McCloud’s concept of amplification through simplification
Cartoons are describable as a form of amplification through simplification. According to McCloud, abstracting an image through cartooning does not lead to the elimination of details, but, rather, reproduces an image that emphasizes the details of interest (30). It follows that the apparent visual simplicity of the resultant cartoon is not simplicity per se. On the contrary, the simplicity puts emphasis on the necessary details by the mere fact that cartooning strips off irrelevant parts. The ability of the simplicity of a cartoon to focus the viewers’ attention on the necessary details is what is referred to amplification. In fact, McCloud demonstrates that the more cartoon-looking a human face is, the more the number of people it appears to describe (36). A case study of Art Spiegelman’s The Complete Maus: Maus I–A Survivor’s Tale; Maus II–And Here My Troubles Began, confirms McCloud’s idea of amplification through simplification.
Spiegelman takes abstraction by cartooning further than McCloud, and, by doing so, demonstrates at a deeper level what simplification by amplification can achieve. The characters in Spiegelman’s graphic novels are not cartoons of the humans he means them to represent; rather, they are cartoons of animals. Cats represent Germans, mice represent Jews and pigs represent Poles (Spiegelman 1). The use of cartoons of animals does not just direct viewer’s focus at the details the author intends to convey, but it also invokes their emotions and feelings. Most people have a tendency to associate particular animals with particulars emotions and feelings. For example, the sight of a lion is likely to drive fear in most people. By depicting Jews as cartoons of mice, Spiegelman appears to portray them as helpless and vulnerable. The depiction of Germans as cats invokes the images of a cat chasing after every mouse on sight, and devouring it. While Spiegelman would have achieved amplification by mere cartooning of humans, his depiction of them as animal cartoons serves to strip them of human physical identities, and, thus, amplifies their characters.
In fact, Spiegelman’s abstraction of his characters as animal cartoons amplifies physical traits at the level of groups or ethnicities. This approach to simplification helps the reader decipher characters easily and, subsequently, make an inference. For instance, we see an image of a mouse cartoon, Stefanska, in prison, with a caption indicating that she has been in prison for three months longer than she should (Spiegelman 29). The image of the mouse instantly tells the viewer that the character sitting in prison is a Jew. In this particular case, the depiction of Jews as cartoons of mice does not just help the reader identify the ethnicity instantly, but it amplifies or extends the plight of the particular individual mouse to the Jewish community in general. An image of a pig dressed as a nurse holding a little mouse, which seems to be crying, as three other mice watch in displeasure (Spiegelman 30), tells the reader that Poles delivered Jewish babies. Additionally, the juxtaposition of the pig’s laughing and the baby’s crying, coupled with the displeasure at the sight on the face of the other mice, illustrates that Poles were, to some extent, emotionally divorced from the Jews. Character portrayal as animal cartoons helps amplify the ease of telling one ethnicity, race, or group from another, and, hence, moves the narrative forward.
By choosing to depict Jews as mice, rather than any other animal, Spiegelman amplifies readers’ acknowledgment of the extent of the plight of the Jews in Germany at the time of the Nazis. Unlike a dog, a pig or a cat, the planar configuration of the face of a mouse allows for easy and effective illustration of facial expressions of emotion. For instance, the image on the left column on the second row, which depicts the capture of a mouse by two cats (Spiegelman 49), illustrates how the ease of depicting particular emotions informed the authors’ association of characters with their respective cartoon animals. Whiskers make the two Nazi Germans appear angrier and life threatening than otherwise. On the other hand, only the profile of the mouse is visible, but the level of the Jew’s distress cannot be overestimated.
Another image on the first column first row, which portrays one mouse asking another why he is late while a third mouse watches (Spiegelman 73), once more illustrates the wisdom behind the author’s choice of cartoons of mice to represent Jews. The only features prominent in the mice’s faces are their eyes and eyebrows, yet they achieve so much with respect to emotion. It is apparent from the image that one mouse is exasperated at lateness, the late mouse is sorry, and the third mouse is expressing empathy with the late mouse. It is easy to express a wide range of emotions on the faces of mice using just their eyes and eyebrows, and this appears to help the author highlight the plight of Jews in fullness. Indeed, the different animal cartoons help to express different ranges of emotions and with different levels of ease, thus helping the illustration apply the desired effect from the perspective of the viewer.
Spiegelman’s graphic novel beautifully illustrates the concept of amplification through simplification. In fact, by bypassing cartooning humans, and simplifying them as cartoons of animals instead, Spiegelman achieves a higher amplification, and more effectively. The author’s depiction of humans as animal cartoons serves to strip them of their human physical attributes and, thus, amplifies their characters, which is what he intends to project to his audience. Additionally, the portrayal of humans as cartoon animals has served to shift the reader’s attention from the individual identities of the characters, and focused it on viewing the characters as groups or ethnicities, hence amplifying the reader’s identification of Jews from Germans, and Poles from the two. Furthermore, the different animal cartoons have helped express different ranges of emotions with different levels of ease, and have thus helped the author amplify the desired effect on readers. The abstraction of humans as animal cartoons has helped the author tell the story effectively, affirming the idea of amplification through simplification.
- McCloud, Scott. The vocabulary of comics. Mass, 2004.
- Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus: Maus I–A Survivor’s Tale; Maus II–And Here My Troubles Began. Pantheon Books, 1997.