On Inserted Texts within Maus & Watchmen

It may seem obvious to the casual reader what an “inserted documents” may be: enclosed words and/or pictures which are embedded within the main body of text. Upon searching for sources speaking of the phenomena I attempt to discuss, I realize that this definition is close to many other terms already in use. The closest appears to be intertextuality, a literary device coined by Julia Kristeva defined as the shaping of a texts’ meaning by other texts. However, intertextuality usually infers that the texts being referred to were in existence prior to the book itself, a technicality that will prove significant with a number of my examples. Insertions can also be similar but inconsistent with the much narrower tropes of metatexts, which is a text’s self reference within itself, and paratexts, which are the cover pieces and supporting materials that come with the text. In following the spirit of theorist Scott McCloud as he attempted to define all of “comics” in Understanding Comics (Ch 1, p.7-9), I attempt to define my terms as broadly as possible. Although I may refer to intertextuality, paratexts and meta-texts from time to time, I will primarily call the embedded works I deal with inserted documents or simply insertions, for lack of an all encompassing phrase.

From alternative comics to snippets of magazines or journal entries, there’s an assortment of insertions in many novels. Some may be as small as an instructional diagram, while others are as big as chapters in an autobiography. They range from real world documents, such as actual photographs, to false imitations of reality, as with realistically posed photographs of well drawn characters. There is a full gamut of extensive diversity and the various ways they interact with the audience. There are countless examples, so this essay will zero in on a number of them from both Maus and Watchmen to provide a representative sample. By so doing, I aim to illustrate how insertions may manifest themselves and how the main text is affected as a result.

One of the many things that make Spiegelman’s Maus so exceptional is the limiting of real world texts or pictures throughout the respectable Holocaust report-style narrative it maintains. Real insertions do debut, but author Speigelman shows that that there are many ways to bolster the level of voracity that he admirably maintains.

One short original older sketch of Maus, a paratext* included before the book officially starts, is used to give much necessary factual background as to how Vladek’s relationship was with his son and what may have led Art Spiegelman to begin such a book. The Senior Mr. Spiegelman is admirably hard at work, sawing away. He calls his son “Artie” endearingly, and you would expect such a father to comfort his hurt son. Yet when young Artie does return to his father after his friends abandon him, Vladek compares the pain his son feels to the tragedies of the Holocaust, and minimizes them to an extreme. “Friends? If you lock them up in a room with no food for a week…then you can see what it is friends!…” By putting the reader in Artie’s shoes, so to speak, this tale is used to introduce the main characters and themes he intends to deal with. Art Spiegelman gives the reader a taste of how much horrors of the Holocaust have vicariously pervaded all aspects of his life, ultimately leading him to compile his dad’s memories despite marred father-son relations.
*(Though it’s gotten into the book version of Maus I, this section would originally have been left out of the story. Since it is not part of the originally serialized chapters which were published in Raw magazine, it qualifies as an inserted work.)

In the preface, damnable Adolph Hitler himself contributes a line that would become the lynchpin that all of Maus can be said to be based on. “The Jews are undoubtedly a race but they are not human”. This is a defining quote commenting on how Jews were perceived as a whole, and become the groundwork upon which the real world is portrayed in comics. Spiegelman commandingly turns Hitler’s implication to his artistic advantage, and each ethnic group is assigned an animal; the Jews as mice and the Germans as cats.

To demonstrate how Spiegelman attentively considers each ethnicity outside the cat-mouse paradigm, another inserted text identifies the creative process in action. The opening page of Maus II (p. 11) explains how each animal is meant to symbolize how Jews, or at least Spiegelman, sees the particular race in the light of their actions during the Holocaust and in years to follow. When Francoise suggests the bunny rabbit, Art rejects them as “too sweet and gentle”, and remains aware that there lovability is tainted by centuries of anti-Semitism. This vignette further explains how members of other ethnicities may appear as mice or vice versa, do to a change in religious status or perception. Although Francoise is French, she is depicted not as a frog (as other French people are, see Maus II p. 93) but as a mouse due to her adoption of Judaism.

This page is furthermore an inserted meta-text, and is one of many examples throughout the book of Art the mouse referring to his real self, Spiegelman the author. It self-reflexively uses Art’s cartoon mouse character to draw the various animals Spiegelman considered to represent the French. In drawing attention to itself as a simply drawn history, Spiegelman reminds the reader that the comics medium is only the medium in which he reports his biography (McCloud p. 181).

Individual pictures of the original Spiegelman family are embedded to the same effect, to recognize that the comics are just a means to an historical end. Still, in contrast to the cartoon mice of the Maus novels, the human figures of baby Richieu (Maus II, Dedication), Vladek (Maus II p. 134), little Artie and Anja (Maus II, p. 100) each add a certain amount of sincerity that the tale itself could not give. Spiegelman claims in one interview “To use these ciphers, the cats and mice, is actually a way to actually allow you past the cipher at the people who are experiencing it” (Fresh Air, National Public Radio, 1986). Yet, these pictures allow the reader to distance themselves enough from the cartoons and to realize that these people actually really did exist.

Important as all the pictures of Vladek and Richieu may be, it is the picture of Art’s mother and the accompanying Prisoner on the Hell Planet that reveals the most new information. While Richieu’s and Vladek’s pictures were added to memorialize the cute or handsome people they respectively once were, Anja’s picture pairs her with the author himself and is used to show the happy relationship they used to share. It is then all the more jarring to find out that Anja was later driven to suicide and the terrible guilt Art Spiegelman was burdened with. From the underground comic book Short Order Comix no. I (1973), Spiegelman’s Prisoner on the Hell Planet is the longest insertion and is arguably the most indispensable of them all. It gives the background story of personal tragedy in Art Spiegelman’s own life, tensions between him and his father, and in explaining why Vladek had to remarry.

Authors McCloud and Witeck both comment on the change of art style. “In Spiegelman’s Prisoner on the Hell Planet, deliberately expressionistic lines depict a true life horror story” (McCloud p.126). “The plain understated visual style depicting Vladek’s Holocaust narrative matches the old man’s flat and unemotional tone, just as the claustrophobic compositions and grotesquely exaggerated perspectives in the comix story approximate Art’s overwrought mental state at the time of his mother’s death” (Joseph Witeck, Comic Books as History, p. 100). In choosing to insert this text, the author shows that Maus’ simplified anthropomorphisms were an active departure from other gut-wrenching, and inherently sensational, expressionistic styles with human figures.

In contrast to the memories recounted by Art Spiegelman in the format of black and white animal cartoons of Maus, the gritty world of Watchmen uses (primarily) human people in living color and inserted documents to tell of an alternative fictional history. Without the true-to-life claim that Spiegelman was able to use, Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore rely on other methods, such as artificial texts or pictures, to achieve a comparable replication of reality.

First, it should be acknowledged that Watchmen wasn’t always a fully composed graphic novel. Rather, it was a series of 12 issues to be collected once a month for a year. (This is a similarity it shared with Maus which was, as I mentioned, was published serially in Raw magazine.) Each chapter (or issue) except for the last is paired with an extensive inserted text that was subliminally referenced or shown earlier in the main story. The alleged book Under the Hood by Hollis Mason is the first of such insertions.

Chapters I and II of Under the Hood are clearly the most important composed insertions in the text, and may reveal progressively more information upon successive readings. It is in fact possible to demonstrate most techniques used to establish believability of the tale in later insertions from this text alone.

The first page immediately catches the readers eye. It is distinguished from the length of comic before it with a length of prose and a notable absence of illustration. Instead, it is presented to the reader with a scanned note, complete with shadow and paperclip. Attached, it not only explains what the text will strive to do but realistically adds “Reprinted with permission of the author” (UTH Chapter I p.1).

The book was also essentially created to give a back-story and context to these heroes. It first draws the reader in with a mournfully dark and yet intriguing story of how a man wearing rubber breasts is cheated on, robbed, abandoned and commits suicide. It sets the scene in which the reader first becomes attuned to the fact that Nite Owl, was once just a regular boy named Hollis Mason and had a life working with his father in a garage. This garage is a piece of Mason’s life that returns in the narrative and characterizes him. This small piece of subtext snowballs in the artful hand of Moore and Gibbons and, as they do with many motifs, grows to take a larger part of the story. On page 15 of chapter IV you even see that Nite Owl had hoped to retire to his garage, and that Jon’s electric cars, although more efficient and sanitary, would leave this garage in abandoned shambles (Ch VIII, p. 1).
From the second page on, you begin to realize that this Nite Owl must have come from a world just like ours. The Keene’s Act and Action Comics are both explicitly dealt with. The tale of how heroes rose up from the world of comics seems realistic enough and a more cartoonishly drawn “Hooded Vigilante” completes this façade.

But as a mirror of ours, this world is far from perfect. The third chapter of Under The Hood (after Ch II) reveals that these “superheroes” were sometimes seen as people with weird fetishes and perversions. Another part tells of The Comedian raping the Silk Specter, referenced explicitly by chapter I page 21 as “the rape allegations of Hollis Madison regarding Blake”.

Upon second reading, you realize that numerous copies of Under the Hood pervade the novel. From the office of the original Silk Spectre (Ch VIII, p. 1) to the Comedian himself (Ch I, p. 9), the book comes to show the range of superheroes Hooded Justice and Mason himself has inspired.

Within the text itself, a more private joke can be read. Hollis Mason gives his gratitude to Denise upon giving him the advice to “start off with the saddest thing you can think of”, something a reader might not think of twice. However, in retrospect it is then obvious that one incredibly sad thing this might be referring to, if not the saddest in the eyes of Moore and Gibbons, is the brutal murder of a comedian, and the ironic blood drop on the smiley face that follows. If the whole graphic novel is to be referred to here, Denise’s quote can further be extended to Veidt’s murder of millions in New York for world peace (Ch 12). This quote alone is layered with meaning and can be said to encompass the recurring theme of tragic comedy.

A last insertion in Watchmen might have been expected to be after chapter 12. The absence of this segment, however, serves to provide a calm resolution. It further allows a moment of reflection over all that has transpired and what might happen where Rorschach’s journal to be read and published. The reader then might turn the page and find the quote that has taken its place: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies.” Roughly translated, this means: “Who watches the watchmen?” It is a great real-world quote applied for dramatic flourish.


There are many ways to depict reality or “truth”, whatever that may be, in comics. There are inserted documents that purely narrate realism and others that are actually objectively real. Whether informing the reader of a personal account of Holocaust tragedies or spinning a convincing tale of heroes in opposition to the Cold War, both Maus and Watchmen have come to use such inserted documents in claiming semblance to reality.


Works Cited:

McCloud, Scott Understanding Comics

Spiegelman, Art Maus I & II

Moore, Alan and Gibbons, Dave Watchmen

Witek, Joseph Comic Books as History

Maus I p. 100


Maus I, p. 103



Maus II p. 11
Maus II p. 134

Maus II, Dedication



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