The mouse Vladek is no longer Maus, he is a survivor of the Shoah.

The CD-ROM cannot replace the original books. It would be extremely uncomfortable to read all the pages of Maus off of a screen. In addition, even on a Power Macintosh, there is several second delay (at least) when turning pages. Finally, in order actually read the page, the image is so large that it must be scrolled. As Spiegelman acknowledges in the CD-ROM, these factors all greatly reduce the readability of comic pages in the medium.

In terms of hypertext design, this is a fairly strong product. Useful and user friendly access points link the products different medium. For example, the tool bar to the right of the book's pages makes it very obvious when and what types of related materials are available at that point. Furthermore, unlike Peter Gabriel's Explora, Maus' menu bar provides a complete overview of the product's contents. There is no need to search hypertext links to find a particular screen.

There are serious weaknesses in the product's design. It is not obvious that some of the hyperlinks are actually links to other pages. For instance, on the Family Tree Page, the link between the icons and the photographs is not explicit. Furthermore, neither the print instruction manual nor the CD-ROM clearly explain why and how the "Notebook" feature should be used.

Last major problem with the product seems to be fairly endemic to HyperCard based stacks. Often, after clicking on a link, it is not clear if the click was successful and the computer is working on the request. As a result, the user can wait to see if anything happens, or click again and risk activating a link on the next screen. This problem creates a tension between the user and the text, reminding the user the medium's existence, separate from the content.

Maus on CD-ROM is a well designed product which compliments an already powerful pair of books. The multimedia disc provides powerful new routes to experience Art Spiegelman's retelling of his father's story, and the story of his subsequent relationship with his father.

Randy Horton, March 3, 1995.