I was one of those “read everything he could get his hands on” kids. Newspapers, Blockbuster Video catalogs, menus from restaurants my parents never took me to–if you put it in front of me, I had a compulsion to read it. So it surprises a lot of people, if they know how important comics are to me, when they learn I wasn’t a comic book reader as a child other than the newspaper strips (which I was usually too young to “get” anyway). But comic books? Long-form sequential art that you could put in a bookshelf or longbox? Nobody ever put them in front of me, and thus they were essentially foreign to me until I was 13 and stumbled upon a strange comic book called Maus in my uncle’s old bedroom at my maternal grandparents’ house.
Maus changed my life.
I was lucky to grow up with grandparents — both sets, actually — who had a lot of books in their homes, and when I reached a certain age they’d let me take anything I want off the shelf and take it home with me. I always promised to bring it back on my next visit, but sometimes I didn’t, and they never seemed to mind. Nor was there ever much concern that I might’ve been too young for John Irving’s The World According to Garp or Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. But Maus was different. The moment I pulled it out of my Uncle’s closet, it seemed to emanate a dark and forbidden energy.
That may sound dramatic, but if you look at the cover of Maus’s first volume, it’s easy to see why it would scream “YOU SHOULD NOT BE READING THIS” to a pubescent Jewish boy. The bloody red typeface, the large swastika with a sinister cat symbol in the center, the image of anthropomorphic mice huddling for warmth, the subtitle “MY FATHER BLEEDS HISTORY”... then I looked inside, and it was… a comic? Who on Earth was this Art Spiegelman guy?
I was so scared that it wasn’t until my next visit that I was brave enough to take the book home with me. Yet once I started reading it, I was hooked. The opening pages aren’t harsh or scary. Instead, Spiegelman recalls a memory from when he was “ten or eleven” as he “was roller skating with Howie and Steve… ‘til my skate came loose.” Young Art falls, crying in pain while his friends ride off without him. His father, Vladek Spiegelman, asks what’s wrong.
“I–I fell, and my friends skated away w-without me.”
“Friends? Your friends?...” Vladek says. “If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week…then you could see what it is, friends!...”
This bittersweet two-page prologue effectively sets the tone for the rest of the book. There’s no explicit mention of the holocaust yet, although if you’re reading Maus in the first place (or even just looking at the cover), you could probably figure out that Vladek Spiegelman had all-too-real experiences with imprisonment and starvation. The focus is on how a survivor’s worldview was affected by his trauma, and how his child inherited that trauma by extension.
That’s part of why I’m so frustrated by Maus’ reputation as “that comic about the Holocaust” — it’s reductive for many reasons, but mostly because the Holocaust is only half the story.
I haven’t done any math on how many pages or panels of Maus take place in the 1930s and 40s compared to how many are set roughly throughout the late 1970s and 80s, but regardless, a significant portion of Maus — both in terms of physical real estate within the book and thematic import — takes place in what-was-then-the-present. Maus isn’t the comics version of Eli Wiesel’s Night, nor is it a memoir of Vladek Spiegelman’s experiences during Hitler’s rise to power or the atrocities he saw in Auschwitz. It’s Art Spiegelman’s memoir of his experiences recording his father’s account of that horrific era. It’s about a young cartoonist — a first-generation Jewish-American Baby Boomer — trying to reconcile the unimaginable tragedy of his father’s life with their strained familial relationship.
As far as I’m concerned, Maus is the definitive account of post-Holocaust Jewish American life precisely because of the way Spiegelman contrasts his present with his father’s past. The frame story of 30-something Art Spiegelman visiting his father’s home in Rego Park, New York, tape recording Vladek as he rides on his stationary bike and recalls his life in Poland, is just as important as the flashback scenes. The same goes for conversations between Art and his wife — legendary editor and Raw co-founder, Françoise Mouly — as well as his conversations with Vladek’s second wife, Mala.
As distressing as the scenes set in the ghettos (and later, Auschwitz) can be, the most harrowing section of the book may be “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” a 4-page mini-comic originally published “in an obscure underground comic book” in 1972 (the same year Spiegelman published his 3-page “Maus” strip that became the prototype for the much-longer work of the same name). It’s republished in its entirety in Maus Chapter 5 after Mala reveals that Vladek, who rarely reads his son’s work or comics in general, was depressed after reading such an emotionally intense work about his deceased wife.
“Prisoner on the Hell Planet” recalls the 1968 suicide of Art’s mother and Vladek’s first wife, Anja Spiegelman. In contrast with Maus’ relatively accessible cartooning style (humans depicted as anthropomorphic mice and cats notwithstanding), “Hell Planet” is aesthetically reminiscent of the underground “comix” scene of which Spiegelman was a key figure. The figures and composition are expressionistic and unsettling, with harsh angular lines and dark, heavy inks. The surreal, even frightening imagery is appropriate for the subject matter, as Spiegelman, who was just 24 at the time, remembers his horrible night from just four years earlier. Vladek was utterly distraught, and not only was Art expected to comfort his father during his public meltdowns, some blamed Art — he was living with his parents at the time after a stay in a mental hospital — for the loss.
The minicomic ends with a 3-panel sequence depicting Art behind bars in a massive prison, brutally summing up his rawest feelings about the trauma he inherited.
“Well, Mom, if you’re listening… Congratulations!… You’ve 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!!!”
Make no mistake — Maus can be gut-wrenching, but it’s never boring. But that’s another thing that’s always bothered me about Maus being thought of as “that Holocaust comic.” Between its Pulitzer Prize, countless inclusions on various “best of” lists, and even being assigned in some school curriculums in recent years, one could be forgiven for assuming Maus is a stuffy, dryly academic work that’s a chore to read. Yet that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Whether Spiegelman portrays the horrors of genocide, intimate slice-of-life scenes, or even moments of humor (it may not be a laugh riot but Maus does have funny moments), Maus is thoroughly alive from beginning to end. Death is certainly a key theme: the death of Art’s mother; the death of his older brother, Richieu, who was killed before Art (born following his parents’ escape to the United States) could meet him; the death of six million European Jews at the hands of Nazi savagery; perhaps even some metaphorical deaths, like the violent death of young Vladek’s youthful hopefulness.
But I propose that Maus is more about life than it ever is about death. That doesn’t mean it’s an optimistic work by any means, but Art Spiegelman seems less interested in mourning than exploring how his parents continued living after facing extraordinary hardship, and how the cartoonist himself would try to grow into a functional adult amidst the challenges of being raised by traumatized parents.
Even the concept of art is presented throughout Maus as a living, breathing thing. Spiegelman’s decision to frame his father’s story around his contemporaneous visits to his father’s home as he interviewed Vladek for research, as well as all the familial warmth or conflict that may ensue, shows how the creation of such an ambitious work as Maus was constantly evolving. As Art’s life changed, such as the surprise mainstream popularity of Maus as it was still being serialized, so too did his relationship with the work, and thus, the work itself.
It’s a book that I never have to force myself to read. In fact, any time I take it off the bookshelf, I have to resist the urge to read it in its entirety all over again. Maus has received so much breathless praise, even from snobs who wouldn’t normally give comics, as a medium, the time of day, for so many years that calling it my favorite may seem incredibly basic or intellectually lazy. And I’ve read countless comics since I stumbled upon that dusty old copy of Maus I circa 2004. I love superhero comics and humor comics and sci-fi comics and obscure indie comics. But I don’t love Maus because I’m a snooty intellectual. I love Maus because it makes me feel alive.