Sunday, October 9, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Complete Maus'

The Book: The Complete Maus

The Author/Artist: Art Spiegelman

How I Found It: This is the first of the new-to-me books assigned in my Graphic Literature course at college. Before then, it had been recommended to me by a friend or two.

The Review: This is one of the most difficult-to-classify books I have ever seen. We had a long discussion about it during one of my classes. I found this, along with Persepolis (one of the future texts), at a Borders closing sale, but not without agonizing over where to look. First, my mother and I checked the graphic novel section. No dice, although surely it should be there. I go to check nonfiction. No luck. History. Nada. Finally it dawns on me: memoir! And there they were. Look at the tags for this post, and you'll see my dilemma still. How many categories does this work fit in? A whole lot.

Maus: A Survivor's Tale, a two-volume comic (Volume I: My Father Bleeds History and Volume II: And Here My Troubles Began), is the story of Art Spiegelman's father and mother, Vladek and Anja, and how they survived the Holocaust. Vladek was in Auschwitz; Anja was in Birkenau. Often, their survival was a matter of luck. Though Vladek and Anja survived, their family was torn apart, and Vladek and Anja are forever changed. Vladek, to Art's dismay, becomes a cantankerous caricature of the Jewish miser; Anja commits suicide when Art is twenty.

It is Art's idea to write his father's story, to make it a graphic novel. Here is where the story differs from other tales of Holocaust survivors--not only is it a graphic novel, the central metaphor is to equate the people involved with animals. The French are frogs. The Americans are dogs. Germans, particularly the Nazis, are cats. And no matter where they are from, the Jews are mice--they are vermin, just as Hitler sees them.

Maus is the only graphic novel to ever receive a Pulitzer Prize--it was so rare an event that a special Pulitzer Prize had to be created. Undoubtedly, the work has a complex history. The work went through many forms (its earliest appeared in 1972) and there was a five-year gap between the first volume and the second (1986 to 1991). Vladek died in 1982, and so probably never saw the work as it came to be. The history behind the book is so complex that Spiegelman has just released a book about its creative process, MetaMaus. I went into this work with only a vague idea of the conceit behind it, and came out staggered by just how complex it was. This is so much more than a Holocaust story--not only is it a rumination on a man's complex relationship with his father, it is a commentary on the process of creating art and how taxing it is for the artist.

Vladek's story is framed by what went into the book's creation. We see Art coming home for the first time in years, wanting to ask his father about his story and Anja's, allegedly recorded in her diaries. The book is transcribed from Art's notes and, later, his tapes of Vladek talking--almost all of it is in Vladek's own words. It's so hard to describe the effect this has, when coupled with how Art chose to represent the story in drawings. For example, Vladek's story as he tells it to Art is in somewhat broken English, but whenever Vladek is shown in his younger days--when he would be speaking a language he knew fluently and did not have to learn later in life, like English--he is very eloquent, as he would be. It's something you barely notice until it's been pointed out to you, but when it is pointed out, it's something that makes you pause and really consider how much thought and time Art had to put into his representation.

One of the most interesting parts of the book, for me, was how hard Art struggled to put down his father's experiences. At one point, he even goes to his therapist with his agonies over getting every detail right (eventually, he settles on a few compromises when his father's account contradicts documented facts about the camps). A favorite exchange of mine is early in Volume II, when Art talks to his wife about his difficulties:
Art: There's so much I'll never be able to understand or visualize. I mean, reality is too complex for comics... so much has to be left out or distorted.
Francoise: Just keep it honest, honey.
Art: See what I mean? In real life you've never have let me talk this long without interrupting.
Spiegelman's art is done in stark black and white, and though it seems cartoonish and rudimentary (though not nearly as much as his early drafts did), he really did make some fascinating artistic choices. One panel shows Vladek and Anja at a crossroads, looking for a place to seek refuge--and they stand in the center of a road that forks outwards like a swastika, symbolizing that no matter what path they take, the Nazis will be waiting. Another shows Vladek and Anja trying desperately to disguise themselves so they won't be recognized as Jews--they were pig masks, trying to pass as Poles. Vladek has no problem, but Anja's physical appearance hews more closely to traditional Jewish features, and it's easier for her to be recognized. Spiegelman represents this by having her mouse tail sticking out of her coat. Often, the choices he made were clever and really interesting to think about; I certainly found myself poring over different panels.

Vladek himself is a complicated, flawed person. He is highly prejudiced, for one thing, though Art tries to point out to him that he is essentially harboring the same attitudes towards other races that the Nazis held against Jews. He is cheap enough that it infuriates his second wife--he even returns a half-used box of cornflakes to the local supermarket so that the food doesn't have to be wasted. What he chose to do with Anja's diaries, when it is revealed, is a shock. It is often easy to see why Art had such a difficult relationship with him, but despite that, Vladek's story of survival and of his love for Anja is truly amazing.

While I was fascinated by the book's insight into its own artistic process, and by the insight into Art's relationship with Vladek, I think that what ended up dampening my appreciation of the book just a bit was its central conceit. Having the characters pictured as animals, as brilliant an idea as it was, left me feeling perhaps a bit too distant from them, and I couldn't feel as much emotion as I should have. There were definitely some emotional moments still--the first time Vladek and Anja see a swastika on display, when Anja makes the conscious choice to go to the camps since Vladek will be there, when Vladek hears in Auschwitz that Anja is still alive: these moments had me crying. I just wish there could have been more emotion towards the end, for me.

Though I felt the book was not as emotional as it could have been, I still really appreciated the story it told, and it did move me. The way Spiegelman chose to tell his father's tale reminded me at first, in the best way, of my favorite song from my favorite musical, Cabaret. By portraying the Jews as mice, Spiegelman makes the reader confront not only how the Nazis saw the Jews, but how the Jews still see themselves. He strips the story of the Holocaust down to its most human elements and does so in a way I don't think I'll forget anytime soon. Recommended for someone with an interest in a seminal work of graphic literature or in Holocaust stories.


  1. Great post. Spiegelman chose to represent people as animals for a specific reason. If you go back you'd notice that each species represents a nationality. This was to show the absurdity of dividing people as they did and, shamefully, we still do.

  2. Oh, I was totally aware of why he did it--I mentioned some of the nationalities in my post, like the Americans being dogs and the French being frogs. The opening of Maus II is him wondering which animal should represent the French, too. I really liked the conceit, just felt that it made me not feel as much as I might have if the characters had been portrayed as the humans they were. Nonetheless, though, I think the portrayal of the characters as animals works better to prove his point.