Contract v. Maus – Truth Stranger Than Fiction?

While reading Will Eisner’s A Contract With God, I was immediately struck by the similarities I was able to draw from it to Art Spiegelman’s Maus, almost in a Lincoln/Kennedy kind of way.   I’ve come up with a small list of these similarities which I’ll try to elaborate on without giving too much away about Maus, which I highly recommend reading.

  1.  Black and white:  The first and probably most obvious connection between the two works is that they’re both drawn void of color.  Although the art styles are completely different, there is something to be said about being able to show expression and detail well with only two color choices.
Eisner uses thin lines and big, bold lettering.
Eisner uses thin lines and big, bold lettering.
Spiegelman uses thick lines and uniform lettering.
Spiegelman uses thick lines and uniform lettering.

 

  1.  (Auto)biographical:  Another similarity before even getting into the texts is the biographical and autobiographical nature of the stories.  As noted in the preface of A Contract With God, “The creation of this story was an exercise in personal agony.  … I made Frimme Hersh’s daughter an ‘adopted child.’  But his anguish was mine.  His argument with God was also mine.”  (pg. xii)  This story isn’t strictly about Eisner’s life, but it does have plenty of parallels:  living  in tenements, being Jewish, and being angry over his daughter’s death.  Maus is much more autobiographical.  It switches back and forth between the present tense of Spiegelman talking to his father, and the past tense where he’s telling his father’s story.  In the present tense, the story is told by Spiegelman himself, discussing his father’s past as well as his struggles with the interviewing process.

  2.  Time period:  Both texts were written/started near the same time.  A Contract With God was first published in 1978, while Maus was originally published one chapter at a time in a magazine, starting in 1980.  (In 1991 the first 6 chapters were published together as the first book of Maus, titled My Father Bleeds History.)  But equally as important, the timelines of the stories overlap.  Although they are set in different countries, they both take place in the 30’s – 40’s.  We see in the opening pages of A Contract With God that it is set in “the dirty thirties”, while the main story of Maus (dealing with Spiegelman’s father) is set during the Holocaust, so that both stories deal with the after-effects of WWI.

  3.  Poverty:  This, to me, is a major theme, and both works deal with main characters living in less than ideal situations.  In A Contract With God, the focus is clearly on the people living in the tenements.  Most have very little money, and scrape together what they have just to get by.  Even though Frimme escapes this poverty and buys the tenement on Dropsie Avenue, he is still always surrounded by others who are poor.  In Maus, poverty is everywhere.  Although Spiegelman’s father is wealthy enough now, he still lives like he’s going through the depression because of how he was raised.  And, of course, we especially see poverty when his father talks about the Holocaust, where the Nazis took literally everything from him, including his wife.

  4.  Spoiler Alert  Death:  Both stories end with the death of the main character.  In A Contract With God, we see Frimme appear to be smote down by God, directly after finishing his second contract with God.  In a happy mindset, ready to go out and live his life anew, he dies.  Similarly, in Maus, after finishing his story telling with his son, Spiegelman’s father dies, seemingly finally at peace with his son.

So, what does this all mean?  Sure, the works have similar ties, but what does that imply?  Did Art Spiegelman build off of Eisner’s work, or it just interesting trivia that so many things happen to coincide.  Maybe the truth really is stranger than fiction.

  1 comment for “Contract v. Maus – Truth Stranger Than Fiction?

  1. Michael Evart
    February 1, 2013 at 2:25 am

    The comparison between Contract With God and Maus is an interesting one to make and there are a few of your points I would like to add to. However, I think they are primarily different stories despite their commonalities. In regards to their art styles, I too find them to be very different. Black and white comics are not too terribly hard to come by, so I find their differences to be much more interesting. A majority of Maus is drawn with rectangular closed panels, and his characters are more cartoony; we see Maus in the bottom right of McCloud’s pyramid, #74. Contract has very open pages, and while Eisner does use panel borders he does so to a much lesser extent than Spiegelman. Eisner’s characters are still cartoony, but to a more realistic degree, falling farther to the left on the McCloud pyramid. In Maus the pages feel heavy with ink, loaded with small panels to the brim, but in Contract there is much use of empty space. The pages feel heavy here as well, but instead from Eisner’s over the top lettering and dramatic facial expressions and shading. Maus’ pages are simultaneously cluttered but neatly drawn, but Eisner is not afraid to let a line go here and there. I agree that although they both take inspiration from their own lives, Spiegelman’s is defiantly autobiographical and that they ultimately are two different styles of storytelling. They both share the desire to express the truth behind real life events, but their mission to do so differs drastically. Eisner’s effort to express his anguish takes the form of a more traditional story; it’s Frimme Hersh we see tortured, and it is him who dies at the end unwilling to take responsibility for his sadness. With Maus Spiegelman is being more truthful, revealing more about himself in the pursuit of authenticity. They have similar goals, but their methods for reaching those goals are totally different. As far as the death similarity goes, I think the differences in how they approach the death of a crucial character overrides the fact that they both share this as a plot point. Saying the father is the main character may be a muddy issue seeing as how Spiegelman shares the spotlight as much as his father does. But as you pointed out, the deaths at the end of each story have significantly different meanings. Like the black and white art style similarity, it is not uncommon for a story to end in the death of the main character. Your initial observations are insightful, but these similarities upon closer examination reveal more deeply rooted differences.

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