Comic Book Review: Maus (1992)

Some kids were screaming and screaming. They couldn't stop. So the Germans swinged them by the legs against a wall... and they never anymore screamed.

Maus (1992)

Collects Maus parts I and II. Writer and Artist: Art Spiegelman. Published by Pantheon Books in 1992.

Time for me to fess up. Even though I’ve been a comic book reader for probably 18 years now, until recently, I had never read what many consider to be the finest work in the history of the medium: Art Spiegelman‘s Maus. Winner of a 1992 Pulitzer Prize Special Award (the only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer), Maus is Spiegelman’s re-telling of his father Vladek’s story as a Holocaust survivor. Simultaneously, it is also an autobiographical tale of Art’s attempt to understand his father and the strained nature of their relationship as Vladek recounts the tale to him. To portray the Holocaust, Spiegelman portrays Jews as anthropomorphic mice (“maus” is German for “mouse”) and Nazis as cats (other symbolism includes Poles as pigs, French as frogs, and Americans as dogs).

I’ve been told many times that Maus is a great work, an important work, one that I should read. I figured this to be true, but I still put it off. I downloaded it a year ago, and still never read it. I guess it’s hard to motivate yourself to do some Holocaust reading.

The other part of it is that people speak too often about it in reverent tones, considering it to be an “important” graphic novel, far superior to those silly superhero comics that get all the attention. The thing is, I LIKE those silly superhero comics. I don’t need comic books to be more important and artistic than they are, because I’m secure in who I am and don’t require approval from those who look down upon them as a form of entertainment, mostly because I know those that look down upon comics don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

But, when a non-comic book reading friend of mine had the collected edition of the two graphic novels that make up Maus (part one, “My Father Bleeds History” and part two, “And Here My Troubles Began”), I figured it time to finally give it a shot. Having done so, my suspicions about the book were confirmed: it is an excellent and important piece of literature. A profound work of art that deserves to be celebrated as one of the best in the history of the medium. In all the years I wasn’t reading it, I never doubted that to be true.

What I think gets missed when people are giving it its due praise, studying it in literature classes, and talking about its many awards is that it is a truly gripping story. Along with being moving, haunting, and brilliant, Maus is an involving tale, a real page-turner that brings the reader into both the harrowing tales of Vladek and Anja (Art’s mother, also a survivor) Spiegelman’s attempts to avoid capture by the Nazis and subsequent fight for survival inside Auschwitz-Birkenau, and also into the lives of modern-day Vladek and Art as they deal with one another and their pent-up family issues. So if you’re like me, and had been avoiding reading Maus because it seemed too weighty and possibly pretentious, then I’d suggest you read it not because it is important, but because it is entertaining too.

The great thing about Maus is that its subject matter and style seem to transcend the world of comics at first glance, until you read it and realise that it could only work as graphic literature. It certainly isn’t a typical comic book, but it’s still a perfect example of why sequential art is a perfectly valid storytelling medium, capable of things that other mediums are not. Spiegelman’s visual metaphor of using anthropomorphic animals to deconstruct perceptions of race wouldn’t work in any other medium. To be clear, this isn’t Animal Farm, with animals behaving both like animals and humans (to varying degrees). The Jews look like mice (well, humanoid-mice), but act like people. The visuals of mice and cats are pretty powerful at times (a credit to Spiegelman’s talents as an illustrator), a touch that would be lost in a traditional book (that, and the uniqueness of the story would be completely lost as a book, since there’s been countless books on the subject already). It wouldn’t work at all as a live action movie, and a cartoon would just be awkward (especially when the book becomes meta in the second act, examining how the response to the first book is affecting the second). The art expressively fills in that which goes unsaid, with the economy of language necessitated by the form keeping the book personal. There’s no need for narration, or an attempt at explaining the unexplainable. The words and art work in symphony to provide everything the story needs.

It is truly a hallmark in the world of comic books, but more than that, it is a compelling work of literature, no matter the medium. A deeply personal work, the book draws the reader in to the lives of the people involved, giving us a fresh perspective an event that everyone knows about, but few of us can truly understand. Maus will not make you understand the Holocaust, nor does it try. It’s too big. But it will help you understand an element of it, as much as understanding is a possible outcome from such senselessness. It’s as powerful as it is entertaining, a work that will stay with you long after you put it down.


Related Reviews:
Schindler’s List (1993)
Sometimes in April (2005)
Y the Last Man – “Unmanned”

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