The most obvious tool of characterization in Maus is the use of animals to designate types of beings. The Jews are mice, the Germans are cats, the Americans are dogs, and so forth. We might be tempted to transpose the characteristics of these animals onto the people themselves: the German cats are vicious predators who prey on the Jewish mice, while the American dogs free the Jewish mice by defeating the German cats.
The novel, however, plays with our expectations, giving us some nice cats and evil mice, mice that wear pig masks and human beings wearing animal masks. By giving us the full array of human behaviors in apparently simple animal forms, the novel challenges simplistic accounts of the war and the Holocaust as a confrontation between good and evil. Instead, Maus makes us ask hard questions about how human beings, regardless of race or nationality, have the capacity for both heroism and violence.
Maus is a graphic novel so most of the language of the book is in dialogue. Thus speech and dialogue are the primary verbal forms of representing characters in the text. The novel pays particular attention to the way that language helps the characters navigate their world. For Vladek, his skill with different languages – Yiddish, Polish, German, French, and English – gives him an edge over his captors and the other prisoners that is critical to his survival. Language is also the medium by which Vladek transmits his memories to his son. The interaction between Vladek’s imperfect English and Art’s fluent English gives us some sense of the difficulty of translating Vladek’s experience onto the page.
The Maus CD-Rom gives us a fascinating look into how Art translated his father’s words from tape to page. Here is a snippet from the original tape recording of his father’s words:
In spite of it, it came out everything, because, because everything what I have seen, I was an eyewitness and everything, I knew before, but I didn’t see it, but I knew also talking about it.
And here is how Spiegelman rendered the same words in Maus:
I have heard much about it but now I have seen everything. I am telling you only this what I have seen, what I went through. Not this what people were talking, rumors and things. (II.2.37)
Spiegelman’s version of his father’s words captures much of the sense of his father’s words without regularizing his father’s syntax too much. By providing us the transcripts of his father’s words in Maus, Spiegelman lets his readers come to their own conclusions about how Maus works as a vessel for Holocaust testimony.
Maus is a graphic novel, so we get a lot of its action in pictures instead of words. It treads a fine line between depicting things realistically and sensationalizing the violence. It is a comic after all, and a whole lot of comic art shows cartoonish exaggeration of violence on the page. The contrast between the images of Maus and the images from “Prisoner on Hell Planet,” a Spiegelman comic that Spiegelman includes in Maus, helps us understand how he is able to be realistic without trivializing the violence. “Prisoner on Hell Planet” uses human figures and extreme lines and angles to tell its story, and Maus seems oddly spare by comparison. The characters’ actions also provide important keys into their personalities. Vladek’s obsessive habits give us a window into the psychological effects of his concentration camp experience. And the images of Art at his drafting table take the reader into the process of artistic creation.