Art Spiegelman's Maus

For some reason I have to chuckle as I consider the first of Art Spiegelman's creations I encountered was not his masterpiece Maus but rather his Garbage Pail kids - hideous trading cards that my brother and his friends obsessed over in the mid-1980's. I think that goes to show we're all capable of all sorts of creations.

I might be delaying diving into what I'm planning on writing because Maus is not an easy read. It is a story within a story, telling of Art in the 1970's and 1980's interviewing his father  Vladek about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. Art was born after the Holocaust to his parents who both survived - though Art finds himself competing with older "ghost" brother Richieu, who did not survive the war.

Maus makes use of a convention of assigning the various ethnic groups a type of anthropomorphized animal. Jewish characters are mice, Germans are cats, Americans are dogs, Poles are pigs, etc. It's difficult to describe how well this works - you'd think it would take a way from the horror of the Holocaust, with Jews in Poland desperately wearing pig masks over their faces in an attempt at disguise. But it has the opposite effect - seeing emaciated mice going through unimaginable horrors - somehow it forces us to look at things we thought we knew from a fresh perspective.

The narration bounces back and forth between the present day of the late 1970's and early 1980's to the time before and during the Second World War. Art struggles with the fact that his father Vladek is almost the perfect caricature of the miserly Jew - he saves everything, won't spend a penny unless he has to, etc. When Art comments to Vladek's second wife Mala (Art's mother had died prior to the present day scenes) that the Holocaust must have made him this way she comments that she and many others made it through the Holocaust and weren't like this. However, we also discover these very traits (as well as a fair amount of luck) are what allowed Vladek to survive the Holocaust.

I'm jumping around quite a bit - and in all honesty the narrative does this as well. Art has a difficult time coming up with a precise chronology of what his father went through, relying on his father's decades' old memories. We're also embarrassed with Art regarding his father - Vladek is difficult to get along with, is always looking for a way to not spend money, and has his own racist attitudes. Mala and Vladek do not have the easier of marriages.

One of the things that appeals to me about Maus is how true all the characters are. Of course, the tale is indeed based on the story of Art Spiegelman's father Vladek - multimedia versions of the story have included recordings of Art and Vladek's conversations. Vladek is far from a saint - before the war he broke up with a girlfriend to be with a woman with far better financial prospects, he has his own racist attitudes towards African-Americans, etc. But he loves first wife Anja dearly as well as his estranged son Art. He absolutely does not deserve the horrors of the Holocaust - he's a man with his faults and his noble qualities, making his way through an unimaginably horrible experience.

The fact that Maus is told in comic form makes it noteworthy in being one of the early comics to challenge the idea of comic books as a purely juvenile art form. Spiegelman came from the underground comix movement of the 1970's, rejecting the censorship of the Comics Code Authority and influenced by some of the great EC comics of the 1950's. It deserves its place in college reading lists and is a great piece of literature that I'd recommend to anyone of sufficient maturity to handle its painful subject matter.

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