Today I would like to talk to you about one of the most compelling graphic novel that was ever written (and drawn, obviously!): Maus, by Art Spiegelman. This graphic novel has been widely acclaimed and considered as a masterpiece since its first volume was released in 1986 (The Complete Maus, combining the two volumes, was published in 1996 in the United States). Therefore, there are big chances that you have already read this graphic novel, especially if you are a bit into graphic novels. But if you haven’t read it yet, I really really hope that this article will convince you to do so.
Maus, it is two stories in one graphic novel: first, it is the story of Artie, an artist who draws graphic novels and who is working on a new graphic novel telling the story of his father, Vladek Spiegelman. This story is set in New York in the 1980s. It is also (and above all) the story that Artie is working on, the story of Vladek Spiegelman and his wife during World War II. This graphic novel is autobiographical.
Art Spiegelman’s father was a Polish Jew who was running a textile factory in Sosnowiec before the Second World War. He had married Anja, a young girl from a very wealthy Jewish family from Sosnowiec, a few years before the beginning of the war. In 1937, their first son was born – Richieu, Art Spiegelman’s “big” brother, who died before the author was born. Then, the war broke up and everything changed.
I don’t want to give too much away, because Vladek and Anja’s story is of course full of twists, especially in the first part of the book, My father bleeds history. In this part, the Spiegelman family struggles to stay alive as the first years of the war go on, Poland gets under the Nazi yoke and Polish Jews are more and more under threat. In the 2nd part of the book, entitled And here my trouble began, Vladek is deported to Auschwitz I and Anja to Auschwitz II Birkenau, the neighbour’s concentration camp for women. After spending several months in Auschwitz and as the end of the war gets closer, Vladek is sent to the concentration camp of Dachau.
That is for the general plot. The two parts of the book are strewed with long passages taking place in the time of Maus’s creation, in which Artie frequently visits his father and asks him to tell him his story and that of his mother. This alternation of past and present tense is quite interesting, as it strongly highlights the consequences of the Holocaust on Vladek and how it affects his relationship with others, and especially with his own son. In these passages, I was quite surprised, moved but also disturbed by the bitterness with which the author describes his father’s personality and behaviour as a father. A lot of reproaches underlies Art and Vladek’s relationship. You can clearly feel that Auschwitz did not only kill a part of Vladek: it also deeply affected Art, giving him this frustrating and long-lasting feeling to be competing with a ghost brother who will always get more love from their parents. Another big issue that the author has to deal with is the suicide of his mother, who killed herself while he was in his early twenties.
This is a very deep graphic novels that doesn’t only deal with historical facts but also with various topics and especially the relationship that one has with one another. There are several layers of reading in this graphic novel, and I believe that it is worth reading it again and again. Another particularity of Maus lies in the way the author drew its characters. Human beings are pictured as anthropomorphous animals according to their nationality or religion: Jews are mice, Germans are cats and non-Jewish Poles are pigs. This has an absolutely striking effect: if it conveys a symbolism which is easily understandable, it also makes these characters look even more human! The mice really arouse pity, and some drawings show their despair and agony so strongly that it really made me feel like crying.
I believe that this graphic novel is one of the best artworks that has ever come from Auschwitz. I am ashamed to admit it, but I heard so much about the Holocaust – in particular thanks to school and the numerous documentary films that have been made about it – that I sometimes tend to forget how unbelievably dreadful this historical tragedy is. Maus reminded me of this in the most striking way.
Maus by Art Spiegelman. Published by Penguin Books (2003)