Exploring the potential for historical graphic narratives to challenge hegemony and empower the afflicted: subaltern affliction in Maus and Delhi Calm – Jessica Syposz

Jessica Syposz is a final year English with Creative Writing student at the University of Birmingham. Her interests include graphic novels, the collapse of the USSR in fiction and the relationship between history and nostalgia. She can sometimes be found writing and performing poetry and short stories.



Exploring the potential for historical graphic narratives to challenge hegemony and empower the afflicted: subaltern affliction in Maus and Delhi Calm

Writing in the wake of the attacks on the offices of satirical cartoonists Charlie Hebdo, Will Self argues that good comics should, like H.L. Mencken’s definition of good journalism, ‘afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted[1].’ Self’s claim immediately sets up a binary opposition between hegemonic and non-hegemonic groups and individuals, between the socio-politically privileged and those who are designated ‘subaltern’ through their race, class, caste, gender, nation or other category. Both Art Spiegelan’s Maus and Maus II, and Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s Delhi Calm deal with such clashes, with stories in which marginal, afflicted peoples suffer immensely at the hands of a dominant group.[2] The Jews are afflicted at the hands of the Nazis in Maus, while the urban poor of 1970s India are subjugated by the state during a period of national emergency in Delhi Calm. For the purposes of this essay, I will take Self’s claim to mean that by ‘comforting the afflicted,’ we elevate and empower the powerless. By ‘afflict the comfortable,’ we critique and challenge the dominant group in a culture. Throughout the course of this essay, I will argue that Self’s claim is highly applicable to graphic historical narratives, which effectively challenge the binary between subaltern and dominant culture.

Historical graphic narratives have great potential to challenge power structures and champion the powerless because they are so adept at creating counter-histories. Emma Tarlo observes that the state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975 was most painfully experienced by ‘people whose lives were profoundly disrupted’ by aggressive policies of eviction and forced sterilisation, ‘but whose personal renderings have not been either written or heard’.[3] Such silence is, in Tarlos’ view, ‘not entirely accidental’ as even today politicians and dominant political parties have been ‘keen to deny their reality and suppress their memory’.[4]


Figure 1. 

In Delhi Calm, Ghosh draws attention to this deliberate and oppressive silencing, granting the afflicted a voice in the process. A key example of this is a passage where forced sterilisation is taking place inside a school (Fig 1). Here, the speech bubble of a terrified victim reads ‘spare me’, alluding to the violence about to take place. Yet the act is never shown. Instead, the stem of the speech bubble points towards the blank space between the panels, the ‘gutter.’ In this way, our attention is being drawn not towards a depiction of affliction, but towards a lack of depiction. As Karen Crawley argues, the gutter serves to ‘encourage the reader to notice what is included and emphasized’ and what is ‘left out or only semi-formed’ in representations of suffering.[5] Therefore, by drawing our attention to this absence through the gutter, Ghosh critiques a silencing state and a sanitised version of history.

Furthermore, although affliction is rarely shown, it is present in subtle and alarming ways. The arm of the guard in the preceding panel serves to cut the panel violently in two, stretching across the page at a noticeably unnatural angle. Meanwhile, the same repeated images of a syringe and a metal blade confront us throughout the text, alongside splatters of brown ink reminiscent of dried blood. The effect is to lend the pages of Delhi Calm an unsettling undercurrent of violence. Even as their bodies are hidden and their voices silenced, the reality of suffering is evocatively communicated to the reader through these subtle allusions. Therefore, Delhi Calm asserts the right of the afflicted to have their suffering brought to light, afflicting the dominant elite with the reality of its actions.

Nonetheless, the potential of historical graphic narratives to challenge power is complicated because the very act of representing the experiences of the afflicted/powerless has been called into question by a number of critics. Joanne Sharp, drawing on the work of Gayatri Spivak, questions the ability for fiction to represent a ‘non-hegemonic, lived reality’.[6] John Beverly argues that because ‘power is related to representation’, representations that align with hegemony will always be privileged over those of the afflicted subaltern.[7]

In Maus, Vladek’s past experiences as a subaltern are mediated through his more privileged son Art, the compiler of his oral testimony. We see Art regularly disrupt Vladek’s organic telling of the tale, asking him to start again from specific points, skip over others and even including moments that Vladek asks to be cut out.[8] As a result, Art is shown to have the power to shape Vladek’s story, exhibiting dominance over his narrative. Meanwhile Ghosh, while drawing our attention to moments of suffering, can never know what it was like to suffer during ‘The Emergency’ because of his status as an educated post-Emergency Indian citizen.

Therefore, if we are to take Sharp and Beverley’s view, the afflicted can never truly be given the comfort of true representation, of having their stories told authentically. A power structure remains in place, whereby the ‘comfortable’ author has power to determine the telling of a non-hegemonic group or individual’s tale. Autobiographical texts produced by the hand of an afflicted subaltern may stand a greater chance of enacting accurate representation, coming directly from the source. But, as Sidonie Smith rightly observes, even those texts run the risk of being mediated or influenced by any number of collaborators, such as ‘an interviewer, an editor, a compiler, perhaps a translator, all of whom co-produce the form the life story will take’.[9] For these critics, graphic narratives that try to unearth a subaltern or afflicted experience can never truly challenge social and political hierarchy, as the texts themselves are deeply complicit.

However, I would argue that the historical graphic narrative has great potential to subtly unsettle such power dynamics, even as it perpetuates them. For Nayar, the graphic novel can take afflicted, marginal subjects and elevate them through formal and visual strategies. He argues that by placing minor figures at the edges of panels, near the gutter, they ‘function as silent witnesses to the events unfolding in the panel’s compositional centre’.[10] Nayar attests that these silent witnesses, while ‘immaterial to the main narrative’ are able to ‘furnish something that the main narrative lacks’.[11]


Figure 2.

In Maus, for example, there are relatively few panels dedicated to crowds, or groups of people larger than the immediate players of the chapter. However, during a Nazi selection (Fig. 2) Spiegelman depicts a crowd, with small figures trailing into the corners of the panel. Looking closely, one can discern family dynamics (a boy and girl stand with a larger female, presumably mother, figure), while a nervous energy is evoked in the erratic positioning of the faces and bodies. Such minute detail may seem unnecessary, until we realise what these marginal figures will soon be undergoing selection; these families will be torn apart, relatives sent to their deaths. The visual nature of the graphic narrative enables the small and the marginal to be seen as important, if silent, players in history.

Not focusing on the characters in the margins does no great harm to our engagement with the story, but the acknowledgment that they are there furnishes the panel with a wealth of detail and atmosphere that draws us further into the world of Maus. Nayar’s argument also calls into question our own viewing of these marginal figures, as they create a ‘frame of witnessing of history and of our own viewing of what happened.’[12] Indeed, these figures draw attention to how we may not have at first noticed them, so engrossed were we in the ‘compositional centre.’ We can acknowledge the inherent power structure present in these texts while simultaneously elevating and empowering the afflicted, allowing them to exert influence upon the panels and upon the reader.

While graphic narratives play an important role in the building of alternative histories, we should not see the form as limited to only challenging historical power structures; they do not only critique past ‘comfortables’ and empower a long dead ‘afflicted.’ In Maus, the past of suffering and affliction regularly intrudes upon the more comfortable present of twenty-first century New York. McGlothlin calls this a ‘temporal blurring’, in which the present and past are intimately connected.[13] James Young goes one step further to argue that ‘in Maus, not only are the past and present linked, but they constantly intrude and even collapse into one each other’.[14]


Figure 3.

Marianne Hirsch takes this ‘temporal blurring’ and ‘collapse’ of past and present and positions it as deeply entangled with the experience of affliction. Hirsch proposes that Maus exhibits ‘post-memory,’ which she defines as ‘the relationship of the second generation to powerful, often traumatic, experiences that preceded their births but that were nevertheless transmitted to them so deeply as to seem to constitute memories in their own right’.[15] Chapter two of Maus II begins with Spiegelman’s cartoon avatar sat at his desk, circled by a mysterious flurry of flies (Fig. 3). The panels gradually become larger, as the focus widens to finally reveal, in the final panel, that his desk is perched atop a large pile of decaying corpses. Sights of horrific suffering, relayed from father to son over the course of Maus I, have resulted in the facilitation of post-memory in Art.

However post-memory in Maus is not simply just the shadow or continuation of memory. It is something more distinct, more entangled, more ‘alive’ in the present because ‘its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection, but through an imaginative investment and creation’.[16] Evidence of such creation can be seen when the same dead bodies are shown littering the street as Art walks through suburban New York (Fig. 4) on the following page. The past experience of his survivor father haunts him, but it also actively interacts with and is reworked by his own present day surroundings, winding around the steps of a suburban house and a fire hydrant.


Figure 4. 

Hillary Chute acknowledges that while Hirsch, Young and McGlothlin comment on this blurring of timeframes, they underestimate the importance of the form of the graphic narrative in depicting the past.[17] She sees this as ‘essential’ to how Maus represents its history and its relationship with post-memory.[18] Indeed, it is crucial to remember that the panels of Fig. 4 also exist on the page simultaneously. While our eyes make connections between individual panels, they also take in the page as a whole unit. Form ingeniously mirrors content here, as the imposition of Holocaust memories into Art’s everyday existence is matched by the page’s insistence that past and present moments can and do coexist. In Delhi Calm, it is the break from panels that fosters post-memory. During a moment of violent slum clearance, Ghosh chooses to break out of the panel altogether (Fig. 5). The blank space around the borderless images gives the events a sense of being suspended in time, as if the affliction is not anchored to any one historical moment. Therefore, the formal strategies of these graphic narratives perfectly capture Hirsch’s familial post-memory.


Figure 5.

If this engagement with post-memory prompts us to see affliction as vicarious and trans-generational, then it can no longer be relegated to the distant and hazy past. Spiegleman and Ghosh cast the experiences of the afflicted as a living component of the present, one that still retains power over survivors and their descendants. For a reader, there is no comfortable distance that can be gained. We are asked to reassess our understanding of ‘the past’, and in doing so refrain from turning a blind eye to the possibility of affliction in the present.

Ana Merino casts Holocaust survivor Vladek not as a member of the afflicted, but as a perpetrator of affliction. For Merino, Vladek’s destruction of his wife’s diaries casts her as the ‘subaltern of the subaltern, eliminated despite her attempts to create resistance by way of her notebooks and souvenirs’.[19] Vladek has ensured that his wife’s voice can never articulate itself within the text, giving him complete control over her memory. Both graphic writers hand us afflicted protagonists capable of enacting their own affliction upon those lower down in the social hierarchy.

In Maus II, Holocaust survivor Vladek reacts with anger and resentment towards a black hitchhiker that the family pick up in their car. Here, the depth of this racist resentment is rendered in sporadic bursts of Polish, which are crouched in smaller, darker text to evoke the bubbling undercurrent of his rage. In Delhi Calm, Pavez Alam suffers affliction throughout: he runs the risk of arrest and violence after curfew, is beset by paranoia while walking the streets, and is repeatedly rejected from his dream profession due to his religion. But he is also a privileged member of the ‘Smiling Saviours,’ Delhi’s propaganda police, regularly carrying out violence towards the urban poor under government orders.


Figure 6.

During Vladek’s tirade (Fig. 6), the crosshatching of the background as seen through the car’s window becomes progressively heavier. Meanwhile, the perspective narrows, until the faces of the three Spiegelmans fill the panel. Similar visual techniques are often utilised in Maus when conveying scenes of affliction; dense crosshatching and close perspective lends an oppressive and claustrophobic atmosphere to the barracks of Dachau.[20] We have become accustomed to associating this visual register with scenes of Nazi terror, and so it is doubly unsettling to have it subtly injected into a depiction of a Holocaust survivor. These moments are strategically placed towards the ends of their respective narratives, once we have already spent time with Vladek and Pavez and grown to view them as people suffering from affliction at the hands of the state. Therefore, both graphic writers complicate the division between the afflicted and the comfortable, privileged members of society.

In complicating this binary, Ghosh and Spiegelman present their characters as flawed individuals. For Berlatsky, it is this complication, this mixing of afflicter/afflicted, strengthened by the way in which Spiegelman resists giving Vladek an ‘univocal presentation of events,’ that prevents traumatic memory from defining ‘Vladek, and the Jewish people in general, as victims who remain innocent’.[21] They are rewritten, not as blank, saint-like victims but as flawed human agents within the narrative. As Art tells Vladek, the inclusion of complexity ‘makes everything more real – more human’.[22]

To conclude, historical graphic narratives have immense potential as tools of subversion, able to challenge those in comfortable positions of power by demonstrating their powerful hold over the lives and the life stories of the marginal. In graphic historical narratives, official histories are torn down and reassembled to include the afflicted at their centre. The limits of representing such groups, and the boundaries between who can be seen as ‘afflicted’ and ‘comfortable,’ are fully interrogated. Thus, ‘comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable’ becomes a project by which oppressed peoples are not only met with pity and outrage, but can be treated as much more nuanced characters, as more deserving of agency, their relationship with hegemony more complex and transmutable. Rather than explicitly reproducing the power structure of our cultures, graphic narratives can go some small way towards demonstrating solidarity and understanding towards the afflicted.



[1] ‘Will Self: The Charlie Hebdo attack and the awkward truths about our fetish for free speech.’ Vice.com, 9 January 2015 <accessed 04 April 2016>.

[2] Art Spiegelman, The Complete Maus (London: Penguin Books, 2003),

Ghosh, Vishwajyoti, Delhi Calm, (India: Harper Collins India, 2010) All subsequent references to both texts shall be from these editions.

[3] Emma Tarlo, Unsettling Memories: Narratives of the Emergency in Delhi (California: University of California Press, 2003), p.3.

[4] Tarlo, Unsettling Memories, p. 2.

[5] Karen Crawley, ‘Justice in the gutter: representing everyday trauma in the graphic novels of Art Spiegelman’, in Law Text Culture, 16, (2012), pp. 93-118, p. 102.

[6] Joanne Sharp, Geographies of Postcolonialism (London: SAGE Publications, 2009), p. 111.

[7] John Beverly, Subalternaty and Representation: Arguments in Cultural Theory (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999) pp. 1-3.

[8] Spiegelman, The Complete Maus, pp. 61-72, p. 25.

[9] Sidonie Smith, ‘Human Rights and Comics: Autobiographical Avatars, Crisis Witnessing, and Transnational Rescue Works’, in Graphic Subjects: Critical Essays on Autobiography and Graphic Novels, ed. by Michael Chaney (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011), p. 64.

[10] Pramod K. Nayar, The Indian Graphic Novel: Nation, History and Critique (New York: Routledge, 2016) p. 89.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Erin McGlothlin, ‘No Time Like the Present: Narrative and Time in Art Spiegelman’s Maus’, in Narrative, 11, (2013), pp. 177-198, p.180.

[14] James Young, ‘The Holocaust as Vicarious Past: Art Spiegelman’s Maus and the Afterimages of History’, in Critical Enquiry, 24, 3, (1998), pp. 666-699.

[15] Marianne Hirsch, ‘The Generation of Post Memory,’ in Poetics Today, 29, (Spring 2008), pp. 103-128, p. 103.

[16] Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Post-Memory (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 22.

[17] Hillary Chute, ‘The Shadow of a past time’, in Twentieth Century Literature, 52, 2, (2006),pp. 199-230, p. 200.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ana Merino, ‘Memory in Comics: Testimonial, Autobiographical and Historical Space in Maus’, in Transantlantica, 1 (2010), pp. 1-31, p.23  <http://transanlantica.reuves.org/4941> [accessed 04 April 2016]

[20] Spiegelman, The Complete Maus, p. 255-256.

[21] Eric Berlatsky, ‘Memory as Forgetting: the Problem of the Postmodern in Kundera’s ‘’The Book of Laughter’’ and Spiegelman’s ‘’Maus’’’, in Cultural Critique, 55 (2003), pp. 101-151, p.133 and 134.

[22] Spiegelman, The Complete Maus, p. 25.



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