Between 1980 and 1991, the comic anthology magazine Raw serially published a piece of work titled Maus. Soon after it was released in its entirety as a graphic novel, and in 1992, Maus by Art Spiegelman (the joint editor of Raw at the time) became the first graphic novel to receive the Pulitzer Prize. Spiegelman was born not long after the end of Second World War, in 1948, to his Polish Jewish parents Vladek and Anja, survivors of the Second World War and the Holocaust, the genocide of over six million Jews by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. The family emigrated to the US in 1951, where Spiegelman grew up with a keen interest in comics, eventually becoming a cartoonist. His mother committed suicide in his teenage years and his relationship with his father was strained, to put it mildly.
Maus will go down as one of the most important graphic novels of all time. With its delicate subject matter it manages to inject raw emotion, sensitivity, love and humour into one of the most horrific and despicable events in the history of mankind. Spiegelman depicts the Jews as mice, and the Nazis as cats, and the cartoon-ism the animals give the story highlights the unreal situation millions of Jews found themselves in. For the most part the book covers two narratives; the first, scenes in New York focusing on the relationship between Spiegelman and his estranged father Vladek, and the second, Vladek’s tales and recollections from Poland during the war, including attempts to evade and hide from the Nazis, their inevitable capture and subsequent incarceration in Auschwitz, and finally their eventual escape.
The art style of Maus is simple and high contrast, with little more than black and white being used in the panels. This can give a feeling of heaviness, of weight. Sometimes, when the dialogue is squeezed into frames, things get a little claustrophobic. Other frames have no text at all, leaving the images to do the talking. Both are done with purpose and for maximum emotional effect.
While Maus makes some references to the ‘bigger picture’ of events in Poland, Germany and the rest of Europe, for the most part it is a tale of Vladek and his own experience and survival. Running in parallel to this are scenes with Spiegelman and his now elderly father Vladek, as he shares his memories for Spiegelman to record in an attempt to write Maus. We also meet characters like Vladek’s second wife Mala (Vladek’s wife during the War, and Art’s mother, committed suicide in 1968) and Spiegelman’s wife Françoise. These scenes are incredibly deeply moving and personal when intersected with Vladek’s recollections of the treatment of the Jews. Spiegelman’s relationship with his father is complex, with Vladek is often painted in a negative light: his reluctance to part with his money, his racist views and a constant and unfair comparison of Mala to his deceased wife Anja. His miserly and stubborn traits, while being key to his survival in the camps, are what annoy Art decades later. But overall there is love and respect between the two, even if their father-son relationship is not an orthodox one (but when one has been through what Vladek went through, how can there be?)
There are also touching moments where an older Spiegelman, working on the later Maus comics presumably after his fathers death, is weighed down by guilt after the success of the first issues. A poignant frame shows a depressed Spiegelman working away on top of a pile of dead Jews. How can his problems possibly compare to what Vladek had to endure? It was around this time that I had to put the book down for a few days. It should go without saying, but Maus isn’t an easy read.
In the final few pages Spiegelman includes a polaroid of Vladek. It genuinely affected me – not just the jarring contrast between illustration and photograph, but the reminder that this was a real man, not a cartoon mouse, that faced and survived these unbelievable ordeals.
Maus is a difficult piece of work to define. Part biography, part memoir, part historical non-fiction. In truth it doesn’t require such labels. In bridging the gap between history, art and story-telling, Maus is one of the most important pieces of literature of the last century. It remains vital that such atrocities are never repeated, and while the inherent violence of the world continues, hate should never be allowed to prosper as it did during one of the darkest periods of human history.