Two men sit in a room. Neither knows why they are there. A table, or perhaps a picture of a table repeated over and over on the page, lies between them. There is a door, exquisitely crosshatched, and a window.
“Do you think there is a world outside that door?” asks the man in the mouse mask.
“I assume so,” replies the man with fat lips and blank glasses. “The world does not cease to exist when it is not observed by humans. A tree has life outside of human consciousness, if you know what I mean.”
“I don’t. Know what you mean, that is. Do you know why we are here?” He takes off his mouse mask, throwing it on the floor, to reveal another mouse mask. You no longer see the first mask, but despite this, you assume it continues to exist.
“You asked me that. No.”
They stare blankly at each other for a moment.
“Do you have a name?” asks the man with fat lips.
“We can’t”, says Art, “We’re waiting for Scott McCloud.”
“So what do we do while we wait?”
“We could hang ourselves.”
“We don’t have any rope.”
Art grimaces. “We could draw ourselves hanging ourselves. We are cartoonists, aren’t we?”
“Oh. I guess we are.”
The man with fat lips asks: “Do you have a mouth?”
“I thought you did, because all my sensory evidence implies that you are talking to me. I assumed you had a mouth, but when I thought about it, I realized that I could not see it. Isn’t that strange?”
“Scott McCloud would call that closure, the process of seeing the parts but observing the whole."
“I don’t understand how that relates to whether or not you have a mouth, Mr. Spiegelman.”
Now that they have both said this, you become uneasy about the continued existence of the mouse mask on the floor. You no longer see it, and are apprehensive about whether or not it continues to exist, as you previously assumed. Perhaps this mouse mask only existed in your mind in the first place.
“I have a stylized face, do I not, mister…”
“Sacco. I’m Joe Sacco. Look, can you take off your mask? It’s really bothering me. I’d like to see your face in better detail.”
“Ah, but how then could you relate to me? The less detail there is in my face, the more people my face can describe. Besides,” Spiegelman continues, “Isn’t your face just a mask anyway? Facing outward from the day you were born?”
Sacco stands up and begins to pace.
“That’s ludicrous. My face is my face. Besides, I’m a cartoonist. I know about faces and drawing. I’ve made comic books about genocide, for Christ’s sake. But I draw in great detail—stylized and distorted imagery at times, to be sure, but with great detail. And I don’t think this makes it harder for people to relate to my comics than if they starred an army of stick figures.”
“What is real, Mr. Sacco?” Spiegelman takes off his mouse mask to reveal a human mask. He places the second mouse mask on the table, where you can see it. It continues to exist.
“Oh stop it. I draw in detail because I believe that detail, as well as my strategies for drawing interviews, give my work realism.”
“Remember, I am a cartoonist as well, Mr. Sacco. I did Maus. Both parts.”
“Congratulations. Frankly, I found your characters hard to tell apart from one another. If the only distinguishing feature of your individual characters are their attributes, their clothes, hat, accessories, then you are not working hard enough.”
“But my work is about the arbitrariness of the Holocaust—how it conflated individuals into one group identity to be extinguished. From the point of view of the Nazis, all Jews were the same. I reappropriated this sameness as well as the image of Jews as vermin, as mice, therefore transgressing the original meaning and purpose of the image. Anyone reading my book knows Jews do not all look the same in the real world, but in a cartoon world, characters do. Cartoon worlds, like that of Disney—“
Spiegelman pauses to spit on the ground.
“—have cultural connotations of niceness and happiness. I’m subverting those happy memories to tell a story about memory. The story is not about exactly how many Jews died in the Holocaust—my father couldn’t even remember exactly all the details of his own experience. My use of cartoons places my story in the realm of concepts.”
Sacco puzzles over this, while Spiegelman removes his human mask. You look away, and when you look at the next image, you see it has disappeared. You do not know where it went. His face is that of a mouse.
Spiegelman continues: “You are a reporter, are you not?”
“Your comics report on facts. It is only proper, according to McCloud, that you use great detail. Your works are in the realm of the physical world, and communicate the materiality of violence and warfare. Facts and dates, while never absolute, are nonetheless more important in your work than mine.”
“Does the level of detail I use on the grass in the background of my panels really affect how I present my facts? Most of those facts are stated in caption boxes or dialogue balloons."
“Ah, but the detail communicates materiality,” Spiegelman says with italic emphasis. “It gives the facts weight and physical presence, which lends to their credibility in the audience’s eye.”
“Okay, fine. Be vague and lacking in detail if you must. But why are we doing this in the first place? What’s the big deal about cartoons? I’m a big deal in comic books, and I don’t even know why,” says Sacco.
“Cartoons have a kind of acidic potency for clarifying a situation because they're reductive."
“Reductive, eh? This room is pretty acidic and reductive. I think I’m going to leave.”
“I wouldn’t, if I were you. You assume there’s something out there, but there’s only something there because you believe it to be so. Neither of us has any sensory evidence that there is anything outside. Nothing can be seen through that window. Your perception of reality is an ‘act of faith, based on mere fragments’."
“I’ve had it with you! “Closure” is the only way the world makes sense! If you stop believing that things exist outside of your sight, then you’d go mad! I’m leaving.”
Neither man moves.
Joe Sacco and Art Spiegelman sit at a kitchen table, reading an essay by Franny Howes titled “Waiting for Scott McCloud”.
“This is terrible,” Spiegelman says. “She makes me out to be some kind of McCloud worshipping murine Zen master. And the assignment was to write a fictitious conversation between the two of us about Understanding Comics. She never even mentions the book.”
“But we were obviously talking about it, I mean, closure and all.” Sacco sips his coffee. Scent lines, a visual metaphor, rise from it, as if from a cartoon pile of feces. However, there are no flies, and there is no evidence to indicate that it smells bad. Thus, you assume the coffee is hot and fragrant.
“But what was her point? That we’re all postmodern weirdos?”
“Be nice. I think she was saying that while it is not the be-all, end-all of theories (signified by my character’s vocal protests), McCloud’s theory of abstract cartoons really does help to explain the difference between our styles. We are both realists, but your realism is a fuzzy realism of memory, and mine is a hard-edged realism of fact.”
“But you address memory in your work as well.”
“Yes, but I don’t problematize it. Part of reporting is sorting out the unreliable sources before you construct your article/comic book/whatever, and only using reliable sources, thus eliminating this question. In contrast, Maus, especially part II, has a strong concern with how to represent memory, especially when you show yourself pondering how to draw Françoise, or being besieged by the media, as well as every part that involves discourse with your father."
“What about all that mask stuff? And whether or not the world exists?”
“Duh, Art. It was an abstract attempt to grapple with McCloud’s notion of closure. She’s merely illustrating through text the phenomenon’s importance, and pointing out its action in the mind of the reader. By pointing it out and problematizing it, she draws attention to it, in the same way that McCloud illustrates it by having the world behind the little boy disappear without him watching it, or stating that he has no legs."
Spiegelman looks resigned. His face wrinkles with frustration. “Fine, Sacco, you win this round. For all I know, I’m a fictional character merely conceding to make a rhetorical point, but you still win.”
With that, Sacco and Spiegelman disappear and are replaced by something infinitely stranger. Who’s to say this has not happened before, and will not happen again?