Maus: A Survivor's Tale
From 1980 to 1991, Art Spiegelman wrote and published a nonfictional, long-form, frame-tale beast fable about his relationship with his father (present) and his father’s harrowing experiences as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust (past). In 1986, Pantheon Books published a collected volume of the first few chapters. Maus is currently the only graphic novel ever to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Though some controversies exist regarding Spiegelman’s portrayal of Poles as pigs, comic and literary critics worldwide have established Maus as one of the greatest graphic novels in existence. So instead of dissecting the merits of an already revered novel, let’s discuss the significance of reading Maus in 2019.
In 1996, Deborah Lipstadt, an American historian, was sued by English Holocaust denier David Irving for libel. Lipstadt had labeled Irving as a Holocaust denier in her writings, and Irving did not appreciate Lipstadt’s analysis of his work. After a lengthy court battle, Mr Justice Gray declared that David Irving was, in fact, a Holocaust denier, an anti-Semite, and a racist. In 2016, the entire saga was turned into a biopic starring Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall. The film’s tagline: “The whole world knows the Holocaust happened. Now she needs to prove it.”
In 2017, Lipstadt explained the importance of her story during her TED Talk at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford: “So why is my story more than just the story of a quirky, long, six-year, difficult lawsuit, an American professor being dragged into a courtroom by a man that the court declared in its judgment was a neo-Nazi polemicist? What message does it have? I think in the context of the question of truth, it has a very significant message. Because today, as we well know, truth and facts are under assault. Social media, for all the gifts it has given us, has also allowed the difference between facts—established facts—and lies to be flattened.”
Deborah Lipstadt believes that the nature of our interactions with bigotry and prejudice has shifted. On an episode of NPR’s All Things Considered, Lipstadt told host Lakshmi Singh that “Holocaust deniers have been around for a long time. We saw them in the ’50s. We saw them in the ’60s, in the early ’70s.” Then she spoke about this decade: “One of the things that has elevated my level of concern over the past few months is watching people from alt-right suddenly appearing on the news not as examples—you know, here is a meeting that they had where they talked about people of color in a very derogatory fashion or talked about Jews in a derogatory fashion—but suddenly becoming commentators. That’s mainstreaming.”
If we agree with Deborah Lipstadt (which I do), then reading Maus in 2019 may be a somewhat different experience than reading Maus in the late 80s or early 90s. This difference may take many forms—and each reader is unique—but we are products of our culture, and the sociopolitical zeitgeist of the 2010s and 2020s will inevitably impact how we respond to Art Spiegelman’s compelling story about his father and the Holocaust. Perhaps the impact will be small, but it will nonetheless exist. And that matters.
Dissecting the nuances of these possible impacts would take thousands of words, so this remaining space is better used as a promotion for some of the impressive literary and human aspects of the graphic novel. Maus is a story about humanity, but reading it is often an intimate experience, like reading diary pages. It is also the story of Art and his father Vladek. Yes, it is important to read Maus as evidence of a horrific event, but it is also important to read it as a story about the complexity of identity, the long-term impacts of grief, the corrosive nature of anger, and the richness of human interdependence. The frame-tale structure of the story allows Maus to be both epic and intimate, both horrific and reconciliatory.
Not a single panel of Maus is wasted. In one scene, as Nerdwriter points out in his YouTube video essay about the novel, Vladek dominates the page, invading all panels and towering over his son like a titan. On a later page, photos fall from panels like tears down the paper, landing in a heap that spills over the edge of the page. Few graphic novels have achieved Maus’s mastery of visual storytelling.
Early in Maus, Art tells his father, “I want to tell your story, the way it really happened.” And that is the best way to approach this novel. It the true account of Vladek’s experiences, told in a manner that is full is symbolism, nuance, and stylistic integrity.
In his November 1986 review of Maus for The New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote, “’Maus’ is a comic book! Yes, a comic book complete with word balloons, speed lines, exclamations such as ‘sob,’ ‘wah,’ ‘whew’ and ‘?!,’ and dozens of techniques for which I simply lack the terminology. . . . But the impact of what Mr. Spiegelman has done here is so complex and self-contradictory that it nearly defies analysis. . . . By claiming the Holocaust as a subject fit for comic-book art, Mr. Spiegelman is saying that the children of the survivors have a right to the subject too and have their own unique problems, which are comic as well as tragic.”
Mr. Lehmann-Haupt’s near-disbelief that a comic book can communicate depth and nuance clouds his (ultimately respectful) review of the story, so I will translate: Maus is a damn compelling story, and reading it may make you a better, more empathetic person.
Read Maus because you want to learn more about the Holocaust. Read Maus because you want to experience a compelling story about guilt and redemption. Either way, read Maus. These days and all days, it is an important story to read.
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale: Large-Scale and Personal
Writing - 10/1010/10
Storyline - 10/1010/10
Art - 10/1010/10
Color - 10/1010/10
Cover Art - 9/109/10
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