I hear the voices of my friends ringing in my ears:
- “Another holocaust story? Don’t we have enough of those?”
- “Making it about cats and mice? That seems trivializing…”
- “Why are so many literary graphic novels somewhat autobiographical? It’s self-indulgent.”
But what hasty assumptions to make without reading something first! I needed to see what this proclaimed “masterpiece” from the early 1990s was myself. Maus itself is not without some flaws and uncomfortable feelings, but it really exceeded my expectations, given the doubts seeded into my mind by some of the people around me. And yes, I’ll concede that maybe there are many tales of the holocaust out there, but aren’t there just as many (if not more) in every other genre? This graphic novel is clearly made for people who are interested in the subject. Without that interest, however, I could see why someone might just brush it aside, or read it at the most superficial and hasty levels (which I’m sure to get to).
The story of Maus itself is about a young author and artist, Art, asking his aging father, Vladek, about his life as a Jewish man during World War II, so that he can write a book about his parents’ experiences. Aha! The classic, “graphic novel memoir about the artist gaining acceptance by their parents for their work” story…I’ve seen this a few times before, and yes indeed, this is in fact about Art Spiegelman’s father himself. How Spiegelman chooses to represent his characters, however, is in the form of animals: Most notably, Jewish characters (even converted ones, like Art’s wife) are shown as mice, while Germans are represented by cats, native citizens of Poland as Pigs, and Americans as Dogs.
In the easiest sense of understanding, using animals to depict human problems could be seen as childish and trivializing, yet Spiegelman’s handling of the artistry and story doesn’t let this become so. The characters are not, in fact, “animals”: they are expressly human, speak as humans, behave as humans, eat as humans, and all-around live as humans. Only their outward appearance differs, which could possibly be interpreted as a means of showing how people of different nationalities and religions were seen as distinct and different races/species during the holocaust.
Wait wait wait, but now don’t you think that’s a little bit generalizing and racist on the part of the author? Showing that all the people of these different groups are “the same,” that is? Spiegelamn easily resolves this by including both good and bad characters of every animal-type. Some Polish “pigs” help the Jewish “mice”, while others only want to keep themselves safe. Even some of the mice themselves sell out their fellow Jewish neighbors, while others are nothing but kind. Also, while making all the characters of the same “animal” look similar can help with a sense of anonymity in the many persecuted mice in concentration camps, I found myself sometimes mixing up which character was which at certain times. And I thought my visual arts background made me pay attention to tiny details and distinctions! But let’s move on from all that nagging, “is it okay to make this about animals?” business.
Although published as two separate issues, I read both Maus I and Maus II as one complete collection, and I think this was a good decision on my part. I say this because after the first entry, I was uncomfortable with how blatant Art Spiegelman was in saying that his interest in his father’s past was simply for the means of making this book. Even his own character starts to express doubts about whether or not his father will come across as the stereotypical caricature of the cheap, racist Jew once put on paper. Is this really just another story of a dark history to add to the pile, without any real emotion to it? Spiegelman’s father died after the release of the first Maus, in 1982, and some of the emotions and realizations after this are deeply felt in Maus II. It is as though Spiegelman finally starts to realize that his father’s experiences during the Second World War had an effect on every facet of his life. That is to say, not only was Vladek Spiegelman altered by what happened to him, also his relationships with people in his life, including his new wife (after the death of Art’s mother, Anja), and more potently, his son. After being slightly concerned by the fact that Art Spiegelman was so unapologetic and direct in his quest to learn of his father’s life just for writing in Maus I, I felt myself becoming more drawn to Art himself as a character in Maus II, once he started to show that there was more to this whole thing all along.
In the end, however, there are still a lot of “maybe it means this, but then again maybe nots” for me to truly know how I feel about this book. At the time when it was completed in 1991, the “graphic novel” as a medium was not all that seriously taken (as far as I know, that is), and in thinking about that that, I’m sure something of Maus’ magnitude was quite controversial-yet-successful in establishing itself at that time. Now, however, amidst all the new feelings and histories of the 21st century, it may have lost some of that spark. Am I too young, far-removed, and uncaring for this kind of thing? I wouldn’t say that, as I still thought this was a good book, and would give it 3 stars. It stands to reason, however, that without an interest in these kinds of personal histories, a reader might feel nothing more for Maus than thinking of it as “just another holocaust story”.