Awhile ago, while I was still in school at Emerson College, I wrote a paper for a class called On Death and Dying, that explored different aspects of how we as people portray and ultimately deal with the inevitable ending of our lives. My case for this paper was to argue that the Comics medium, in the past few decades, has the ability to hold the same sense of emotional significance and conveyance when portraying traumatic events or wrongdoings that other media, like print and television, have. While I made my point, providing seemingly endless examples like Denny O’Neil’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow and specifically, a comparison of Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen, a true exploration of the content was never fully realized. I was merely stating facts about how books conveyed emotion and trauma but not how they helped us to learn from the events.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what I hope to accomplish with this posting: a comparative look at how Maus and Barefoot Gen, two outstanding works about horribly traumatic events, show us the basic human levels of survival and how trauma ultimately affects the rest of the world around us.
To start, I want to get my artistic points out there, before I get to the meat and potatoes of the discussion. I think Barefoot Gen‘s artwork really detracts the stories more serious elements for me. I have never seen this specific point brought up before, instead the opposite (that the artwork is frighteningly horrific) has, but I find the artwork a little too cartoony; almost in a Disney-esque sense. It really takes me out of the context of the story and we all know for a fact that this wasn’t Nakazawa’s intention. His images have struck chords with other artists, including Spiegelman who states “I will never forget the people dragging their own melted skin as they walk through the ruins of Hiroshima, the panic-stricken horse on fire galloping through the city, the maggots crawling out of the sores of a young girl’s ruined face.” Maus on the other hand, takes the cake in this aspect, creating a clever method of representing race and prejudice through the guise of animals, intentionally taking a less harsh route artistically. The Jewish people are mice, with their German hunters portrayed as cats; feeble mice powerless in the face of their predator. It creates this fantastic, easily accessible imagery that allows the reader to understand the realty of the situation by an extremely commong association. Maybe its because I’ve never been in any traumatic accident myself (godbless) but for me, a cat chasing a mouse is more representative an image than a city in flames.
When you boil both stories down, looking past all the agonizing moments of each book, both works place a large emphasis on the importance of familial connections. Throughout Barefoot Gen, the main character, Gen, is almost always surrounded by a larger group of people and no matter who they are, whether blood relatives or other bomb orphans, he regards them as family. There is that real sense of community in that respect; that sticking together and utilizing their unique strengths to survive is the best option. It is also allegorical to how Japan, a nation who had its spirit broken by the effects of the bomb, has to now piece together what they have left and rebuild, creating a wonderfully universal lesson that can be taken away from the work.
The idea of family exists in Maus in a very different way. Maus is a story that focuses much more on the individual experience of dealing with Trauma, both in actual victims and how it extends to their next generations. In fact, by sharing with the younger generation, survivors teach them to appreciate what they have and what their ancestors went through to pave the road for their future, however, this constant reminder cane create a severe implication upon 2G’s or second-generation survivors. Many 2G’s try to separate themselves from their parents and the holocaust experience. It is a scar on their mind, letting them know that “there is nothing we can ever do that will be as important as our parents suffering.” For 2G’s to forget what they were told about the experience is awful; almost a sin. Forgetting brings shame and anxiety to second-generation survivors. Thus they strive to remember, to understand and build upon the teachings of their ancestors. To remember these experiences is to discover a part of themselves; to understand their heritage. Just like their parents, second generation survivors forge the road for the future by remembering the past.
Throughout the book, Art Spiegelman conveys his struggle to deal with the past, especially as a child. Growing up with the memory of the Holocaust in his house, something he could never understand or share with his parents unlike his brother Richeu. Art sees this “ghost brother”, his actual biological brother who died in the holocaust, as “the ideal kid” who “never threw tantrums or got in any kind of trouble. He would’ve become a doctor and married a wealthy Jewish girl…the creep.” This whole book is a result of Art’s attempt to reconcile these feelings of guilt he gets from his survivor parents, by understanding his father’s struggle, which I think within itself is an interesting contrast of Barefoot Gen. While Maus deals with the Holocaust, it is never really about the effect it had globally or on a historical level; if you look closely, there isn’t even a Hitler figure in the book. It focuses solely on individual experiences; Vladek’s survival in the camps, Art’s understanding of his father’s struggles and still dealing with unexpected suicide of his mother. The book takes a more indirect approach at how trauma affects people by exploring those intricate subtleties in how everyday is changed, over an extended period of time. Barefoot Gen is about a once proud nation struck down in their prime. Through Gen’s eyes, the reader experiences the immediate effects of tragedy; we are living in the present with him. We, as viewers, see Japanese families torn apart, talented artists and writers afflicted by disease, the rising of gangs and black market goods, famine, poverty, drug abuse and countless, endless deaths. It is the most direct way of discuss the effects of the bomb, by showing us how it effected the nation as a whole.