Most of us associate comics with superheroes or the Sunday funnies. We expect flashy graphics and simple dialogue. We expect to escape from reality in a fantasy world chock-full of buff action heroes and busty women or loveable cartoon animals.
But the Holocaust?
As a story about the Holocaust in comic form, Art Spiegelman’s Maus accomplishes the seemingly impossible. Maus tells the story of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, and his experience as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust. Running parallel to the story is the story of Spiegelman’s interactions with his father as he visits his father on numerous occasions to record his memories. All of the characters are represented as animals: the Jews are mice, the Germans are cats, the Americans are dogs, and so on. Within this seemingly simplistic framework, Maus confronts the terrifying reality of the Holocaust, the systematic genocide of millions and millions of Jews carried out by the Nazi regime during World War II.
Widely acclaimed, Maus received a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and was the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Part I, “My Father Bleeds History,” appeared in 1986, followed by Part II, “And Here My Troubles Began,” in 1991; both parts are now available in a single volume, The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale.
Maus is considered a representative work in second-generation Holocaust literature, literature about the Holocaust written from the perspective of the survivors’ children. As the critic Arlene Fish Wilner explains, “In the Jewish tradition, the transmission of familial and communal history from parent to child is a sacred obligation” (source). Inheriting and preserving their parents’ stories is a way for children to connect with their families’ pasts. This becomes especially important when you think about the fact that whole families were wiped out during the Holocaust.
Yet Maus also inherits the special problem that all Holocaust literature has to deal with when it tries to confront this historical catastrophe: How can any form of representation – literary, cinematic, visual – do justice to what happened in the Holocaust? Isn’t any representation going to fall short in the face of such horror?
Maus tackles this problem by using an unconventional medium: the comic. Spiegelman was a key figure in the underground comic scene, which emerged in the 1960s. Unlike mainstream comics with their superheroes, underground comics challenged all forms of authority and took a darkly ironic view of society.
Spiegelman exploits the comic form in Maus to unsettle the reader, playing with panel frames and arrangements and with his own animal motif to unsettle the reader’s expectations. Within the comic, Spiegelman reflects a lot on the making of Maus, inviting the reader to inhabit his creative process. In using a form of popular culture to talk about serious historical issues, and by reflecting on the form within the text itself, Maus is also considered a postmodern text.
Spiegelman once remarked, “In making Maus, I found myself drawing every panel, every figure, over and over – obsessively – so as to pare it down to an essence, as if each panel was an attempt to invent a new word, rough-hewn but stream-lined” (source). Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Maus is its excruciating honesty about the difficulties of capturing his father’s story, of capturing the Holocaust.
Imagine living in a world where you are persecuted for who you are. Everywhere you look – in the media, on the streets – you are being described as a vermin, a pest…a monster. You lose your job. You lose your home. People can attack you on the streets any time they want. You can’t go to the police; in fact the police are probably attacking you too. Why don’t you move? You’re under a curfew, and you need the state’s permission to go anywhere. Where would you go, anyway? It’s like this everywhere.
For many of us, it is difficult to imagine living in such a world. There are films about the Holocaust – very successful ones such as Schindler’s List and The Pianist. But there’s something so dramatic, so epic about the scope of these pictures that it actually makes the Holocaust seem like a distant thing – a bad dream. A horror story. Or worse, and this is a scary thought – it might even seem unreal.
This distance from the Holocaust is something that Art, in Maus, is totally aware of. It’s his starting point, as it is for many of his readers. How to bridge that distance, how to make a connection to his father’s experience in the Holocaust, how to represent his father’s experience as authentically and faithfully as possible – these are his constant preoccupations. Maus doesn’t give us an epic Hollywood tale, with forces of Good and Evil, heroes and villains. Maus puts us squarely in the real world, in the lives of ordinary people trying to deal with extraordinary, horrible, terrifying, but very real circumstances.