Review of "Maus" a CD-ROM by Art Spiegelman

"Maus" is one of those books which does such a good job at what it intends to do that it will be held up as an example for anyone trying to do anything similar. It is really one of the best examples of a "graphic novel" though it really goes above and beyond that into really a new style of auto-and-biography which has shown the reader the distance an author must sometimes place on the subject in order to make it universal. The idea of a CD-ROM of this book seemed in a way redundant. The book itself speaks in so many voices. It does not seem to require multimedia. Until I learned there was other material on the CD-ROM which was not in the book, I was tempted to just dismiss the whole thing as some ploy by some company to suck some more money out of the upper-middle-class folks who buy CD-ROMs.

When the second volume of "Maus" came out, about 5 or 6 years ago, there was an exhibit at a New York museum of Art Spiegelman's mind at the time of working on "Maus", one could say. There were notebooks, research, photographs, working drafts, an analysis of the process, the discussion of translation difficulties, and not at all lastly, the interviews with his father, continuously playing, which one could listen to on headphones. I feel lucky to have seen this material. I often thought of the exhibit and the power it had, not just as a hype or a promotional mechanism, but as a testament to the hard work this book required and the pain involved, all the layers of pain, which are apparent in the finished work. There was something more naked and bare about Art's work, the paper he had touched on the wall of a museum. And seeing it in a museum made me feel special and made it seem special and rare. There was a particular power to listening to Vladek, Art's father, who until then was a silenced person, to the audience, in the story, despite his position as a protagonist in the book. The interaction in "Maus" the comic book is really between you and Art. Vladek tells the story and you listen and Art is the filter through which it all occurs. So the idea of listening to Vladek talk about all these atrocities which occurred to him...especially since to me personally, and I would venture to say, many in the New York area, though I guess that would not be so true of the clientele of the Museum of Modern Art on a day in December, it sounded a lot like a relative of mine relating a story that is very close to me and my mental cells. I was really disturbed by the tapes. I thought in a way it was an invasion of privacy. I thought it was interesting that survivors stories could be changed into an aspect of artwork. But mostly, it did work, because it was a violation of what typically occurs, in my idea, in a museum. It was a little loud. It was not clear. It was real and had occurred.

But the point is that when I learned that a lot of what I saw was on CD-ROM I was thrilled. I am not interested in keeping museum material from others who may not be able to visit. However, the CD-ROM, while a very valuable document? object? which contains Art's memories and work, as well as some of his opinions, and which has the singular advantage of enabling us to see and hear the author himself talk, which is an invaluable part of the whole gestalt of the piece, is not really the same thing as the book and the museum exhibition. The fact that there is this difference makes me consider the use of CD-ROMs.

The CD itself is very well designed. The colors are beautifully subtle and very true to the book. The main menu page is easy to understand, and if you want to skip around through the whole CD while you are looking at a particular page, you can by going up to the menu on top of the screen and going to where you want to go. The CD tries to accommodate the nature of the book. I found the actual screens with the drawings on them to be awkward to handle, using that little photoshop-like push up icon, but at the same time, I don't see any way around it. One could look at all the frames as slow as one desired. One could not, however, get through the book as quickly as one would desire. Part of the problem was the advantages of the the CD. On each page in addition to the images, one could find an icon to select drafts of certain frames, interviews with Art, the interviews with Vladek, and other research material. It took a little time for these things to load. Mostly the CD worked very well, but I missed the ability to flip through. It is also irritating to read, after a while. The CD is structured using HyperCard, which gives it the feel of a book. Each screen contains one page of the book, and you click on an arrow to proceed with the story or to go back. It isn't smooth, but it feels like a linear narrative. The little movies and sound clips embedded in the page need to be clicked on to run. All and all, it is an easy CD to handle. My only complaint was that my sound was jerky, and there was no information on how to fix it.

The interviews and other material embedded in the text are the parts of the CD which differ the most from the book. The supplementary material which you can look at while you read the "text" (for another review) changes the audience's relationship with the characters involved in the story. Suddenly, you and Art are no longer having a private conversation which Vladek has no power over. Hearing Vladek say the words which Art has based most of the text of "Maus" on is useful as an examination of how such a book can be created and how authors take from their sources and may or may not get the original meaning across. Art acknowledges this as a reason he wanted to do a CD ROM of his book. It seems he may have been a bit enthralled with the idea of the technology. There are some interviews with him on the CD in which he describes what he hoped to get out of putting his work on a CD-ROM. Based on that, this experiment was mostly successful. As for the "interactivity" which seems to be a buzzword for CD-ROMs, well, basically, I could do everything I can do with a book, but not as quickly. I couldn't color on the CD-ROM, or rip out one of the pages and put it on my wall (I don't think I could print out from it). Art doesn't have an email address, or doesn't want me to know about it. I didn't interact with it. The one bit of interactivity I found at all useful was the ability to search words, the audio segments and the video.

I don't mind having seen the CD at all. However, the power of Art's ideas was much greater when it was hanging on a wall in a museum. Perhaps this is the chauvanism of the art world speaking. I guess the difference comes down to the difference between the material being "art", and how bizzare and wrong but not-wrong that felt, which added to a previous work of art, and it being "information" which could help the audience understand other "information sources" better. I would say that that is an exaggeration in terms of "Maus", because it would be a travesty to call it an "information source", but it would not be wrong to say that putting "Maus" on a CD-ROM reduces its uniqueness to an educational tool. Is the point of "Maus" to be an educational tool? Here is the problem with the CD-ROM. I see the point of "Maus" to be an artistic and narrative statement about real events and a real environment. I feel that in some ways, the CD-ROM is able increase the effectiveness of this statement. But it also changes the statement, and it certainly changes the environment in which one deals with this statement.

Jen Weintraub
March, 1996