Maus is a serialized black and white comic strip published between 1980 and 1991 which depicts the strained relationship between the comic’s author, Art Spiegelman, and his father Vladek. Art tries to understand better his father who goes and tells his son about his life in Poland before the Nazi invasion and his following experiences in Auschwitz and Dachau before his liberation and eventual immigration to the US.
The characters in the book are anthropomorphic with the Jews being depicted as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, French as frogs, Americans as dogs and so on.
Originally, it came out in two books, the first one being A Survivor’s Tale, published in 1986 and containing the first 6 chapters. It deals mainly with Vladek’s life before the war and at the beginning of the occupation while the second book, And Here My Troubles Began, depicts Vladek’s life in the death camps and his subsequent liberation.
In 1992, the two books were published in a complete edition and the same year it won a Pulitzer Prize, the only comic book to do so until today.
Throughout the book, there are two intertwining timelines.
The first one at the end of the 70s, while Art questions his father about his past for preparation to write the book (changed to the later 80s in the second book), and the late 30s and early 40s when Vladek story proper is told.
The two tomes (especially the second one), go on full meta (when a tale is depicted in a self-aware and self-referential fashion), with Art explaining in the comics how he intends to write the actual comics we are reading.
At one point, Art asks Francoise (his French wife who converted to Judaism) if for the book he should depict her as a frog or as a mouse, since she converted.
In the second book he also talks about the success of the first one, A Survivor’s Tale, and how it influences him to go along with the story.
But the heart of the story is Vladek and Art Spiegelman holds no bar in depicting his father’s story as candidly and honestly as possible, showing all of Vladek’s strengths like his skills, wits and humor and negative traits as well (his racism for black people for example).
Vladek is obstinate, keeps things, even when they are worn out and become liabilities, is short tempered and suffers from variable health issues.
Traits that makes his relations with others not an easy thing, but his obstinate temper and economy have helped him in the past, especially in the camps. At one point he explains to Art that he is always afraid a new Holocaust could happen at any time so he’d rather be ready and not caught by surprise.
Vladek is no doubt a flawed man, but a survivor and as someone who witnessed firsthand Auschwitz and the killing of people by Zyklon B, his testimony, here in comic book form, becomes an invaluable historical relic.
And this is the main reason why I think Maus should be mandatory in every school.
There are countless works on that period, but almost none retelling a real story in the camps in comic book form.
This makes it more of an easy read, especially for a younger audience, and as depressing and oppressive as the subject is, Vladek’s outgoing personality and the humor he injects into his own story makes it a truly mesmerizing and fascinating experience.
Art Spiegelman was always uneasy with the term ‘graphic novel’, a description used by many critiques to describe Maus, and that for two reasons.
It is more a comic, like the ones found in newspapers, just at book length.
It is not a ‘novel’ (book of fiction) but a real story as he depicts faithfully his interviews with his dad as well as reports his dad’s story the way he was told.
The story is truly engaging, and that makes the darker and heavier aspects of the book, like the atrocities of the Nazis or the life in the camps, showed in all their horrible reality, more bearable to go through.
At the center of it there is the love story between Vladek and his first wife, Anja, and how he did everything to keep her safe, even sneaking to the women’s barracks in Auschwitz to make sure of her wellbeing.
Two main events had a lasting effect on Vladek, the death of his first born, Richieu, killed by his aunt along with her own children when she thought the Nazis were about to capture them.
The suicide of Anja in 1968 in which she didn’t leave a note but it’s safe to assume her past became overbearing for her.
Those events, along with the war, came to shape Vladek’s psyche and his relationship with his son Art, born after the couple arrived in the US.
Vladek would always remind Art that whatever his troubles or achievements are, they pale in comparison to what happened in Auschwitz and surviving it.
Mala, a survivor as well and Vladek’s second wife, also suffers from Vladek’s personality as he always makes sure to remind her that she is not Anja, so much so that at one point she is fed up with him and leaves.
Art Spiegelman has received some criticism for his depiction of his father, but my belief is that he felt the book could not be a faithful historical account and one to be taken seriously if he would sugarcoat his father’s traits.
Another aspect that did receive some critiques is the anthropomorphism, especially depicting Jews as mice which was pretty much what the Nazi propaganda had said during the time it was active.
Spiegelman did it so the reader could be more focused on the story rather than the individual and was confident one could know the different characters through the narrative.
He also chose to satirize the way the Germans themselves saw the Jews.
Some Polish people objected to their depiction as pigs and the way they are portrayed in the book, either as Nazi collaborators or as saviors with an ulterior motif.
With all its controversies, Maus still is a tremendous achievement and on every list of the most essential Graphic Novels one should read, among others like Watchmen by Alan Moore or The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller.
Teenagers who might be jarred by reading a book about the Holocaust might find a comic book (especially one with such a compelling story) much more accessible and the graphic depiction permits one to have the image of the life in the camps, as told by someone who was there and survived its hell.
This is no doubt an excellent way to initiate children to this important part of human history, one that should never be forgotten since it could too easily come back if people are ignorant of the past.
It’s equally part terrifying, depressing, mesmerizing, funny and historically enriching.
I suggest to every parent and every teacher who find it all important to educate the younger generation on the darkest chapter in human history to lobby to have Maus installed in the curriculum in schools so the story of Vladek can be retold and even though Art Spiegelman wondered at one point if it was fair to tell the story of people who were not there anymore (as Vladek died in 1982) and make money out of the Holocaust (he addresses as much in the second book), in the end, it is worth telling it.
Too many deniers try to poison the minds of children by claiming it never happened or Hitler was right (or that the Holocaust gives them a ‘calming feeling’).
These monsters who would gloat on a new Jewish genocide must be fought and the best way to do it is by spreading the story of those who lived through it and came out to tell the tale.