PRINT February 1987


Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale.

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, by Art Spiegelman. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986, 159 pp.

WHAT’S STRANGE ISN’T THAT Art Spiegelman’s Maus has received so much critical acclaim since its publication. Rather, it’s that the critics (with a few exceptions) seem so unprepared for the idea that a comic can convey so complex a narrative about a subject whose unaccountability has made it the most difficult ethical problem of the 20th century. Historians, psychoanalysts, artists, writers, filmmakers, and many others have all struggled with it. I am referring to the Holocaust.

The comic form always involves, to varying degrees, a combination of condensation and outline, leaving open how much we learn from what we see and what is implied, and how we choose to put together such representations. The mere idea of a comic about the Nazi horrors might at first seem appalling, for fear that the subject would be trivialized. But Spiegelman knows the potential power of comics, and how the form can be utilized to serve the highest moral values in the face of the enormity of the topic. The stark simplicity of the black and white, the openness of the undecorated lines and shapes and letters all work together to tell a story in a way that requires the active participation of the reader/viewer.

In the last chapter of the book, we see a sequence of panels in which Art, a cartoonist, shows his father Vladek and stepmother Mala early sketches for this book. Mala notes, “It’s an important book. People who don’t usually read such stories will be interested.”
“Yes,” Vladek reckons. “I don’t read ever such comics and even I am interested.”
“Of course you are interested,” snaps Mala. “It’s your story!”
“Yes,” confesses Vladek. “I know already my story by heart and even I am interested.”

This is just one of several self-referential, fictional/nonfictional framing devices that Spiegelman uses throughout Maus, in which Vladek, a Polish Jew, recounts his experiences from the mid ’30s to winter 1944, from his life as an upwardly mobile businessman to the gates of Auschwitz. (The six chapters in this volume appeared, in somewhat different form, in Raw magazine between 1980 and 1985; the story will continue in a second volume, which Spiegelman is currently working on.) Maus’ subtitle, A Survivor’s Tale, refers both to the character Art (the survivor of survivors) and to his father. As the book proceeds and we find out about Art’s nervous breakdown at the age of 20 and his mother Anja’s subsequent suicide, we learn that the parents’ experiences had a tremendous bearing on his own psychological development. Maus’ subsubtitle, “My Father Bleeds History,” pulls the narrative out of the private sphere and places it in the context of world history; the interplay between the two is what makes the book so real.

Perhaps the most prominent fictional device in Maus is Spiegelman’s depiction of all the characters as animals—Jews as mice, Nazis as cats, Poles as pigs, and Americans as dogs. Although this would seem to be a strategy to distance the reader from the brutal reality of the material and make it palatable, it paradoxically has the opposite effect, allowing the reader to experience the events that are unfolded here more fully. Spiegelman has revitalized the “funny animals” trope that has long been a mainstay of comic books and animation. (The funny-but-not-so-funny animal idea has also been worked over for years by countless underground comics.) The animal metaphor in Maus, although initially surprising, doesn’t shock. Spiegelman is only stating the obvious: as Vladek and his fellow Jews’ experiences in Nazi Europe bear witness, under bestial conditions almost everyone becomes an animal. Spiegelman’s use of animals to represent all the characters also ironically undermines Hitler’s vicious declaration—which serves as Maus’ epigraph—that “the Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.”

Having chosen his metaphor, Spiegelman proceeds to screw around with it profusely. These mice wear clothes and live like humans, yet they aren’t the cute rodents Walt Disney gave us, not those mice that, in retrospect, seem an animated equivalent of minstrel blackface and other “innocently” racist icons of America’s past. Neither does Spiegelman go in for simple Disney-style character identification. Vladek has become a cantankerous, unhappy old man who apparently learned little from his wartime experiences, while Mala is basically a miserable, unloved housekeeper. Art’s relationship to his father is depicted as ambivalent at best, and his own neurotic position becomes clear through his chain-smoking and through the book’s vertige de déplacement, “Prisoner on the Hell Planet.” This four-page segment, which Spiegelman has interpolated into the middle of the fifth chapter, briefly disrupts the book’s animal metaphor, for it is the only passage in which the characters are represented in human form.

Spiegelman drew “Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History” in 1972 and published it in Short Order Comix #1, a San Francisco underground comic book. The strip is about the way mental illness is passed in a family and concerns the suicide of Art’s mother, who killed herself shortly after Art was released from a mental hospital in 1968. Drawn in a complex Expressionist style recalling the woodcuts of Edvard Munch and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, in contrast to Maus’ willfully simpler lines, it depicts Art in the striped institutional uniform of the patient, convict, and concentration-camp victim. Working through his mother’s suicide, Art screams, “Congratulations! . . . You committed the perfect crime. . . . You put me here. . . . Shorted all my circuits. . .cut my nerve endings. . .and crossed my wires! . . . You murdered me, Mommy, and you left me here to take the rap!!!”

Most writers have referred to the “primal” and “infantile” qualities of Spiegelman’s use of the comics medium in Maus, as if his graphic sophistication and intellectual acuity weren’t the tools that carry along the work. Sadly, most of these literati are ignorant of the fact that the bande dessinée genre in America, France, Italy, and Japan has brought forth some remarkable social commentary during the past six years or so. To suggest just a few examples from major publishers as well as independent sources, there’s Frank Miller’s stylized transformation of Batman into the quintessential Jim Thompson-esque psychothug in the Dark Knight (DC Comics) miniseries; Harvey Pekar’s grassroots existentialism in American Splendor (Doubleday/Dolphin; individual issues published by Harvey Pekar); Gary Panter and Jay Cotton’s psychedelicized Saturday-morning horror show/scatfest in their xeroxed Pee Dog comics; Peter Bagge’s family tragedies in Neat Stuff (Fantagraphics); Los Bros. Hernandez’s science-fiction romances in Love and Rockets (Fantagraphics); Alan Moore’s superbly written Swamp Thing and Watchmen (both DC Comics); the rediscovery of Mad magazine’s early genius in the work of Bill Elder, Wallace Wood, and Harvey Kurtzman; and much, much more. As Spiegelman’s Maus clearly shows, comics is serious business these days. Hell, my local comics shop even stocks Pravda, and I’m sure there’s a reason why.

Richard Gehr is a freelance writer who lives in New York. He writes frequently about popular culture.