Essay – Time in Maus

rt Spiegelman’s Maus and Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! both have a distinct method of handling time, and they share some similarities while also having major differences. These works both follow a non-linear narrative structure, and thus jump between different periods of time in the story. Maus follows two main periods, his father’s past and their shared present, while Portrait describes several different time periods, all within Spiegelman’s youth. These are both examples of the way Spiegelman is trying to shatter the illusion of time, and trying to represent the way the mind works, and non-linear process of remembering. The key difference in these two narratives is the way they handle the non-chronological structure of the storyline. In Maus, Spiegelman wasattempting to create a more seamless story and thus simplified the storylines, allowing them to flow together smoothly, as well as placing the bulk of the ‘drama’ of the work in a specific time period. In contrast, Portrait feels much more jumbled, and the time periods are more disjointed, not as seemingly continuous as in Maus, but Spiegelman uses his colour palette to make some differentiation between periods, and rewards deeper engagement with the text, as there are many subtle links and continuities between time periods.

Both Maus and Portrait share a similar non-linear narrative style, switching between different time periods over the course of the work. In Maus, there are two main story lines; one being the story Vladek is telling Artie of the Holocaust, between 1935 and 1945, and the act of Vladek telling the story, between 1978 and 1982. There are some instances of story outside these time periods, most notably the “Time Flies” section, set in 1986/87. This non-linear style speaks to the authors attempt show some of the problems of reconstructing memory, and the problems he faces trying to write this story based on his father’s memory. But it also speaks to his attempt to show that the act of remembering and reconstructing, and its effects on the memory and narrative are just as important as the memory itself. The non-linear structure is based on the act of remembering – when we remember things and try to recall events, it’s not a linear process, the mind tends to jump around as a certain memory inspires another that isn’t necessarily in chronological order. The two main narratives in this text tend to follow a mostly linear pattern if taken separately, though there are moments of confusion of recall, of examples of this non-linear act of recall. There are moments of backfilling, such as when Vladek is telling Artie about his military training, and then digresses to explain how his father tried to keep Vladek out of the army and why he ended up in the army anyway (Maus, 47). Or spontaneous recollections, as Vladek explains some of his jobs in the ghetto before remarking “Yes! This reminds me of something now…” and deviating from the story to explain how he buried a man who snitched on him (Maus, 119). There are also issues of objective truth versus subjective memory, when Vladek tells Artie he doesn’t remember an orchestra at Auschwitz despite various accounts of it, or Vladek’s trouble remembering how long he spent in various areas there and the struggle of creating an accurate chronology (Maus, 214, 228). These acts of recall all create a nonlinear narrative, as Spiegelman follows these digressions that occurred in his interviews with his father, and recreates them in Maus, causing the narrative to jump back and forth between different periods of time, within and between the two main storylines. Maus’ non-linear narrative can be seen as a reflection of the act of remembering, and we see a similar pattern in Portrait

In Portrait, the narrative switches between several different time periods, unlike Maus’ two main storylines, but shares the jumpy, non-linear narrative style, and mostly has a “present” and “past” narrative. This non-linear style again becomes a portrayal of the act of remembering, jumping around just as the mind jumps around non-linear memories. In one instance of this, we see a young Art being bullied, and his mother not being able to protect him and doing nothing, followed by a jump eighteen years into the future as Art argues with his girlfriend when says “I didn’t do anything!” (Portrait, 2). This spurs Art into realising his anger lies with his mother, most likely for ‘not doing anything’, as we saw in the previous story. This is very similar to the types of spontaneous recollections that occur in Maus, as one memory spurs another or some realisation of it. Spiegelman is trying to portray how memory works in strange ways, creating these sorts of chance connections, and bases his structure of his narrative around it, creating this non-linear story. These memories seem to occur by chance, they fill in whichever space they occur in, in a seemingly similar style to Maus – appearing to not be carefully curated, but as spontaneous as the recollection process itself. Much like memories, Portrait goes through a series of different time periods, but loops back around to an earlier point, the next set of memories echoing earlier memories. The recurrent images of Art as a prisoner echo back to the initial image of him writing Prisoner on the Hell Planet, and the “Mad Love” image squiggly text echoes the scribble drawings Art and his mother were doing at the beginning, linking different times together as the mind does when remembering. These time jumps occur organically, creating this non-linear narrative that isn’t as hard to follow as it may seem on the surface, once the reader understands this reflection of memory. By basing his non-linear narrative around the process of recollection, and following a familiar path of memory jumps, Spiegelman is making it easier for the audience to follow his non-linear narrative than it would be for one not based around a relatable occurrence, so the reader isn’t left quite so confused.  Maus and Portrait both follow non-linear narrative styles, as the author creates a reflection of the process of remembering, and this familiar experience allows the reader to grasp these jumps in time more easily.

One of the main differences between Maus and Portrait is Spiegelman’s handling of the multiple narrative times and the jumps between them. In Maus, Spiegelman was attempting to create a more seamless story, in contrast to some of his earlier works, in which the transitions between different time periods were a lot smoother, allowing the narrative to flow and be followed easily. This meant that simplification of the chronology was essential, so the narrative follows neither the interview process exactly as it happened, or the actual events being retold exactly as they happened. While, as mentioned above, the act of remembering defies a linear narrative, this effect of recollection was essential to the story Spiegelman wished to tell, so in order to retain a chronology that could be followed, the events and the remembering had to merged and simplified. Spiegelman already had some familiarity with his father’s experiences from interviewing him for an earlier version of Maus and knowing this base narrative allowed him to simplify it and smooth it over in combination with his father’s newest version his memory of it. This means the time jumps won’t disrupt the story as much, because it’s following one simple stream, that’s guided by the interview, but the narrative is no longer strictly autobiographical, and there are hints of fictionalisation in Spiegelman’s handling of time.  This simplification also means that the “past” section of the narrative, the Holocaust, is much less dramatic than the “present” and “future” sectionsThis period is smoothed and simplified not only by Spiegelman’s curation of the story, but by the act of Vladek’s remembering. This has the effect of creating two distinct time periods in the narrative, one of low drama and one of high drama. Also, the act of framing the Holocaust as a recollection, and establishing early on that Artie’s parents survived, lowers the dramatic tension. While the terror of the Holocaust always looms, there need be no questions of “what’s going to happen to them?”, only questions of how they survived, what they did and how it felt, for example. The drama exists in the relationships of those in the “present” narrative, creating two distinct time periods in the narrative, which also helps the audience follow the two storylines, as they are more differentiated. In Maus, Spiegelman has attempted to create a more seamless narrative despite its non-linear structure, by simplifying the stories while still retaining a logical chronology, and making the two main time periods distinct from each other, easier for the reader to follow.

While Maus attempts to create a more seamless narrative out of its non-linear structure, Portrait seems much more jumbled, but also uses colour as a way to differentiate time periods. While Maus clearly follows one key storyline, that of Vladek’s experience in the Holocaust, Portrait doesn’t have a similarly clear main storyline to follow. The narrative jumps around through different time periods, following the thoughts relating to each moment as opposed to following one event. This is mimicking the non-chronological way the mind works, similar to what has been discussed above, though Spiegelman is not making the same effort to rein it in and simplify it into a seamless narrative as he did with Maus. There is no distinct continuity between each period, though as mentioned earlier, a deeper reading of the text will quickly reveal things that link these periods together, making each section flow into another in some way, even though they jump back in forth through time periods that are discontinuous. This is what Spiegelman would describe as “rupturing the illusion of time,” as these moments follow on from one another, even though they couldn’t possibly in reality, blurring the lines of how the events happen and how they’re told. Though there doesn’t appear to be an overarching narrative in Portrait as there is in Maus, the use of colour in contrast to Maus’ monochrome helps to differentiate a base narrative, from more “present” elements. The base narrative, that of Art’s time as a young man, is all in drab shades of orange, brown and blue grey, while the very first introductory panel, all the comic books and other inset elements are in full vivid colour. This colour difference helps to differentiate the elements of time that are firmly in the past, as they take on a kind of sepia tone associated with old photos and memories, while the full colour images take on an immediacy, situating them more in the present, as they are an ongoing feature of Art’s life that are still having a profound influence on him. While Maus, being in black and white, takes on a more seamless narrative and simplification of the non-linear narrative, Portrait uses the full colour palette to aid in differentiating time periods and their importance in the narrative, and allows the non-linear storyline to be more disjointed than Maus but not significantly more difficult for the reader to follow.

Art Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! both handle time in similar and different ways. The two narratives share a non-linear structure, with the story line taking place over multiple time periods. In Maus there are only two main time periods 20 years apart, while Portrait covers several time periods during the narrator’s youth. Both of these narratives are attempting to reflect to process of recollection, showing how memory is non-chronological and flows from thought to thought. Even with these similarities, the narratives handle the structure differently. Maus attempts to create a seamless story line, minimising the disruption to the audience of the time jumps, while Portrait is more disjointed, though its use of full colour allows it to make subtle connections between panels. These two comics exhibit a lot of similarities, coming from the same author, but show distinct differences in the authors strategy in his handling of time.


Spiegelman, Art. Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! New York: Pantheon, 2008.

Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus Great Britain, Penguin, 2003.