The Complete Maus
Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Maus, begins with two striking elements: the first, a short vignette, depicts an incident from Spiegelman’s childhood. He has fallen off his roller-skates and has been left behind by his friends; the child runs to his father who dismisses the young Spiegelman’s notions of friendship thus: “Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week then you could see what it is, friends!” [p. 6]. The introduction baptises the reader into the father/son relationship, one is a boy, one a man, and the younger cannot know what the elder knows—he cannot be a part of his history. The second element is a quote from Adolf Hitler: “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.” Spiegelman responds to this quote in two ways: ironically, he turns his characters into animals—nobody is “human” here— yet, poignantly, he reveals that this appearance is but a mask that hides humanity. These two beginnings form the two strains that are developed throughout the text; furthermore, as both Art and Vladek Spiegelman are characters in the text, these two strands pose the question: whose story is it anyway—between the art/Art and the artist (all carrying the burden of family history), who becomes the subject, and why? Who is the survivor? The father or the son? The text addresses the issue of the holocaust, and seeks to explore questions such as: who survived, why did they survive, and are they still whole? Spiegelman’s text is a determined exploration of his father, his father’s character, his father’s concerns, his biography and his history. However, Art finds his father’s physical reality in the present just as difficult to decipher, and their relationship is tense and fraught.
Packaged as a memoir (although often classified as “fiction”), Maus enters the sometimes conflicting territories of biography, autobiography, memory and history. It deals with Spiegelman’s relationship with his father, and with his father’s relationship to history—Vladek Spiegelman is a Polish Jew, a holocaust survivor. In attempting to tell Vladek’s story, Spiegelman depicts himself groping towards an acceptance of both his father, and his father’s experiences. Indeed, this is very much the re-telling of his/story (although, again, whose?—the father’s or the son’s?). The graphic novel depicts a series of tape-recorded conversations between Spiegelman and his father. These conversations are represented as flashbacks narrated by Vladek, and these sections of the text are filtered through Vladek’s memory as his health grows worse. Vladek paints a world within which survival is dictated by cunning and luck, fear is the overarching emotion, and a steady sense of claustrophobia and crowding grows. The tangle of bodies created by the close proximity of the hiding families trapped in their “mouse holes” and the cramped prisoners at Auschwitz is ironically reversed in the distance between the father and the son; although there are moments of quiet tenderness, Spiegelman finds it difficult to cope with his father and does not share his values or beliefs. Spiegelman’s mother Anja, who committed suicide, is seen only through Vladek and Spiegelman’s eyes—it is revealed that she wrote the story of “her” holocaust in a series of diaries which, while grieving, Vladek burned. As men and women were separated in the camps, the story of Anja’s war is forever lost.
Spiegelman works within the comics genre, and from this position manipulates its conventions and popular image. Firstly, in parts of the world (certainly not everywhere, I am thinking specifically of Japan) we have the idea that comics are solely for children, dysfunctional male adolescents or socially retarded “collectors,” and—in spite of the work of many comics creators such as Robert Crumb, Roberta Gregory, Dan Clowes, Julie Doucet, Dave Sim, Alan Moore, Jamie & Gilbert Hernandez, and Chris Ware (among many, many others)—to our Disney-saturated minds, what could be more childlike than a comic depicting the fortunes of a group of talking animals? Indeed, the overarching metaphor Spiegelman invokes casts all Jewish characters (regardless of nationality) as mice, the Germans as cats, the Poles as pigs, the Americans as dogs, the French as frogs and the Swedes as deer. This metaphor allows Spiegelman to invoke the terror of a cat-and-mouse game of hide-and-seek between the Nazis and their Jewish “prey,” it also allows Spiegelman to pun in his chapter titles; for example: Book 1 Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, chapter 5 “Mouse Holes,” and chapter 6 “Mouse Trap.” The metaphor becomes problematic when one considers that by casting different nationalities and religions as different species Spiegelman invokes ideas of inherent difference. However, Spiegelman has included himself as a character within the text, and through his musing monologues has direct access to the reader—creator to audience. He jokes about problems with the metaphor (asking if the inclusion of pets blows the intricately constructed metaphorical house of cards over) and, in many cases, he pre-empts the reader’s questions, and thereby deflects criticism. The weighty subject matter also moves the text away from the “childish” label. Indeed, within Maus, Spiegelman includes sections of earlier work dealing with the loss of his mother. This section, “Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History,” is highly expressionistic, with sections referencing Edward Munch’s The Scream. As well as revealing that the issues dealt with in Maus have reverberated throughout his work (raising issues of the cathartic and the confessional), the piece (contained, as it is, on pages 102-105) serves another purpose: it is a stark remainder to the reader that the art is symbolic, it needs to be "read" as much as the text does.
The narrative wraps itself around issues of memory, family, tragedy, loss, survival, and guilt and its physical manifestations. Spiegelman himself carries survivor’s guilt, and does not attempt to portray himself as always sympathetic; indeed, he depicts himself betraying his father’s requests: such as when Vladek tells him about his first girlfriend and asks him not to include it in the narrative. However, Spiegelman is careful to note at the end of the text that his father died before the publication of the text—another familial loss. In this respect, the text assesses the extent of the impact the dead have on the living. Anja and Vladek lost their parents, families, home and their first born son, Richieu. Vladek has remarried another holocaust survivor, and the couple remain tied together even though they do not get on. Richieu remains a shadowy figure in Spiegelman’s life—static competition. A reminder of this occurs as Vladek’s health worsens, and he has less energy to talk with Art. In the last panel before going to sleep (the last time the reader sees Vladek) he says “I’m tired from talking, Richieu, and its enough stories for now” [p. 296]. The reader is taken the full circle of exclusion: from the opening vignette where Vladek made it clear Art couldn’t possibly understand, to the main body where he desperately tried, to the end, where the ill Vladek speaks to his dead son, not his living one. In choosing to end the text with this panel, Spiegelman creates the feeling that although through the re-telling of history (the holocaust) he has been narrating his story (his own) he has in actuality been excluded from his/story (his father’s). It is this sense of tragedy and loss echoing and reverberating through the generations that makes Spiegelman’s text so powerful, moving, educational (in the best possible way), and extremely effecting.