When I was doing my degree, we had a module called Popular Culture and part of this was formed of graphic novels. Maus by Art Spiegelman was not required reading but as it was the first (and only) graphic novel to win a prestigious Pulitzer Prize, it was highly recommended. So it’s a bit embarrassing that it’s only now that I have read it.
Published in 1991, it is the serialisation of Spiegelman’s comic strips dating from 1980 to 1991. The story is of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek’s experience as a Polish Jew during the Second World War. The narrative is split between Spiegelman’s life and Vladek’s story as he is recounting it to his son for his work. This is interesting as it means the book is very meta – it’s referred to constantly, even depicting a conversation Spiegelman has with his wife were they debate what animal she should be depicted as.
The animal depictions are somewhat controversial as Spiegelman re-appropriates propaganda and racial caricatures – Nazi’s as cats chasing the Jewish ‘vermin’ mice, the French as frogs, Poles as pigs etc. In graphic novel form this clearly shows the absurdity of the way people are labelled, categorised and segregated, and how these labels can remain, even out of war-time.
The illustrative style is a stark monochrome. It largely allows the story to be told by text, but the bold visual style allows for flexibility in the storytelling. It can be literal (as much as the animal characterisation will allow) or abstract.
What is quite surprising about the book is the honesty in which Spiegelman depicts his father. He is an elderly man, a holocaust survivor, a widower, transplanted to the US as he could never face returning to Poland, but Spiegelman does not allow sentimentality to cloud the story. At times, he is harsh, getting frustrated, even irritated or bored by his father. However, even in recounting the horrors of Auschwitz, Vladek himself asks for no sympathy – he is telling his story focussing on the practicality and resourcefulness that got him through. It is only when he is transferred to Dachau that we begin to see Vladek’s spirit breaking with the immortal line “And here my troubles began”.
Maus is a devastatingly powerful book. It is a key text in Holocaust literature and a deeply important book. And, it shows what a graphic novel can do. Even if you never read another graphic novel again, Maus should be on your must-read list.