The Emotional Visuality of The Familiar and Maus

Both Spiegelman’s Maus and Danielewski’s The Familiar incorporate many more visual elements into the storytelling process than do most novels. Maus, as a graphic novel, naturally relies more on the image as a plot device, yet both novels make use of their visual aspects as a more visceral and ineluctable means of portraying the emotions and thought processes of central characters. In Maus, for instance, the manner in which dialogue is delivered is often revealed through the construction of the speech bubble; Spiegelman typically shows distress or fear through more jagged bubbles and enlarged or bold text, while narration from Vladek is printed outside of the frames to contextualize it for the reader. We also see Vladek’s body separated into several different panels in another scene in which he explains that almost his entire family was killed during the war, showing the physical embodiment of his shattered mental state (276). The most inflated examples of this sort of emotional expression through the image can be found in the “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” section, which takes on an almost surrealistic form; Spiegelman here embodies the turmoil and guilt he felt after his mother’s suicide in monstrous depictions of his father and his mother’s doctor (102-5). Moreover, his depression seems to affect even his more mundane perceptions as streets and figures are transformed into harsh and deformed geometrical contours, defamiliarizing them to make the world appear strange and frightening.

The functions of the visual aspects in The Familiar often work similarly in giving insights into characters’ psyches, yet on a more structural level. One of the most common examples in the novel is the abundant use of negative (white) space on the page to give a sense of the character’s excitement or fear; we see this, for example, when Anwar and Xanther return home with the cat (657). Not only does this technique mirror the rushed or confused thoughts of the character, but it also forces the reader to flip through the pages faster and faster, creating a real physical embodiment of the narratives racing speed. In the chapter’s following Cas and Bobby, the form of the orb dominates the page in much the way it dominates these characters’ thoughts, and as the reader learns more about the orb it shifts from a hollow outline to actually containing text itself, becoming more of an integrated part of the text than an obstruction. Even the fonts and syntax used in The Familiar seem to embody the personalities of the characters that they are associated with in many ways, like Özgur’s stocky bold or Astair’s heavy use of bracketing and parentheses.

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