21 December 2007

Not your run of the mill comic book

Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History

Art Spiegelman
Pantheon, 1986

Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History
is at once the autobiographical tale of an American baby boomer trying to get to know his Holocaust-survivor father and of that father's experiences in and survival of the Holocaust. Spiegelman's audacity in attempting to use a "child's art form" to discuss one of history's greatest atrocities is matched only by the skill, both as a writer and a graphic artist, with which he accomplishes this goal. This groundbreaking graphic novel is definitely deserving of the accolades it has received.

In Maus, Spiegelman has demonstrated that comics and cartoons cannot be automatically relegated to the literary ghetto of the Sunday papers. This novel also proves true the old adage that pictures are worth thousands of words. Consider, for example, the cut-away view of the hidden bunker (p. 86) which graphically (in every sense of the term) shows the lengths to which Jews and other untermenschen had to go to hide from the Third Reich. Maus is successful not only in terms of its artwork, but also in terms of the stories that it tells. Spiegelman manages to show not only how the evils of the Holocaust unfolded and shaped his father, his late mother, and his new step-mother, but also how those same events shaped the relationship between Vladek Spiegelman and his son Art thirty years later.

At the risk of admitting my aesthetic thick-headedness, I still don't understand why Spiegelman chose to use animals instead of people in this work. Perhaps it is because, as some have suggested, seeing Nazis and Jews as animals allows the reader to drop the mind-stopping question of how humans could treat one another in such inconceivably barbarous ways. Perhaps the use of mice for Jews and cats for Nazis is an allusion to the old phrase about playing cat and mouse, or maybe it is a symbol of the Nazi perception of Jews as vermin. I tend to think Spiegelman's use of mice refers to his father's comment that maybe Artie will grow up to be like that famous cartoonist, "what's his name." After all, "what's his name" became famous through his cartoon mouse character, so why shouldn't Art Spiegelman? Whatever his reasons for the interesting choice to use animals as people, it works.

(This review was originally written on July 11, 2007.)

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