Hello friends, and welcome to another installment of Comics You Should Have Already Read By Now, a series which examines some of the best comics in the industry and discusses what makes them so very good. Today, we’ll be taking a look at what is perhaps the most highly regarded graphic novel of all time: Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. Indeed, Maus is so highly regarded that it received the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, the first graphic novel ever to do so, largely because they had to invent a new category, “Special,” just so that they could give it the award. This book is even prestigious enough to find a spot as required reading in many high school and college curriculums across the country. Heck, if you look for it at the book store, you’ll probably find it in the biography section, which is usually considered to be much more high-brow than the lowly graphic novel section. What is it that makes the book so highly esteemed? Let’s find out!
Let’s start with a brief summary of the work. First published in a collected volume in 1986, Maus tells the true story of Spiegelman’s father Vladek, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust. Through a series of interviews conducted by his son, Vladek describes his experiences in prewar Poland, being forced into hiding, and living in and being freed from the Auschwitz concentration camp. Along the way, we watch as he and his loved ones struggle to survive the degrading conditions around them. Unfortunately, many of them are lost along the way, including Vladek’s father, in-laws, and even his son, Richiu. Vladek’s experiences during the Holocaust are only half of the story, though, as Spiegelman incorporates his interview process into the narrative, effectively making himself a character in his own story. It is in this way that Spiegelman weaves together the story of his father’s past with an intimate portrayal of the relationship between Art and his father.
The first thing that is likely to jump out at you as you read Maus is, well, the mice. Throughout both eras depicted in the novel, Spiegelman employs a visual metaphor in which he represents different groups of people as different species of animals, with Jewish characters as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs, to name a few. The beauty of this style is the way in which it applies a disarming simplicity to events both complex and unimaginably horrific. If one were to go into the story not knowing what to expect, they might be tricked by the cartoonish mice into thinking that the book is going to be a watered-down retelling of the Holocaust; this notion is quickly dispelled, though, as the book uses those same cartoon mice to depict gruesome events, including a child being brutally murdered by a German soldier, or Jews being publicly executed and displayed in the streets (see below). The result is a jarring juxtaposition of stylized symbolism and stark realism that makes the brutality on display hit the reader with a far greater impact.
Furthermore, the metaphor used in Maus also serves as a parody of the propaganda used by the Nazis themselves and their anti-Semitic forbears, who were fond of comparing Jewish people to rats and other vermin. Spiegelman’s artwork deconstructs this dehumanizing label and applies it to the whole of the human race. As the story progresses, the work demonstrates how these labels fall short of describing reality; as shown by the image below, such caricatures create preconceived notions that blot out the facts about a person, skewing our perceptions. Through Maus, we are given an understanding of how absurd these labels are, even as they are used for narrative and artistic effect.
With such strong artwork at his disposal, Spiegelman gives a gripping and memorable take on the Holocaust. Maus goes a step beyond this, however, and also delivers a riveting depiction of the profound issues that followed the survivors across generations. As stated above, half of Maus is devoted to telling the story of Artie interviewing his father, and through this we are given a deeply personal view of the relationship between the two men. This is given to us with a degree of honesty that is seldom found in writing, as Art leaves himself extremely vulnerable by putting himself on display for his readers so that we see his pain just as much as Vladek’s. And a large part of this pain is his inability to relate to his father because of the Holocaust. At one point, Spiegelman admits to his therapist that no matter what he achieves in life, it would feel petty and insignificant compared to surviving Auschwitz. The alienation between the two men is probably best illustrated, though, in the prologue of the story. The scene takes place during Artie’s childhood; after being teased by his friends, the young boy runs to his father seeking comfort. Vladek, however, has no comfort to give, but rather the harsh lessons his own life had taught him, which spills over into his interaction with his son.
It is in this way that Maus delves into aspects of the Holocaust that are often left out of the history books: the way it changed the survivors, and how it affected the way they fit into society and interacted with their loved ones. As I said, the story in Maus is a personal affair between Artie and his father, and in no way should they be taken to represent every family with Holocaust survivors, but their story holds large lessons about trauma and alienation that apply to many people. Maus incorporates these issues as Spiegelman pours himself into his work, producing powerful results.
Now, I’ve spent a while here heaping some well-deserved praise at Maus. As good as Maus is, though, we cannot look at it in its entirety without asking some difficult questions. Is it right for Spiegelman to be making money on a story about the Holocaust? Isn’t that disrespectful to those who lost their lives? Is it even possible for any project to adequately describe an event as large and as monstrous as the systematic extermination of millions of people?
Scathing questions, to be sure, but keep in mind that I’m not the one who came up with them.
These are questions that Maus asks about itself.
Spiegelman’s work displays a self-awareness on a scale that is rarely seen in any medium. Maus is a book that understands that the Holocaust is bigger than any graphic novel can describe. It understands that death on such a scale is too complex an issue for any one story. And it questions if it is right for someone to achieve fame and success by depicting human suffering.
This last point is brought powerfully to life in the opening pages of the chapter “Time Flies.” In one of the most striking sequences I’ve ever seen in a comic book, Spiegelman moves us away from both of the story’s previous timelines and brings us into what was then the present, during the time in which he was actually publishing Maus. The issue opens with Spiegelman, his metaphor reined in and his mouse mask showing, sitting at his desk reflecting upon the process and success of his work. As the frame widens through subsequent panels, however, he depicts himself working upon a pile of corpses.
It’s been years since I read Maus for the first time, and more than anything else, the memory of seeing this for the first time is the thing that sticks with me. Not only is it a powerful image, but it is also extremely thought-provoking. Through this sequence and the pages that follow it, Spiegelman brings us into the very process of creating Maus, into his own doubts and reservations. We are made to ponder difficult questions about depicting tragedy and the way in which we remember history.
And really, I think that this leads neatly into the thing that more than anything else makes Maus so special: the totality of it. It is at once a story of survival from the Holocaust, the story of a son’s struggle to relate to his father, and a commentary on how we understand art and deal with the past. Maus is a book about ideas that might just be too big for us to consider, and a masterful work of art that stands apart in the medium.
Thank you for reading, and please feel free to comment below!