Comics 101: Maus by Art Spigelman

As I said in my first post, Maus was my first real foray into graphic novels/comics. I read it as part of a book club for a summer program I went to, except I never actually went to the book group! (Whoops!) I do have a shot for redemption as the book club I’m currently going to chose Maus for their June meeting. Enough about bad book club behavior, let’s dive in.

What’s it about?

 

Maus tells the story of Art Spiegelman’s father Vladek, who grew up and lived the first part of his life in Poland. Until the Nazi invasion, Vladek lived a fairly normal life, marrying Art’s mother Anja in February 1937. Vladek and Anja fought their best to evade the Nazis until they were sent to Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps in 1944. Vladek details life in the camps, how sheer luck and his ability to speak English saved both his and Anja’s lives, and their eventual escape. Maus cuts back in forth in time from the 1980s when Art is interviewing his father to the events of Vladek and Anja’s lives during the 1930s and 40s. Maus is not only about Art’s parents’ experiences during the Holocaust, but about Art’s relationship to them both; Vladek, his aged father who he frequently butts head with, and Anja, his mother, who committed suicide in 1968. Maus is a powerful, sobering read that will likely never lose its timelessness.

Who wrote it?

Art Spiegelman is one of the most influential comics creators of our generation. Alongside fellow comics creator and publisher Françoise Mouly who is also his wife, Spiegelman founded Raw magazine. Raw gave voice to the independent comics movement in the 1980s, publishing comic greats like Linda Barry, Charles Burns,  R. Crumb, Richard MacGuire, Alan Moore, and Chris Ware, among many others. Maus first appeared in Raw’s pages beginning in December 1980. The first volume, My Father Bleeds History was collected and published in 1986, and Volume 2, And Here My Troubles Began was published in 1991. Maus has received wide acclaim, receiving the Eisner Award and Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and is frequently taught in high schools and universities.

Why should I read it?

Maus is a story with many layers, one that benefits from a reread, but for the sake of brevity (and also to encourage you to read it for yourself), I’m going to focus on two: artistic representation and parental relationships.

One of the most discussed features of Maus is how Spiegelman chooses to draw his characters. Every character is drawn as an anthropomorphized animal, with Jews being drawn as mice, the Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, and Americans as dogs. In the companion work MetaMaus, Art explains why he chose mice, drawing inspiration from the racist posters during World War II that portrayed Jews as rats, and also reference a classic cat and mouse chase. This convention is most effective when Spiegelman draws attention to it. Anja and Vladek have to pose as Poles at different times during the story, pig masks covering their mouse faces. In the beginning of And Here My Troubles Began, Art wears a mouse mask over his human face as he talks about the difficulties of trying to draw Auschwitz and struggling with the success of the first volume. This convention made me think of the variety of “masks” that each of us wear, either to fit into society or for self-preservation.

Maus is also a story of a son’s relationship to his parents. It is clear that Art loves and cares about his parents, but Vladek is not an easy person to get along with, and Art is haunted by his mother’s suicide. Vladek is miserly and difficult, with a short temper and rules that seem arbitrary at times. He returns half-eaten groceries to the store, and when Art’s wife Françoise picks up a black hitchhiker, Vladek responds with casual racism. Vladek is not portrayed as a superhero, but as a man who lived through tremendous horrors. Without the parent/child dynamic, Maus would not exist as such a powerful read. Art could have removed himself from the narrative and just presented a biography of his parents, but I doubt that the humanity of Vladek and Anja would come across as clearly.

Any Readalikes?

If the highly personal narrative of Maus is what you find most appealing, there is no shortage of great biographical and autobiographical comics available. One book that draws frequent comparisons to Maus is Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which details her life in Iran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. If you want more explorations of child/parent relationships, Fun Home and Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel, Stitches by David Small, and Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? By Roz Chast are all great choices.  If you want a deeper dive into the world of Maus and get answers to some possible lingering questions, I highly recommend MetaMaus, a 2011 companion piece to Maus. Spiegelman dives into his artistic and editorial choices, and there are the transcripts of his interviews with Vladek, as well as information about Maus’ long lasting impact.

 

 

Elizabeth Weislak is an avid reader and lover of comics, working as a youth services librarian in North Carolina.

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