Review: Maus (1991) by Art Spiegelman

It is not easy to pin down Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980-91) in a neat category. It is a comic book or graphic novel, but it is also nonfiction – and can be categorised as biography or memoir too. What it is, is a biographical story about Art Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, as he told his son Art about his experiences in the Second World War and the Holocaust and how he eventually escaped to New York. That is the story, related by the father in somewhat broken English and enlivened by Art’s art in little busy cartoon panels.

Maus is not just about history, it also made history. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 as the first and only graphic novel ever to do so, and as such played a pivotal role in giving the graphic novel the honour it deserves as serious art. It changed the common perception that comic books were only about superheroes. 

The first two-page prologue makes very clear that this is not just a funny cartoon about animals. We see young Art rollerskating with his friends in New York, and they are all drawn as mice, so it looks cute. In the story, Art falls and his friends abandon him on the street, and he walks back home crying. At home, his father tells him: “Friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week… then you could see what it is, friends!” Followed on the next page with a quote by Adolf Hitler. Not exactly the material that you would expect from a funny-looking cartoon with animals, would you? With those shocks fresh in the mind, we start Part I: the years 1930 to 1944.

It is a harrowing story, of course. Shocking and heartbreaking at every turn. Vladek tries to live a normal life with his family in Poland, but over a span of a few years, things just get worse and worse and worse, like a pressure cooker. And at every turn, there is the hope that things will turn around. First, people say that there won’t be a war; then, just try to keep your head down and wait for it all to blow over, but then come the gestapo and inspections and roundups, to the point where you have to build a hiding place in your shed to hide your grandmother from the Nazis. Every despicable act is shocking because you just don’t expect people to actually go that far. Vladek’s story shows what the war meant for ordinary people, from month to month.

Consider the decision by Spiegelman to display the Jews as mice, or rats, and the Nazis as cats, and all the connotations that come with that. Mice and cats are natural enemies; have been waging a war of survival for millions of years. The danger of a cat Nazi to a mouse Jew is something that can be felt, something immediately clear and obvious. The mice look cute in comic form, making them look sympathetic. And, let’s not forget the negative connotations with mice and rats, in that they swarm, and carry diseases, are dirty, which all mirrors what the Nazis were thinking about them. In short, this artistic decision was a stroke of genius for the story. However, other people groups are depicted as animals too and Spiegelman opened quite a can of worms with this. Poles are shown as pigs, which has received its share of criticism, for the reason that pigs are not considered kosher in Jewish culture and Spiegelman would have been aware of this. And Americans as dogs – but it is the cat-mouse contrast that holds the most meaning. Although the American dogs chasing away the cats feels like a well chosen setup. 

While the cartoon figures don’t look very distinct from one another – they all have simple triangular mouse heads – their characters shine through. Spiegelman adds all those peculiarities of real life and real people that make it totally believable that this story is based on true events. The reality shines through. The story moves back and forth between the diegetic levels of Art and his ageing father talking in their room and the story of the father where the panels represent his past and his memories. In those panels where we cut back to Art and his father, Spiegelman adds more personality to the father so that we see him as he was in the past and as he is now. And all that with simple mouse drawings. It’s amazing how much Spiegelman achieves with some squiggly ink lines.

And, you know, it is a way for Spiegelman to form a connection with his father. There is a huge gulf separating the two, a generational trauma. The extreme experiences of Vladek formed the rest of his life and Art lives in a totally different world. That makes the little scenes with old Vladek in New York so powerful, because they show the difficult father/son relationship going on. The act of interviewing his father heals some of that rift.

By now this book had been analysed to death in beautiful compendium novels and in academic literature, but the fact remains that there is simply a lot to talk about. It’s a deeply layered work and absolutely beautiful, shocking, impressive and heartbreaking. Everyone should give it a try.

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3 Responses to Review: Maus (1991) by Art Spiegelman

  1. piotrek says:

    Yes, it’s something unique. One of the great works on Holocaust and a groundbreaking graphic novel. I like it a lot and recommend it to everyone, despite the fact my people were depicted as pigs. In this context it might be quite fitting, actually, I’m afraid. Statistics show Poles were on average indifferent in face of tragedy of their Jewish neighbours, or even hostile/eager to exploit the tragedy, with some brave and noble exceptions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In my country it was much the same. The Nazis waltzed right over us. Some of the Dutch helped the Jews, others didn’t. From Spiegelman’s perspective I can understand it. But yeah this novel is amazing. I’m really impressed. Thanks for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ola G says:

    I appreciate Maus as it’s groundbreaking in many respects. I think it’s a very important graphic novel. I do feel the depiction of Poles as pigs was a bit unfair, though. Poles were no really different in their behavior to other nations, especially considering that helping Jews was punishable in the territories annexed by Nazis. Pigs for Jews are unclean, untouchable; yet for centuries Jews lived side by side with Poles, and many Poles of Jewish descent felt more Polish than Jewish. I’m still not sure whether Spiegelman knew how offensive for Polish community his depiction would be.

    Like

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