Let’s throw an idea out there.
Art isn’t a character.
How can the author not be a character in a book that draws on his own life, you ask? We’re not suggesting that Art Spiegelman doesn’t exist. But just for kicks, let’s play around with the idea that Maus is about a character called Art who is looking for… something. A self. An identity. A voice.
In the opening scene, we get a flashback to Art’s childhood. He’s eleven. He trips and falls. His friends abandon him. He goes to his father for comfort. What does his father say?
“If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week… then you could see what it is, friends.” (I.vi)
Eleven-year-old Art – or Artie, as his father calls him, even as an adult – doesn’t get a kiss on his boo-boo and a lollipop. He grows up in the shadow of the Holocaust, in the shadow of his parents’ survival of the Holocaust, in the shadow of his “ghost brother” (II.1.5), Richieu. Art cannot share their experience, or identify with them; he will never live through a Holocaust. He doesn’t have access to the defining experience of his parents’ lives.
This leads to a kind of guilt on Art’s part – guilt for being the fortunate son, the one who grows up in security and comfort, the one who grows up at all. At the same time, Art fantasizes about being in the Holocaust with his parents, there’s resentment as well. Both Vladek and Anja in their own way have emotional and psychological scars that must affect their relationship with Art. At the same time Art can acknowledge and understand these scars, on some level he resents having to deal with them.
Witness “Prisoner on Hell Planet,” a comic Spiegelman includes in Maus. In the comic, produced shortly after his mother’s suicide, Art can hardly stand his father’s overwhelming grief. In the last panel, he accuses his mother of murder and of letting him take the blame. She timed her suicide so that he would find her and save her, but he arrived too late. Even though she killed herself, he feels responsible for not saving her.
Within Maus, the heart of the story belongs to Vladek and his memories. Art takes a back seat; the only scenes we see with Art are in scenes that frame Art’s recording sessions with Vladek. The novel only departs from this structure when Art steps in to reflect at length on the difficult artistic choices he had to make in producing his father’s tale in Part II. We see Art at his drafting table, in long conversations with his wife and his therapist. Art seems most present in the novel as a painfully self-conscious artist, rather than a character.
And certainly not as the kind of heroic character that emerges in Vladek’s self-portrayal. Indeed, Art admits that he partly became an artist because it was an area where he wouldn’t have to compete with his father. But as the artist representing his father’s words, Art is well aware of the danger that he may end up taking over his father’s story and make it his own, competing with his father in art in a way he wouldn’t be able to do in life.
All of which makes the last panels so poignant. We get Vladek and Anja’s tombstone, with the date of their deaths. Below it, Art Spiegelman’s signature and the dates of composition – thirteen years of composition, the time it takes a Jewish boy to reach his bar mitzvah.
None of these dates coincide.