Hello loyal readers! This week my column is taking a more somber note as I review Maus by Art Spiegelman. Maus is a gripping tale of survival and the ties that bind the past to the present. I felt deeply moved by this work, which cannot be called a graphic novel since the subject matter is all true and feels very real, and thus I felt I’d share it with all of you.
Maus tells the tale of Vladek Speigelman from his roots in 1930s Poland until his death in 1980s America. The story is not told chronologically: it begins with Vladek’s son and author of the work, Art, going to visit his aging father in order to learn more about the Holocaust. Art hopes to find material to entice his readers, and finds more than he bargained for as Vladek weaves a tale of struggle and survival. Once a wealthy textile factory owner married to the daughter of a rich family, Vladek soon sees his fortunes turn sour as he is drafted into the Polish Army at the start of the Second World War. It isn’t long before Vladek becomes a prisoner of the Nazis and is sent to a forced labor camp. He eventually is freed, but this momentary peace is short-lived as the Germans enter his hometown of Sosnowiec and, eventually, capture Vladek and his family and take them to the horrid Auschwitz.
Running parallel to Vladek’s stories of horror and woe is that of a father and his son. Though Art feels sorry for what his father endured, Vladek’s mannerisms drive the young cartoonist insane and he has difficulty tolerating his father aside from listening to the elder’s history. Vladek has never lost his survival instincts from the concentration camp and thus is insufferably stingy and paranoid. He also bemoans Art for failing to visit and lacking skill with tools. Slowly, however, Art begins to come to terms with his father, and little by little the two develop an understanding.
The story in Maus is moving and powerful. It’s difficult to rate the plot, as it is all based on real events. I must say, however, that the way the story is told is excellent. The pacing is well-executed, and the author’s choice to cut between past and present at key moments leaves the reader on the edge of his or her seat. I often found myself desiring to see how Vladek escaped his next run in with the Nazis, becoming myself annoyed with the older Vladek for pausing the story to complain about something or going off on a tangent about Art’s shortcomings. The narrative moved me deeply, and I found myself simultaneously saddened and incensed at the atrocities committed by the Nazis, as well as the cowardly and hateful attitude of some of the Polish townspeople towards Vladek, his family, and friends. This is nothing I hadn’t heard from my history classes and other stories I’ve heard, but the way the account was presented made me feel Vladek’s pain, fear, and loathing.
The art found in Maus is original and paints the perfect picture of the horrors of Jewish life during Hitler’s reign. There is no color found within the pages of its volumes, the stark contrast of the black and white lending an eerie quality to the events depicted. This lack of color does much to imbue emotion and inspire fear, and a reader can’t help but feel as trapped and helpless as Vladek and his compatriots. Another key feature of the art is that the characters are depicted as humanoids with animal heads, with each animal corresponding to a specific ethnic group (Jews are mice, Germans are cats, Poles are pigs, French are frogs, etc.). Though one may think that this artistic choice would soften or inject humor into the events of Maus such a belief couldn’t be further from the truth. This division along ethnic lines helps reveal how disparate groups interacted with and treated one another during this trying time in human history. Had Spiegelman drawn all the characters as humans it would be more difficult to tell a Jew from a German; the artist truly wanted to show just how marked the Jews of Europe were and how difficult it was for them to escape from the Nazis. Spiegelman even cleverly depicts Vladek as a mouse wearing a pig mask when he attempts to blend into Polish society in order to hide from Nazi officers, an artistic choice that exemplifies the metaphorical masks some Jews dawned in order to survive the horrors of World War II. Ultimately, the quality of the art itself is not amazing, but the artistic choices themselves are commendable and I cannot think of any style more fitting for such a work.
Maus is a difficult read given the weight of its subject matter, but even so it is a story of triumph over adversity and the determination of one man to survive all odds. In the end, the tale is uplifting and gives hope, while simultaneously reminding the reader that even when a generation passes we cannot forget what they struggled and died for. Maus is not a work one reads lightly, and thus I would caution anyone who cannot handle heavy subject matter which, unlike most comics, is all fact and thus feels closer to home in the emotions it arouses. All in all, I’d say Maus is worth the buy, though be sure you can handle heavy subject matter before diving in.
Brett Simon is a twenty-one year old recent reconvert to the world of comics. He’d like to dedicate this week’s article to everyone who has ever suffered because of a war.
Also, I know it’s totally unrelated, but please check out last week’s poll if you haven’t already; every vote counts!