Welcome to This Comic Is History, a bi-monthly column dealing with comics that were either influenced by, or themselves influenced the course of history. This column will alternate with Sequential History. This time we’re heading back to 1930s & 1940s Europe, when antisemitism was raging across the landscape, and Jewish families had to actually run for their lives. We’re going to be looking at Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale.
There is perhaps no comic that deals directly with historical events that I like more than Maus. Currently available in two volumes, it tells the tale of a Jewish man and his family in Poland during Word War II. This work was originally published as a three page strip in 1972 for Funny Animals, an Apex Novelties underground comic. In 1977 Spiegelman began publishing more of the story in RAW Magazine, which he and his wife, Françoise Mouly, co-edited. It was then collected and published in two volumes, My Father Bleeds History (Volume I, 1986), & And Here My Troubles Began (Volume II, 1991). This story is both written and drawn, in black and white, by Art Spiegelman.
As you might have guessed, this isn’t a cheery, page turning adventure. It’s a sometimes dialogue heavy account of real people, who endured some of the darkest times in human history. Fear not though, for this isn’t a book that seeks to collect your tears by shining a light on the evils perpetrated back then. It simply follows the experiences of one Jewish Pole during the Nazis bid for supremacy, the author’s father, Vladek Spiegelman. Maus alternates between Vladek’s wartime accounts, and the present day when he’s relating his experiences to his son.
Maus follows Vladek from a young age through his life to marriage, military service, being a prisoner of war, fatherhood, the utter hell that the Nazis put him through, and on into his life after the war. Vladek Spiegelman reminds me a little of Otto Frank, the devoted father of Anne Frank. The two men were different in many ways I’ll admit, but they both seemed to me to be devoted to their families during this horrible time. An admirable quality that you get to see in Vladek through the pages of his son’s work. Despite the fact that Art portrays Vladek in such a fatherly and self sacrificing light, you get the sense that they have their problems, and aren’t all that close at times. Maybe that’s one of the things that make this so interesting to me, the relationship between father and son, as Art is hearing the war time accounts years after the fact. They definitely have unresolved issues, which seem to affect Art more than his father.
Though fewer in number, the modern day scenes tell the story of the relationship between the two men. These modern day accounts shed light on how both men feel about the suicide of Anja, Art’s mother, and also a survivor. They also show some of the traits that can develop in a person as a result of living through something like the Holocaust; traits that are also seen in people who were raised during the depression. The modern day Vladek doesn’t really throw anything away, and he’s very frugal. This is something that Art doesn’t really understand, and gets frustrated with. For example, when Vladek has a leaky roof, he wants to climb up there himself to repair it, or have his son do it. Art on the other hand, would rather pay someone else to do it as opposed to letting a man in his father’s physical condition tackle the job. For a man of Vladek’s age, paying someone else to get up onto his roof and fix a leak makes all the sense in the world; I know I wouldn’t let my father fix his own roof at Vladek’s age. However, for Vladek, money and possessions were more than just things. In Art’s world of freedom and relative ease in the United States, one can usually replace things that get lost or stolen. In Vladek’s world of the 1940s, mere things could keep you alive, you and your family. They meant your very life, as was the case for Vladek on more than one occasion. That’s a world that many of us will never know, and we’ll be happier in ignorance. Personally, I hope I never have to barter with someone to hide my wife and I from an invading army that want us dead. If something like that were to happen to me, I’d probably start to see things Vladek’s way pretty quickly. Yes, there are many people who are like this, very cautious with money, seemingly holding onto everything, and counting every penny. However, with Vladek you can see that his entire life has been shaped by what he lived through decades earlier. This is just one example of the insight that this book gives you into what life was like for the Nazis’ victims.
Those few years made a permanent impression on who this man is. His views on so many things are directly related to the troubles he faced as a young man. Many of us have seen how men were changed by the fighting they did in war. Vladek was on the other side, a victim, and Maus puts you in a position to better understand what it was like for individuals and families to try to carry on with the business of living while all of this was unfolding around them. Myself, I can’t imagine it.
If you’ve ever wondered about the impact on the people as the Nazis begun their march across Europe, Maus will contribute to your understanding. Though at times it can be hard to stomach, Spiegelman paints his father’s memories into a graphic novel that is truly moving. I can still only imagine the sheer terror that those people must have felt as they learned of the Germans coming ever closer to their homes. They also would hear stories of atrocities being carried out against their fellow Jews in other places, before such things reached their own towns or villages. Some were even complacent in the face of such accounts as these…
It was many, many such stories –synagogues burned, Jews beaten with no reason, whole towns pushing out all Jews– each story worse than the other. — Vladek Spiegelman
One thing you’ll notice when reading Maus is that there aren’t really any humans in it. Everyone is represented by an animal. Here’s a rundown of who’s who.
- Jews are represented by mice
- Germans by cats
- Poles by pigs
- Americans by dogs
- Roma (gypsies) by gypsy moths
- French by frogs
- Swedes by reindeer
- British by fish
- Russians by bears
It’s good to know this going in, as it’ll help you to decipher who’s who as you’re reading through it. Now, this may be offensive to some, and perhaps especially so if this were another book. However, this use of animals works rather effectively for Spiegelman, and fits the events that unfold in Vladek’s life. For example, the cruel treatment of the Jews is illustrated well by the cat & mouse representations of Germans and Jews. There’s even a scene where Vladek pretends to be a Pole, or rather, it’s a mouse pretending to be a pig.
Another interesting and unique thing about Maus is that its creator is portrayed in the book. Spiegelman doesn’t gloss over his own faults in his representation of his interactions with his father. Some of Art’s reactions to Vladek are harsh, but they’ve been included for us to read about. I think this says a lot about Art, as it would have been easy to exclude these from the book. This contributes to the feeling that what we’re getting here is a genuine account of Vladek’s life, a real piece of history expressed in a graphic novel.
We’ve all learned about the Holocaust and World War II in some way, even if it’s only been from movies that have dramatized these historical events. Even though Maus is in no way a text book, it teaches so much about the people involved in the war, and the Holocaust. We may know dates and places, but what do we know about the human cost of the war, on a personal & individual basis for the people who lived it? How were they affected? Did the Jews blindly hate the Germans? How did the Poles feel? How could a Jewish man keep his family alive, and intact, during such a confusing and uncertain time? Were things really as bad as some people say they were? There are still times when I’m surprised by just how many people survived Germany’s war machine. If you’re interested in the answers to any of these questions, then you should check out this book. Well, even if you’re not excited by the historical aspect of this book, it’s worth considering. It’s been put together with great care and a high creative standard. It definitely merits its accolades, of which it has several.
Awards & Recognition
This book isn’t just one of my favorites, it has a long list of awards to back up it’s critical acclaim. It has won several, both American and international, including the Swedish Urhunden Prize (1988 & 1993), the German Max & Moritz Prize (1990), an Eisner Award (1992), a Harvey Award (1992), the Los Angeles Book Prize for fiction (1993), and a few other international awards. Oh, it also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. That’s quite a list indeed!
Recommended for a good reason
This book gets recommended by those in the comic business and literary critics alike. If you’d like to read Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, you can probably find it at your local public library. They should have it in their collection, and if it’s not, you should definitely request that they acquire it. This book will prove appealing to both comic lovers and history buffs, and especially to those of you who’re both, like me!