Having discussed my disappointment at Logicomix, and its poor use of the frame story structure, I wanted to think about the genius of the frame story, and what it can do when its used well. As an Arabist (sort of), the first example that springs to mind is obviously One Thousand and One Nights, and its witty and delightful frame upon frame. But as an organically evolved literary conglomeration, its difficult to read more into that use of the frame story, there is no single author who employed it with a purpose, its simply a device for creating the never ending story itself. Two other of my favourite authors stand out however: Conrad, particularly in 'Heart of Darkness', and Borges in, well, most of his short stories.
In both cases the frame serves two purposes. On the one hand it distances the story, and the narrator, from the author. It thus allows the author to characterise the narrator in a particular way, without compromising their position of authority as the ultimate narrator. This then allows the second device, which is the shaping of our reading of the internal story. Thus the opening of Heart of Darkness situates our story within its time, and, through the analogy of the Roman invasion of Britain, sets our perceptions for the following story. It also allows us to see Marlowe from the external, to shape our perceptions of his honesty as a narrator before we hear his account. In the same way, Borges frequently uses his frames to cast doubt on his narrator, framing his stories as bar tales or hearsay, allowing him to suggest the fantastical, or the impossible, and provide a subtle commentary while retaining the force of the central story.
It is interesting then, to return to comics, to consider Art Spiegleman's Maus, particularly in light of the passionate debate that has been raging at the Hooded Utilitarian. In Maus, Spiegelman uses the frame to provide context and shape our reading of the Holocaust story, but he refuses to use it to distance himself from the frame. The frame story of Maus IS Spiegelman the artist writing/drawing the comic you are reading. By doing so, the impression of doubt is not put on a fictional narrator as in the previous two examples, but neither is it put on Artie exactly. This shift puts the doubt on the medium of comics themselves. It creates the doubt, frequently made explicit by Spiegelman, that comics cannot represent real life, that reality must be twisted and shaped by its transformation to the comics medium. Maus then, employs the frame story as a tool of self-reflection, and of post modernist analysis.
Of course the frame doesn't stop there. The 'Artie' character of the frame is just a comics representation of the real Art Spiegleman who is drawing even the 'real' Artie. And Spiegelman hints at this as both stories continue, and the animal masks which have caricatured both the internal and framing stories begin to slip, hinting at the humans beneath. By casting doubt on the ability of his drawings to represent the holocaust, Spiegelman also has to acknowledge its inability to represent even the dilemma of truth values in comics.
It can be argued, as Noah does at HU (and I agree) that Spiegelman doesn't go far enough with this, that Maus hints at the deeper problems of artistic representation but doesn't address them (understandably, his focus is the Holocaust, not the nature of truth in art!), but either way, this is one of many examples of what the frame story as a formal structure can do well. It essentially uses doubt and distance, and when that is understood, it is capable of allowing admirable levels of self reflection and depth to a work of art. It is this wonderful aspect of the frame story which was missed in the Logicomix example discussed previously, and, while not the only problem with that book, it remains a glaring mis-step on the part of the authors.