Art Spiegelman’s Maus is one of the most lauded comic book works in history and even won a Pulitzer Prize in a specially created category. The first volume of this graphic tale of Holocaust survival was first published in 1986 and was one of what comics critic Roger Sabin terms ‘the big 3’ along with Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen (1987). The big 3 broke through from the comic shops to the mainstream media and encouraged many of headlines declare comics that had grown up. This was regardless of the fact that Spiegelman’s Maus emerged from a decades old comics counter culture that tackled everyday life and politics with brutal honesty and often biting satire.
The first thing you’ll notice about Maus is that the characters are all drawn as animals. Jews are portrayed as mice, chased after, captured, tortured and murdered by Germans in the guise of cats. It depicts the experiences of Spiegelman’s father through the Second World War, from fighting in the Polish army against the invading Germans, to his attempts, along with his family, to evade Nazi capture, and eventually his incarceration in Auschwitz. It goes beyond memoir or biography by showing Spiegelman’s efforts to retrieve material from Vladek, his father, and also his own psychological burdens as a child of survivors.
Spiegelman’s well researched, historical document presented a new way of reading the Holocaust. Through Maus he strives to give history a human dimension, at times in conflict with his father’s wishes. After Vladek recounts details of how he met Artie’s mother he insists that they should not be included in the book: ‘It has nothing to do with Hitler, with the Holocaust!’ Artie disagrees, recognising that: ‘It makes everything more real – more human.’ Vladek declares that to add such detail would be improper and not ‘respectful’. He makes Artie promise not to include it. The inclusion of this sequence reinforces Vladek’s human dimension. Maus is far from a sentimentalised version of the Holocaust, the animal imagery offers a surface cuteness that wraps a tale of cruelty and events so traumatic that they pass from one generation to the next. Spiegelman refuses to portray his father as the perfect, pious survivor and, although he is drawn as a mouse, we are offered a fleshed-out human being, vain, short tempered, and obsessively frugal. He is also quick-witted, intelligent and loving, in spite of the strained relationships he has with his son and his daughter-in-law.
Vladek Spiegelman emerges from the crowd of Holocaust victims from behind the wire. His voice is picked from the millions who suffered and the minority that survived, to speak out, not for everyone, but for himself to show that Nazis’ program of extermination affected individuals, people with families, lives, and dreams beyond the archive footage that we have inherited from the cameras of the liberators.
While promoting Maus in Germany Spiegelman was asked whether he thought it was in bad taste to have done a comic book about the holocaust. Spiegelman replied ‘No, I think the Holocaust was in bad taste’. Spiegelman has created a work of art and terrifying wonder. We are drawn to peer into the wound of Europe’s shameful past and become witnesses to the horror, its memory refreshed so that we can say once more ‘never again’ and hopefully mean it this time.
Further reading: Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers shows the aftermath of the World Trade Center Attacks in 2001. Joe Sacco’s comics journalism about Israel/Palestine, such as Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza and also his books on the former Yugoslavia including Safe Area Gorazde and War’s End.