As regular readers of Comics Forum are aware, the site recently featured a Themed Month which sought to examine comics as cultural production. The issue looked first at the work of comic book authors (Woo 2013) and ended with an autobiographical account of one scholar’s experiment as a comic book retailer (Miller 2013). In the following article I hope to continue to chart the life of a comic book by examining one particular comic after sales as it is read not by academics, but by a much larger demographic of comic book consumers: teenagers, specifically, Indonesian teenagers.
There has been a debate concerning the role of comics in language acquisition and literacy which can be traced back to the 1950s when Frederic Wertham, among others, argued that comics cause retardation of reading ability (Wertham, 1954). Many modern scholars argue that comics serve as a gateway to literacy (see, for example, the Canadian Council for Learning website, 2013). This article will document my experience and observations as a teacher who uses Art Spiegelman’s Maus in the Indonesian classroom with advanced English-learners. I will describe how I prepared the students to read Maus, the concepts and history which I taught alongside the text, and what the students themselves brought to, and drew from the work.
I have recently had the pleasure of working with a group of year 10 (age 15 to 16) students at an international school in Jakarta. Thanks to the flexible nature of the International Baccalaureate English A Middle Years Programme I was free, within certain broad boundaries, to choose texts for study in class. Having grappled with Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning Maus for what is now five years as a part-time postgraduate student, I was confident that it would yield rich analysis, challenge some of my students’ assumptions concerning literature and comics, and, I hoped, hold their attention for a full unit.
The students I teach are mainly Catholic and of Chinese descent, making them members of a (in the case of these students, relatively wealthy) religious and ethnic minority group in Indonesia. The school has a rigorous entrance exam which assesses, among other factors, English language ability. The majority of classes are taught in English rather than the students’ first language, Bahasa Indonesian. Whilst the school does offer English classes of the language acquisition type, the class with whom I read Maus represent the upper tier of English-ability in their year-group. The course I am teaching them, namely MYP English A, is the same English class that the International Baccalaureate Program offers for native English speakers.
The main narrative of Maus centres upon Vladek, a Polish Jew living during the Second World War. There has been some discussion amongst critics concerning the propriety of using Maus as a means to introduce school children to the Holocaust. Halkin (1992) argues that Spiegelman’s non-realist approach and his use of the comic book form might offer students an erroneous view of his subject. I disagree with Halkin’s dismissal of the comic book medium, but I was eager to ensure that Maus was not the only means by which my students came to understand the Second World War. This era of twentieth century European history is not treated with the same detail in Indonesian schools as it is elsewhere in the world. It is further the case that my students knew very little about Jewish culture and history. As such, prior to reading the text I felt it was necessary to give them a short research assignment concerning the Second World War and to show them clips from the film Schindler’s List.
The students were very happy to learn that we would be studying a comic book in the upcoming unit, having never studied a comic in an academic context previously. As is the case with many Indonesian teenagers, they were all familiar with (if not active consumers of) translated manga. Many of them reported that they felt they were somehow ‘cheating’ by studying a comic. Due to both the local preference for manga over English-language comics and language barriers, the cultural turn which began the course toward mainstream legitimacy for the comic book medium in American and Europe in the mid-1980s clearly did not reach Indonesia on the same scale. My decision to introduce a comic book to the classroom afforded an unprecedented level of enthusiasm from my students, but I was also conscious that I ran the risk of inciting criticism from parents if they shared their son or daughter’s perception of comics as a ‘low’ medium. Fortunately, no such problems arose.
The novelty of studying a comic book persisted long after my students realised that Maus is dissimilar from the majority of comics they have read in the past (and, occasionally, on their laptops during class when the teacher’s attention is elsewhere). When asked what they like about the comic most students replied that they liked the funny animals drawing style and the way in which the story is told (Spiegelman uses narrative layers organised in what might be called a ‘Chinese-box’ (Genette, 1983, 238) structure). Even the students who are normally resistant to reading assignments were eager to begin this text. On several occasions I noticed students (who imagined themselves unobserved) reading ahead after the class had moved to another task. When I reminded a student that he had failed to read a text studied earlier in the year to its conclusion and advised that he should start the assigned reading early he replied that he would have no difficulties reading this book in its entirety. This was different, he explained; ‘it is Maus!’
During the reading process I invited students to reflect on their reactions to the book in terms of their own experiences. My initial suspicion had been that the students might draw (perhaps problematic) parallels between the experiences which appear early in Maus, in Poland during the early stages of the Second World War, and the tumultuous history of Chinese Indonesians in the mid and late twentieth century. Chinese Indonesians were the main groups targeted in Suharto’s anti-Communist purges of the 1960s and by certain groups in the aftermath of Japanese rule in the late 1940s. The economic crisis which struck Indonesia in the late 1990s resulted, in May 1998, in riots and once more Chinese Indonesians were the largest of the groups targeted. The death toll of the riots has been estimated around 1,000 and was accompanied by numerous reports of rape and damage to property.
There is relatively little systematised wide-scale acknowledgement of the racial violence which has taken place in Indonesia compared to that which we see in art, literature, and history which concerns the Shoah, but my experience has been that the events of the late 1990s is often informally remembered and acknowledged within Chinese Indonesian communities. In a separate assignment, for example, one student had told me that during the riots (when he was an infant) he was sent overseas with his mother and siblings whilst his father stayed in Jakarta to guard the house. I suspected that my students might find some resonance between the incidents of wide-scale racially-motivated violence, public beatings, and atmosphere of fear which took place in Jakarta in the late 1990s and Vladek’s description of life for a Jew in Poland during the early days of Nazi rule.
Despite the potential for parallels to be drawn, very few students suggested that Vladek’s experiences might rhyme with those of their parents. One student stated that whilst he felt sympathy for Vladek and the other Polish Jews who appear in Maus, he found that the events described in the comic were too removed from his own life for him to truly empathise. He went on to comment that he felt that he was unlikely to ever encounter such circumstances personally. The few students who did read their own family history into the events did so tentatively. Another student wrote that Maus reminded him of the stories which his father had told him concerning the riots. The student then hastened to add that he was just a baby at the time so he could not comment on the actual similarity between the events.
Hammond’s (2012) work with American high school students suggests that the visual literacy required to understand comics is a learned skill and that readers who are unfamiliar with comics may struggle to understand both the flow of the narrative and the iconography used. My students encountered no barriers related to the visual language of comics when reading Maus due to their previously mentioned familiarity with translated manga. Initially some did struggle with the reading direction (‘unflipped’ manga reads right-to-left rather than left-to-right). The major challenge for many was the density of Maus. Many of the students reported that they had initially found Maus hard to read because of the high level of detail in the images, the volume of dialogue on each page and the non-standard English spoken by Vladek. This reaction is certainly not without precedent; the Japanese translation of Maus was printed in a larger format in order to make it more accessible to readers who are familiar with manga (see Spiegelman 2011, 152). All of those students who reported initial difficulty found that after a few pages they became accustomed to the style and could read it easily (albeit at a slower pace than they might read manga at home).
The student’s familiarity with manga provided easy examples when illustrating some of the key concepts in comic book auto-criticism of relevance to Maus¸ particularly Scott McCloud’s (1994) concept of the Icon. Although they did not know the term, the students were immediately familiar with the manga trope of Iconic heroes and detailed villains and, once they understood McCloud’s argument, could readily apply this theory to Maus.
The most striking aspect of Maus is Spiegelman’s decision to use theriomorphic representations of human characters in his depiction of the Shoah. In contrast to many academic critics, without exception the students found this artistic decision to be unremarkable. When presented with stimuli such as an image of Mickey Mouse, the Passover Haggadoth, and Nazi-era anti-Semitic propaganda posters which depicted Jews as vermin, the students were able to engage in an intelligent discussion concerning possible reasons for Spiegelman’s artistic choices, but my suspicion is that the funny animal genre would not have prompted comment without these stimuli. One possible reason for this might be the prevalence of animal characters with human characteristics in other media they have consumed.
Many of the students were highly sensitive to other devices at work in Maus, particularly the fact that Vladek should not be read as an entirely reliable commentator :
By being saved [Vladek] sees the ordeal in a brighter way so that’s why he thinks that he lived a happy life after the war, but what about the others who didn’t? They’ll, [sic] of course, won’t be able to have a happy ending because they aren’t here with us anymore.
Student 1, 2013.
In the ensuing class discussion the students reached a consensus that Vladek’s broken English and antisocial behaviour in the framing narrative of Maus influences the way in which we, as readers, approach his testimony as depicted in the main narrative.
Whilst the students did deploy some critical language when discussing the text, their responses were often refreshingly emotional rather than analytical. One student stated that ‘[a]fter reading Maus, I realize that I couldn’t take any morale lesson from it […] Maus told me about bad things that the NAZI done, but also bad things that Vladek done in order to survive the war [sic]’ (Student 2, 2013) Another, similarly, stated that ‘Maus showed that what the Nazis did was a great, great tragedy, and the survival of a main character of a book does not make the tragedy less cruel, neither does it gives the story a happy ending’ (Student 3, 2013). These comments, perhaps more than the academic discourse in which I have participated over the last five years, assured me of the powerful impact which Maus can have upon its readers.
Overall I felt that the introduction of Maus into the Indonesian classroom was a success. My experience may not be universal, however. As previously stated, these students are a group with a high level of English and some experience with the comic book format. I would not necessarily recommend that teachers use Maus with a group of weaker English-ability students or those approaching a comic book for the first time. In the classroom environment I have described students responded positively to the text, in many cases they had an emotional reaction to the events depicted, and they were able to articulate that affect and point to the stylistic strategies which led to those conclusions. Their experience with translated manga had primed them to enjoy reading comics and equipped them with a degree of visual literacy. I drew two central lessons from the experience; I had direct experience of Maus’ appeal for a non-academic audience, and I learned that some teenage readers are already attuned to literary techniques at work in comics.
Banner, Gillian. 2000. Holocaust Literature: Schulz, Levi, Spiegelman and the Memory of the Offence. London: Vallentine Mitchell.
Canadian Council on Learning. 2013. ‘More than just funny books: Comics and prose literacy for boys’. Lessons in Learning 2013. Accessed 22 March 2013. http://www.ccl-cca.ca/.
Chute, Hillary. 2009. ‘History and Graphic Representation in ‘Maus’.’ A Comics Studies Reader. Ed. Heer, Jeet and Worchester, Kent. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. 340-362.
Geis, Deborah R. 2003. ‘Introduction.’ Considering Maus: Approaches to Art Spiegelman’s “Survivor’s Tale” of the Holocaust. Deborah R. Geis ed. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. 1-11.
Genette, Gérard. 1980. Narrative Discourse Revisited. Lewin, Jane E. trans. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Halkin, Hillel. 1992. ‘Inhuman Comedy.’ Commentary. 93:2. 56.
Hammond, Heidi. 2012. ‘Graphic Novels and Multimodal Literacy: A High School Study with American Born Chinese.’ Bookbird, 50 (4), 22-32
Lent, John. 1993. ‘Southeast Asian Cartooning: Comics in the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia.’ Asian Culture Quarterly. Winter. 11-23
McCloud, Scott. 1994. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins.
Miller, Tom. 2013. “My Brief Adventure in Comic Book Retail.” Comics Forum, December 23.https://comicsforum.org/2013/12/23/my-brief-adventure-in-comic-book-retail-by-tom-miller/
Monnin, Katie. 2010. Teaching Graphic Novels: Practical Strategies for the Secondary ELA Classroom. Maupin House Publishing.
Mulman, Lisa Naomi. 2008. ‘A Tale of Two Mice.’ The Jewish Graphic Novel. Baskind, Samantha and Omer-Sherman, Ranen ed. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Purdey, Jemma. 2006. Anti-Chinese Violence in Indonesia, 1996–1999. Honolulu, H.I.: University of Hawaii Press.
Spiegelman, Art. 2003. The Complete Maus. London: Penguin Books.
Spiegelman, Art. 2011. Metamaus. New York: Pantheon.
Student 1, ‘Written task’ 2013. Unpublished work.
Student 2, ‘Written task’ 2013. Unpublished work.
Student 3, ‘Written task’ 2013. Unpublished work.
Wertham, Fredric. 1954. Seduction of the Innocent. London: Museum Press ltd.
Woo, Benjamin. 2013. “Why Is It So Hard to Think about Comics as Labour?” Comics Forum, December 9. https://comicsforum.org/2013/12/09/why-is-it-so-hard-to-think-about-comics-as-labour-by-benjamin-woo/
Philip Smith is in the final stages of his Ph.D with Loughborough University (his thesis has been accepted pending revisions). He teaches at Sekolah Tunas Muda, Jakarta. He is co-editor of the upcoming volume Joss Whedon’s Firefly. He, and a full list of his existing publications, can be found on academia.edu. He endeavours to respond to any email directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
 – Teachers who wish to bring comics into their classroom may wish to consult Monnin (2010).
 – The Second World War is taught as a part of Indonesia’s modern national history; Indonesia (then known as the Dutch East Indies) was occupied by Japan from 1943 to 1945.
 – See Lent (1993) for more on the Indonesian comic book market
 – For more on the violence in Indonesia in the late 1990s see Purdey (2006).
 – See Banner (2000) for an analysis of Spiegelman’s allusions to an ‘alternative version’ of Vladek’s account.
 – I have deliberately omitted student names from this work.
 – See Geis (2003), Chute (2009), and Mulman (2008) for more on catharsis in Maus and the ethics of Vladek’s survival tactics.