Finally! Finally one of the High Holys of the graphic novel realm held up to the hype. After abandoning Watchmen and being disappointed by Sandman, I approached Maus with a bit of trepidation. Could it live up to the hype?
I’ve read Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel. I’ve seen “Schindler’s List,” “Life is Beautiful,” and “The Pianist.” And yet, Maus framed the Holocaust and the people who survived it in a way that was brand new to me.
Art Spiegelman grew up the child of two Holocaust survivors. Once he reached his thirties, Spiegelman decided to record his dad’s experiences during WWII and hoped to learn more about his mom, who killed herself when Spiegelman was twenty-one. He turned the process of recording those conversations with his dad, and his dad’s stories into Maus.
The scenes and stories about the Holocaust are as horrifying, heartbreaking, and mind-blowing as any of the stories told about that time. But what elevates Spiegelman’s book to something new is not the re-telling of his family’s experiences, but rather framing that story within the context of the father-son relationship.
The first of the two books opens with Art having some sort of falling out with some friends and whining about it to his dad. Vladek, Art’s dad, says something to the effect of, “wait until you don’t eat for two weeks and then see who your friends are.”
Wow. Right from the first scene, Spiegelman sets up a Holocaust story unlike any other. Before reading Maus, I never gave any thought to what it would be like growing up the child of a survivor. Or, really, much thought to what it would be like as a survivor in the US. So much is focused on the horror of the Holocaust that not much attention is paid to what happened afterward.
Plus, we have a tendency to deify Holocaust survivors (or survivors of any horrendous tragedy). We forget that even with all that suffering, they are still regular people with the same vices, prejudices, and problems as everybody else. Vladek is not a saint, in fact he comes off as the quintessential Jewish stereotype. . . meddling, cheap, martyr-like. These “Jewish” behaviors bother Art and in the book he discusses the problems he has painting a portrait of his father that doesn’t reinforce that stereotype even though that’s how his father really is. Plus, to make things even worse, Vladek’s a racist — something you wouldn’t expect from someone who was nearly exterminated because of his race (is being Jewish considered a race? I’m not even sure).
Seeing the interaction between Art and Vladek as adults makes you see how hard it would be to grow up the child of a Holocaust survivor. Sure the tragedies of teendom in America pale in comparision, to you know, facing extermination, but still. . . how do you rebel against someone who watched their friends and family die? How do you vent about your teenage angst bullshit to someone whose first son, your brother, was killed as a toddler by a loved one rather than sent to a concentration camp? How do you live in the shadow of that brother?
How do you find meaning in your own life when growing up with all that?
Somehow Speigelman does, and it’s amazing. Amazing! There aren’t enough words to convey what an awesome experience reading Maus was. It’s the kind of book you want everyone to read because you want to talk about all it’s little nuances with someone.
Also, one more thing, because I have to mention it, not doing so would be wrong. Much has been made about Spiegelman drawing the different nationalities and ethnicities as different animals (Poles as pigs, Jews as mice, Germans as cats), and while it adds depth to the story I will leave it to the High School English teachers to suck the living symbolism out of it.