MAUS

a rambling and not entirely coherent sort of review of the CD-ROM, by sara ryan, who is very conscious of, among other things, the advantages and disadvantages of typographical hipness


"...I never dreamed that Maus was going to become Auschwitz for Beginners."
--art spiegelman

I had read Maus long before I ever looked at the Voyager Complete Maus CD-ROM. It was one of the first graphic novels I ever read. The sheer power of the work is such that it's difficult for me to think critically about it and its re-presentation in CD-ROM form. But I am going to try to present a few problematic issues.

The blurb on the CD-ROM's back says:

When it first appeared in 1986, MAUS, Art Spiegelman's memoir of his father's experiences during the Holocaust, was hailed as a powerful work of history. It represented a new level of maturity for a century-old art form; namely comix, which to that point had mostly been a medium for superhero fantasies and funny animal stories. With the appearance of MAUS, the point was made simply and clearly that a co-mixture of words and pictures could be used to portray any subject matter--even one so far removed from traditional comix matter as the genocide of Polish and German Jews during the years surrounding the Second World War.

Two things strike me about this blurb. First, the use of the word "comix", with the particular, self-consciously hip "x." This bothers me. Are they trying to be taken seriously, or not?

Second, they're trying quite obviously to draw a parallel:
As it was with the print MAUS for "comix", so it shall be with the Complete MAUS CD-ROM for CD-ROMs. It will represent a new level of maturity for a medium which has been used mostly for, well, superhero fantasies and poorly-designed databases.

This is a very logical way for Voyager to advertise their CD-ROM. It still bothers me, for reasons I'll discuss further. But first, I want to relate the story of my experience with the Complete MAUS CD-ROM.

(begin: self-conscious typographical hipness)

the mac IIsi screen fades out. it stays entirely black for what seems like several minutes, but is probably just a few seconds. then, in white, i see Voyager Presents...

then the image from the cover of the CD-ROM appears, and along with it the Hypercard hand, which looks entirely incongruous. for a moment i wonder if i am supposed to click on the swastika, but then the contents page finishes loading, and i see a beautifully laid-out page of options to pursue.

i decide that "the making of MAUS" is the area i most want to explore. (exploration and discovery metaphors are probably the most common metaphors used for hypertextual and Web sites...is it too much of a stretch to think about who the conquistadors might be in this environment?)

i see a picture of art spiegelman, who is smiling. behind him is a page from maus, the entrance to auschwitz, if i recall correctly. why a cd-rom? is an option at this point, and this seems to me to be a damn fine quesion. the question is never answered, as i look through sketches which are very compelling, and see one particular sketch of Vladek's character that reminds me of Munch's the Scream .

sound is another option, and i select it, forgetting that we've turned the sound off on this machine because one of the office denizens hates computer sound on general principles. so i see art, i see his lips move, i see him gesticulating, but i see it to the accompaniment of my own music, (tom waits, small change ) instead of hearing the words. which is very strange.


In sum, my experience, while graphically and emotionally compelling, was nonetheless disjointed and somewhat uncomfortable. I realize that it's possible to move in a methodical fashion through the books using the CD-ROM. And I realize that there's lots of information that's accessible here that couldn't be accessed any other way.

Perhaps my unease is just discomfort with the medium; the same sort of discomfort others have about the medium of comics. CD-ROM, currently, is a splashy medium, very colorful and occasionally beautiful, but not...serious?

This is sounding more and more like a critique someone might make of comics as a medium, which is quite ironic considering that comics have become an obsession with me and many of my favorites are extremely serious. But I think that comics and CD-ROMs are splashy in different ways, and that the ways in which CD-ROMs are splashy are more problematic philosophically. I should articulate those differences and discuss them at greater length, but I'm not going to in this essay.

I'm going to go into more detail about my problems with Voyager's blurb. I never thought I would use this phrase, but seeing the MAUS blurb and looking at the CD-ROM causes me to experience cognitive dissonance. On one hand you have this elegant product. It's beautifully designed. It exploits the medium wonderfully. On the other you have the subject matter of this product. The subject matter of this product resists commodification, yet the CD-ROM blurb--and the CD-ROM itself--is commodified. Voyager needs to convince you that buying the two books which make up MAUS is not enough. They start this process by calling the CD-ROM "The Complete MAUS." This gives the impression that the books are somehow incomplete.

This is currently a very common tactic in CD-ROM advertising, because many CD-ROMs are not created outright, but are rather adaptions of books.

The nature of CD-ROM is such that it is impossible to view all the information contained on it at once. Nor is there a commonly accepted mode of organization (like pages numbered 1-n) for the information. So it is necessary to develop navigational strategies, and I maintain that these navigational strategies are easily influenced by advertising philosophies. Small icons and cryptic headings are "teasers" for the information that the consumer is encouraged to choose. The process of consumption is much more obvious in this medium than it is when one is "consuming" books. (This is, of course, partially because books are an accepted technology.)

MAUS makes my consumer's hypocrisy obvious. I'm perfectly happy to buy books--in fact, I was perfectly happy to buy MAUS in print form. But when I look at the MAUS CD-ROM, I think, "Jesus. Voyager is trying to sell me the Holocaust." Art Spiegelman has spoken of this in the context of Schindler's List :

...my way of saying something serious is making a wisecrack and then I get in trouble. I had this saying that the only thing Schindler's List conjured up for me was 6 million emaciated Oscar statuettes.
He refers to "the problematic nature of offering cathartic entertainment which is built on so much actual suffering." Spiegelman manages to avoid this problem in the MAUS books because books are not a medium which have to sell themselves to us on every page. The CD-ROM, however, comes closer to offending on these grounds. I'm not sure the problem could have been effectively dealt with in any other way, because the CD-ROM is a product, and its "product-ness" is much more obvious than a book's. But that doesn't mean that I can't be bothered by it.

I have no solutions. I know that more thought needs to be given to how a CD-ROM's product-ness can be minimized. Perhaps this simply requires time; time for the medium to mature, time for us to grow accumstomed to it.

But somehow I doubt that Gutenberg had these problems.


the quotes from art spiegelman in this essay are from an interview that i found in "Cups: the cafe magazine", february 1995. the article is called "art's wild party."