The face of another

As we read Maus, it will be useful to keep thinking about icons. Spiegelman laces his comic abstractions with specific non-comic references: early on there is an allusion to the film The Sheik, and the book contains photographs both drawn and real. These outside references promise a certain foothold for our understanding of characters, but they turn out to be many-layered and complex: Rudolph Valentino is an Italian actor playing an Arab, and the photograph of a woman is the drawing of a photograph of a mouse.

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud writes, “When you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face– –you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon– –you see yourself” (36). This is a fundamental idea for McCloud: our identification with and even sympathy for another can be frustrated by too much detail or specificity.

Now here’s a sequence from Dan Clowes’ Ghost World

Josh’s face is cartoony and simple, while the man at the window is rendered in much more detail. His face is too much the face of another. What does it mean that Josh cannot see the face of this man as a universal smiley face? It means that Josh cannot see himself in that face.

This point of view is both Josh’s and ours: Clowes is forcing our identification with Josh, I think, because, like Josh, we might also wish that the face of the other would just go away sometimes. The explicit contrast in faces makes us question how we see, respond to, get anxious about, and identify with other people.

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