Maus: A two-for-one graphic novel review

Maus I cover

Maus II cover

During my research last semester on graphic novels three pieces of information kept recurring: (1) Maus by Art Spiegelman is an amazing graphic novel that everyone–even the ones who don’t like graphic novels at all–love. (2) Maus is amazing and, having won a Pulitzer Prize special award in 1992, is one of the main reasons graphic novels have gained so much more mainstream appreciation as a legitimate format for literature. (3) If you read, write, or otherwise enjoy graphic novels you should be profusely thanking Spiegelman and Maus. (In all honesty I did make up that last part, but I think it was really implied in the subtext of all of my sources.)

Find it on Bookshop.

Hearing all of that, of course, I felt like I had to read it. Technically speaking, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale can be seen as two separate books. The first book (Maus I) is titled My Father Bleeds History (1986). The second, Maus II, is called And Here My Troubles Began (1991). Eventually, the two volumes were published together as one book. I had initially planned to review the two books separately however after reading both I decided that, really, the stories are so intertwined it really makes more sense to review the titles together. (Amusing aside: I’m including the covers for both titles in this review, but they’re in German instead of English. Because this is my blog and I can do things like that if I want to.)

The entire Maus saga is very meta (dictionary definition: “referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre”)–very aware that it is a book and willing to make readers aware of that fact. The story begins with Art asking his father to tell him about his youth, specifically his experiences during the Holocaust. The structure here is smart and possibly too complex to have been pulled off with traditional prose. Spiegelman shifts between past and present with ease, deals with time lapses, and tells a compelling story all while illustrating (literally) the process of researching and creating that story.

He also does it all with allegorical animals standing in for people.

In this book the Jews are represented by mice while the Germans are cats (get it?). There are other animals represented in the story as people from different countries. While they are trying to pass as Poles, the Jewish mice are often shown wearing pig masks (Polish citizens are drawn as pigs) in order to blend in. Later in the story, once again creating a meta moment, Spiegelman shows himself wearing a mouse mask while promoting the book in “real life” (as a man). It sounds crazy when you try to explain it, but it also makes a crazy kind of sense.

Illustrated in black and white, the panels are on the small side and jump around the page. In other words, Spiegelman plays around with the sequencing to keep things interesting and fill the page in the best possible combination of panels.

Of course, this isn’t always a happy book. Much of the story deals with Vladek and Anja Spiegelman’s time in the Auschwitz concentration camp and what they had to endure there. And it’s depressing. At the same time, watching Vladek keep his head on his shoulders and survive disaster after disaster, the story has uplifting moments. At the risk of sounding trite, it shows that people really can triumph in the face of adversity. Not to say their experiences in Auschwitz had no effect on Vladek’s later life. It does. By extension it also greatly impacts Spiegelman’s life and how he and his father relate to each other.

Maus isn’t the type of book I usually read, largely because its necessarily depressing. I noticed my mood dipping as I worked through the book as I became invested with the characters. I also found myself feeling guilty while reading it. Here I am, half-Jewish (in so far as anyone can be half of a religion), and I know so little about that part of myself or that side of my family. My own ambivalence might explain why I cannot love this book as much as all its praise and supporters suggest I should.

To call Maus an ambitious piece of work is an understatement. Spiegelman takes on a lot in this relatively slim volume and , for the most part, delivers.

Possible Pairings: Alan and Naomi by Myron Levoy, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, Tamar by Mal Peet, Cures For Heartbreak by Margo Rabb, Hitler’s Canary by Sandi Toksvig