Tripwire continues its 100 Graphic Novels You Should Read While Stuck Inside with its fiftieth choice, Maus, reviewed by Tripwire contributing writer Joe Gordon…
Maus Writer/Artist: Art Spiegelman Pantheon
“When did you first hear about Auschwitz?”
“Right away we heard. Even from there – from that other world – people came back and told us. But we didn’t believe.Then this same news came more and more, so we believed. And later on, we saw…. Even worse”
Few comics works come with the reputation of Maus: the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer prize, translated into some thirty-odd languages, a work used in schools in some countries to learn first-hand accounts of the Holocaust, it has been the subject of many academic studies… If you have never read this tale, then it can be a little daunting. Of course, it wasn’t always this way – Spiegelman was known for his Underground comics work in the 1970s, and had been looking to do a longer form tale, with Maus first appearing in serialised form in Raw magazine in December of 1980 and continuing thereafter.
At this point in the Anglophone world (unlike the Franco-Belgian book scene), comics were still seen as a juvenile form of literature for the most part, superheroes or funny animal stories for kids, or the Underground scene which was full of drugs, sex and more and seen as decadent. Good reviews of the serialised comic in Raw caught the attention of book publishers like Pantheon and Penguin, and it was when they published the first volume collecting the series that Maus really started to get noticed by a much wider audience, outside of the comics circles, in general bookshops and libraries, being picked up by people who often didn’t read comics at all. In 2020 we’re used to seeing graphic novels of all types in high street bookshops, but back then this was something new – even in the mid 90s when I was first in bookselling, I had one of the few graphic novel sections in a regular bookshop (most, if they had anything, might have a copy of Maus and maybe Watchmen, stuffed in the end of the science fiction section).
Maus moves between what was Spiegelman’s present day in mid to late 1970s New York, talking to his father about his experiences before and during the Second World War, and the Holocuast. We get to see not just Art’s version of the stories his father told him of that awful time, but we also see how he makes it, taking notes and later tape recording his father, Vladek. By the second volume “And Here My Troubles Began”, we see more of the fourth wall breaking as we see Art, taken by surprise by the reception and interest the first collected volume has generated, struggling to continue the second half, talking to the reader. In Maus he depicts the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats (and the Poles as pigs, controversially). In this second volume, as he tries to come to terms with the weight of expectation after the unexpected success of book one, instead of showing himself as a mouse, he is now a man wearing a mouse mask, and as the “camera” pulls back from the smaller, intimate panels to a larger one, we see he is seated at his writing desk which is atop a pile of mouse corpses, a feeling of survivor guilt mixed with guilt, perhaps, at telling a tale that was his father’s, not his.
“I mean, I can’t even make any sense out of my relationship with my father – how am I supposed to make any sense out of Auschwitz? Of the Holocaust?”
Retelling a first-hand account of the vile death camps is only a part of Maus, however powerful and important that is. Maus is also very much a book about families – we see the short, early 70s comic Escape From the Hell Planet Art drew after his mother committed suicide, not long after he was released from a mental hospital, we hear about Richieu, the brother he never knew, killed during the war, a perfect boy he can never compete with. But mostly we see Art and his father Vladek, not just in terms of Vladek being persuaded to tell his story to his son for the comic, but their present-day relationship, and it is not a happy one.
Understandably much of the commentary on Maus focuses on its depiction of the Holocaust, and rightly so, but I have always found this personal, father-son part of the story to be just as moving and powerful in its own way. I also find it to be quite brave – Spiegelman is honest in his depictions, showing his estrangement from his father, his worry that he often acts like some cartoon stereotype of the “miserly Jew” (when he comments he thought the war made him this way, Vladek’s suffering second wife tells him no, she and others came through the camps too, and none of them are like Vladek), he’s embarassed by his behaviour, by his emotional distance, stubbornness, they argue, often don’t see each other. By the second volume Art is about to become a father himself, and you can see him re-evaluating he and his father’s relationship.
It’s quite a feat to have a main character who is irksome and annoying in so many ways, and yet still we have much empathy for what he goes through. The excellent German comicker Reinhart Kleist had a similar quality in parts of his comics biography of boxer Harry Haft in The Boxer, and his time before and during the Holocaust, depicting a man who, frankly, could be a real ass to those around him even before what he would endure, and afterwards, and yet we still feel sympathy for him, perhaps because being shown warts and all, so full of flaws, makes him more realistic, more human, and that’s the case here with Vladek. Spiegelman also showing his own troubled reaction to the huge success of the work also helps make it feel more personal; these are real people, with all the good and bad that entails, and that means the reader can feel them all the more.
The artwork is relatively simple, heavy, black and white, few greys, dots for eyes – apparently he considered a more complex approach, but felt something closer to his initial sketched ideas was more immdeaite and effective. Which is not to say there isn’t some very clever and sophisticated use of artwork and layout throughout Maus – Vladek and his wife Anja, fleeing for their lives, not knowing which way to go, stand at a crossroads, but the paths of that crossroads is shaped like a Nazi swastika. There’s a huge amount of craft on view in the artwork and layouts used, and I highly recommend MetaMaus, which was published for the 25th anniversary of Maus back in 2011, in which Spiegelman explores in depth his approach and methods, and makes a superb companion to this most remarkable graphic novel.