My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There are a lot of first-hand accounts of the Holocaust out there, and pretty much all of it—all of it that I’ve seen, anyway—has focused on the immediacy of the concentration camps. Not that they shouldn’t; it’s a horse that cannot be beaten to death until the planet stops having genocide or the more politically-challenged ‘ethnic cleansing,’ but it is not what makes ‘Maus’ really really stand out.
This story has two major narrative threads. The first and obvious one is the story of Spiegelman’s father’s years as a Polish Jew outrunning the Nazi regime—and it’s the running that caught me, the dominance of survival over all else, including comfort and safety and morals, even when it culminates tragically (as with Spiegelman’s mother). While the segment about Auschwitz includes some of the most iconic imagery of all, it’s not the majority. Most of the WWII narrative concerns the tightening noose around the Polish Jews.
The other big narrative is the present-day Artie Spiegelman recording sessions with his father, teasing out the story for the book he plans to make about it. The second half takes place after the first volume is out, which introduces a hint of meta. I’m pretty okay with meta in comics. I think this is because they’re expected to have narrators anyway, so it’s less weird. Also, he never directly addresses the reader. The questions I had came up naturally in the narrative…and the thing is, when you have a book like this that is as much about growing up the child of someone who went through something you could never begin to understand, you want to get inside their head. ‘Maus’ is an autobiography, too.
Anyway, the art is simple and thick. Obviously, they’re all represented by animals; there’s this nice bit in the second half where Spiegelman is trying to figure out what animal to make his (French) wife where the reader gets a chance to think about the animals he’s chosen throughout, and why. With these simple designs, the bold, messy strokes look awesome. Or awful, depending on what is happening. Line speed is more dominant than width variation…all by design. There’s a sampler of another work by him, something with much finer lines but with a similar sense of heaviness, which drives home the deliberation behind the art here.
For me, what makes this story exemplary is the characters. Spiegelman’s dad isn’t sympathetic at all. We learn that his behavior can’t just be dismissed with ‘Holocaust survivor’ early on; the way he treats other people, including other survivors, makes him hard to pity (and Spiegelman genuinely finds him frustrating, and isn’t shy about sharing his frustrations with the audience). Of course, some of those qualities are what kept him safe for a long time: being a good survivor and playing well with others can be mutually exclusive.
We know from the start that father-son never had a really good relationship, and trying to bridge that gap to tell this story is a compelling narrative in and of itself. Again, there is a ton of Holocaust literature out there—and this even comes up in the present-day narrative (thirty years dated, but who’s counting?)—but having the added layer of this distance, and trying to process the events while having never known anything but safety, made all the difference for me.
It’s a biography concerning a major historical event, but also about families, broken relationships, and all the things that people can relate to…told with an appealing, simplistic style that belies the seriousness until appropriate.