Somehow I managed to miss the hype around “Maus” when it became famous in 1992 (to mainstream audiences anyway. Spiegelman had actually been publishing excerpts of the graphic novel since the 1970s).
On the surface the two books in the series, “My Father Bleeds History” and “And Here My Troubles Began,” seem a silly premise: a Holocaust comic book with mice representing the Jews and cats the Nazis. I avoided “Maus” because I thought the format wouldn’t do justice to such a serious topic and would come across as a “Tom & Jerry” approach to an ugly part of 20th century history.
So when I received a copy of the first book at a Yankee swap at Christmas, I reluctantly plopped it on my stack of books to read. My expectations were low, but I figured that I would at least start the book to get a taste of the content.
I was completely wrong about “Maus.” The book is anything, but trite. It is gut-wrenching. It is an amazing piece of storytelling and a staggering pseudo-biography about Spiegelman’s father’s experiences as a Polish Jew from the late 1930s and until post World War II. The narrative takes us from Vladek’s life as a textile factory owner in
Every page of “Maus” crackles with tension. It doesn’t seem possible that Vladek’s life can get any worse, but it does. You begin to admire him for his resourcefulness and pluck. Vladek is persistent and intelligent – a natural survivor. He’s also a complicated character, but we’ll return to that shortly.
The beauty of “Maus” isn’t just about Vladek’s amazing journey, but the relationship he has with his son, Art. The Holocaust story is the backdrop and told in flashback as Vladek narrates his experiences in a very detached manner to his son, who wants to create a graphic novel about the story. The older Vladek is a shell of his younger self, yet in many ways he is the same man. The older version is haunted by the Holocaust, but the scars run so deeply that he unable to face them in any proactive way. He is self-centered, tense, and nervous – a man who frets about the number of wooden matches he has left in his kitchen and stresses out about half-eaten boxes of cereal.
Despite his surviving the death camps, Vladek doesn’t appear to have learned anything about his inner self or human nature in general. He is shallow – racist towards a black hitchhiker, a sexist who degrades and insults his second wife, and a man who pinches every penny. But this personality trait may, in fact, be why he survived and others didn’t.
Vladek lives in the moment and lets the emotions of his life wash away – because he may understand on a subconscious level that these intense emotions might destroy him. His detachment is what helped him navigate through hell.
Not so for Art – who needs the cathartic experience of talking about his family’s history to heal his own wounds of growing up the son of concentration camp survivors (his mother committed suicide in 1968 – probably as a result of the war). This is part of the reason why Art and Vladek have an uneasy relationship. They don’t like each other and they bicker constantly.
And here lies the emotional center of the work. Through the terror of the death camps to the estranged relationship between father and son, we learn that the Holocaust wasn’t just a period of time, but remains a scar on humanity – on the survivors and their children and their children’s children. It’s a blight that won’t go away.
And that’s why “Maus” has become a classic. It offers no real insight or answers – but provides a stark view of Vladek and Art and what can happen to families that have such trauma and grief in their history, yet refuse to confront it head on.
Beyond all reason, the animal portrayals work like magic. Spiegelman goes beyond mice and cats with pigs used to portray Poles, dogs Americans, frogs French, fish the British, Reindeer Swedes and moths Gypsies. The animals humanize a rather inhuman tale. What they represent tells us a lot about the time and the societal mores of this period of history.
The artwork is a perfect companion to the complex narrative. The black and white drawings are done in heavy shadow with thick lines. It’s a masterpiece of setting and mood; and adds to the emotional punch of the writing.
“Maus” should not be missed. If, like me, you missed it the first time around, now – on the year of its 15th anniversary – is a good time to revisit this graphic novel classic.