Why animals are used in literature and comics. The thought behind Art Spiegelman´s Cat-and-mouse-game

Seminar Paper, 2020

12 Pages



1. Introduction

2. Terminology
2.1 The medium of comics
2.2 The animal metaphor in literature

3. Animals in literature
3.1 About the significance and history of animals in comics
3.2 Why writers decide to choose them

4. Art Spiegelmans ,,Maus"
4.1 The animal metaphor in ,,Maus"
4.2 Concrete examples
4.3 Why did Spiegelman choose animals?
4.4 Reception in public

5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

“Animals are reliable, many full of love, true in their affections, predictable in their actions, grateful and loyal. Difficult standards for people to live up to.” (Montapert, 2008)

Already since the first literary works were produced, the representation of animals has played an important and venerable role in literature and western poetry without animal metaphors is hardly imaginable. Art Spiegelman’s world famous comic “Maus“ deals with the biography of Spiegelman’s own father, Vladek Spiegelman, an Auschwitz survivor. Spiegelman decided to choose animals to represent the people of the different nations of the world. For that matter he represents the Germans as cats and the jews as mice. Consequently the animal metaphor is very central in this comic and with no doubt one of the biggest reasons for its great success. To represent the Holocaust in a graphic novel is a challenge in itself; using animal figures is even more brave. For that reason it is fascinating to analyze why Spiegelman made that choice and explore why animals appear in all these diverse forms in literature in general.

Since this area of literature is still in need of research, this paper deals with the interpretation of the animal metaphor in literature, and the reason why they are so widely used in comics, especially in ,,Maus“, one of the most respected comics of all time and the only graphic novel that has ever won the Pulitzer Prize.

The aim of this paper is to find out the reason why animal characters are so common in graphic novels and also if there is a deeper meaning behind the concrete chosen animals. Because it would go beyond the scope of this papers purpose I will just pick the animal metaphor in Spiegelman’s work ,,Maus“ as an example, as it is best suited for this topic in my opinion.

After trying to find a definition of the medium comic at the beginning, a brief overview of the animal metaphor in literature is given. In the next step, the meaning and history of animals in comics is clarified and it is also briefly explained why comic authors decide to choose animal characters in their works that symbolically replace people. Last but not least, the main part of this homework follows, in which the animal metaphor in Art Spiegelman’s "Maus“ is taken apart. First the reader is given a brief overview of the content of the comic, then some concrete examples from the work are given. The next one explains why Art Spiegelman exactly chose the animals that represent the different nations of the world that appear in his comic. Since the work was discussed very controversially in public, its reception is quickly discussed too. The seminar paper is rounded off with a summarizing conclusion.

2. Terminology

2.1 The medium of comics

In order to be able to build on the meaning of the animal metaphor in comics, it is necessary to clarify some important terms beforehand. Including that of the comic. Finding a specific, uniform definition for the term comic is more difficult than some might think. Since the term is so versatile and there are no limits in terms of content or design, it can be stated that a comprehensive and clear definition is still not possible.

According to the German literary researcher Eckart Sackmann, the comic is a literary-artistic form of narration in which the narrative is primarily transported through the image and the modern comic makes use of all imaginable genres. (Sackmann, 2008, p. 6)

He continues by saying although the image is superior to the text, the comic is to be understood primarily as a form of literature, because, unlike in the arts, the graphical side of the comic is never an end in itself, but always first carrier of action. (Sackmann, 2008, p. 6) The american cartoonist Will Eisner established the term sequential art and this is taken up again and again to this day. (Eisner, 1985, p. 7)

Scott McCloud is an American comic book artist and one of the most famous in this field. In his work ,,Understanding Comics“ - a non-fiction comic published in 1993 - McCloud explores the definitions of comics, the basic structural elements and their historical development. Using Will Eisners term as a basis, McCloud offers what is perhaps the most popular and all-encompassing definition of comics: According to him a comic is a Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.“ (McCloud, 1994, p. 9)

So in the sense of a literal translation as a funny book, it should be clear to everyone, that „Maus“ is anything but a comic book. But as part of a holistic definition, there is no doubt about its classification to the medium of comics.

2.2 The animal metaphor in literature

The metaphor is one of the most common rhetorical stylistic devices. According to the dictionary by Merriam-Webster ,,a metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase denoting one kind of object or action is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them“. (Merriam-Webster, 2020) So in the animal metaphor, the characters of a story that would actually be human are replaced with animals. These are personified and live and speak like humans.

It is a widely held view by most people that literature is the true origin of metaphor. It is believed that the vast amount of information for metaphors comes from the imaginative and lost minds of the poets and artists. (Kovecses, 2010, p. 49)

For further analysis it is crucial to have an understanding of how animal characters function in this widespread tradition and there are numerous reasons why authors decide to choose animals as characters for their works. But this is discussed in more detail in Chapter 3.2.

3. Animals in literature

3.1 About the significance and history of animals in comics

Writers and artists have always used animals that have human characteristics in their works, and their history is as old as literature itself. Animal characters in comics fulfill numerous important functions which will be discussed in more detail later. They also make up a crucial part of the western cartoon and comic culture.

As early as 550 BC, Aesop wrote in his famous fables and parables about animal characters that have human characteristics. These were arguably the first stories in Western literature with this element. Aesop used this tool and built short moral lessons into his stories. This made his works more accessible to readers and they could more easily absorb the teachings. The stories in Aesop's fables contain anthropomorphic animals that have human qualities such as language and reason. (Campbell, 2014, p. 2f.)

Even around 2500 years after Aesop, animal characters play a decisive role in American culture and have become an indispensable part of film, television and literature. The animated cartoon industry has been dominated for decades by a world-famous anthropomorphic mouse named Mickey and a talking duck named Donald.

Apparently comics and cartoons containing animals have their origin in former fables and fairy tales. Usually comic artists aim to reach a younger audience with funny animal characters. (Witek, 1989, p. 109) This is no way the case in Spiegelman’s Maus, which will also be discussed later.

The animal characters from comics behave more humanly than the animals they actually represent. Principally animal heads are connected to human bodies including their behavior. Mickey Mouse is probably the best-known animal cartoon character and he too has all of the properties mentioned above.

The animal comic takes these allegorical meanings as a starting point, but then in hindsight they come to ,,ignore, qualify or reverse them“ (Witek, 1989, p.110). Often these meanings are used to establish relationships between characters and then the animal features fade into the background or disappear completely.

Some literary theorists, share completely different beliefs about the use of animals in comics, such as Marvin Keith Brooker, perceive a racist connotation in the use of animals in comics. (Booker, 1994, p. 235) Michael Rogin, for example, points out, that Disneys Mickey Mouse who is „white-gloved and black-faced“ got copied by the Jazz Singer, an American film from 1927 in which a black-faced protagonist appears. (Lewis, 1997)

3.2 Why writers decide to choose them

Now what is the reason why animals are used in literature and why are they used metaphorically and given human characteristics? British writer John Berger was one of the first to do this research. According to him, the animal metaphor is a tool to draw attention to the relationship, the similarities and the differences between humans and animals. In his essay ,,Why look at animals?“ he goes more into detail about it and also comes up with what animals tells us about ourselves.

Here, animals are said to be the first reason to paint and probably the first painting was animal blood. And so it cannot be ruled out that the first metaphor was an animal metaphor. Berger tries to explain this by stating that the actual relationship between humans and animals is metaphorical. (Berger, 2009, p.7)

The US-American science historian Lorraine Daston sees the reason for the use of animal characters in literary works that many cognitive abilities and processes in animals are thesame in humans. That is also the reason why animals have been used for thousands of years so that humans can symbolize parts of their personal experience in a metaphoric form. (Daston & Mitman, 2006, p. 2)


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Why animals are used in literature and comics. The thought behind Art Spiegelman´s Cat-and-mouse-game
University of Passau
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
spiegelman´s, cat-and-mouse-game
Quote paper
Ahmet Deniz (Author), 2020, Why animals are used in literature and comics. The thought behind Art Spiegelman´s Cat-and-mouse-game, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/935389


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