I love comic books and graphic novels. I always have. I love how the stories told in comics can reflect the psyche of our culture, as seen in the rise of serious graphic novels such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in the late 1980’s. But while these stories are wonderfully done, the graphic novel that truly showed how this medium could be used to tell a complex and powerful story is Art Spiegelman’s masterpiece Maus. Completed in 1991, critics and scholars have labeled Maus in many ways. It is a novel, a documentary, a memoir, a fable, as well as a comic book. It is also the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. But, when you look past the acclaim, the accolades, and the awards to the bare bones of Spiegelman’s work, Maus tells the story of a relationship between a father and son that is haunted by the past.
Art Spiegelman was born in Sweden in 1948 to Vladek and Anja Spiegleman, a Polish couple who survived the Holocaust. Spiegelman’s childhood was dominated by something that author Marianne Hirsch calls ‘postmemory’, which is “the relationship that the ‘generation after’ bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before — to experiences they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up.” Spiegelman’s mother would sometimes talk about Auschwitz, but his father always shut down when the subject was broached. Nevertheless, the Holocaust loomed large over Spiegelman’s life, especially after his mother committed suicide when he was twenty. His relationship with his father, always unstable, deteriorated after her death.
Maus tells the story of Spiegelman’s relationship to his father during the years 1978-1979, when he interviewed his father about his experiences before and after Auschwitz. While the Holocaust had haunted his life, it was then that Spiegelman finally understood the horrors and tragedies that his parents faced during World War II. Maus telescopes between Spiegelman’s interviews and relationship with his father to Vladek’s point of view in World War II Poland and Germany.
There have been many recounting and retellings of the Holocaust over the years, as the world has tried to understand the atrocities, destruction, and devastating losses that the Jewish people faced, but none of these retellings are quite like Maus, which anthropomorphizes its characters. The Jewish people are mice, the goyim Poles pigs, and the Nazis cats. Through this lens, Spiegelman is able to show the unspeakable acts of evil and depravity of the Holocaust in a new light, and he explore these events in a way that hits incredibly close to home. Paul Buhle, a scholar and retired professor from Brown University, muses that, “More than a few readers have described [Maus] as the most compelling of any [Holocaust] depiction, perhaps because only the caricatured quality of comic art is equal to the seeming unreality of an experience beyond all reason.” Spiegelman does not shy away from any of the darkness in his father’s tale, or the darkness that has resulted in his own life. His unflinching honesty and his willingness to show the true depths of evil during that time make Maus compelling and, also, incredibly difficult to read.
If, like me, you cry easily when watching movies or reading books, be prepared. This book is a hard read. But it is also an important read. Maus explores a relationship between a father and son in an incredibly intimate way, and it does the same for the Holocaust. Perhaps it isn’t a beach read, but it is a work that should be on everyone’s reading list.