“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” ― Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Ladies and gentlemen, this week I decided I was going to cast off the cape and begin digging into what else the wide world of graphic novels held in store for me. Given my literally limitless options, I decided to jump off with the first graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, the ever-popular Art Spiegelman’s “Maus”. Despite the resounding swastika on the cover of (both) books, I was not prepared for the ride that ensued. That being said, both parts of the novel were page-turners from start to finish, with my favorite being the second. I thoroughly enjoyed “Maus” as a whole, and if one is prepared for some heavy-handed subject matter, I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to get into graphic novels (and anyone already initiated!)

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So, what’s going on here?

Maus consists of two separate but connected main storylines: Art Spiegelman’s estranged relationship with his stingy (and of poor health) father, Vladek, and Vladek’s recounting of his life up to and during the Holocaust. Art, a cartoonist (in some crazy breaking-the-fourth-wall-style) decides that he wants to tell the story of his father’s life in a comic strip format. But this requires rekindling a tumultuous at best relationship with Vladek. Art’s mother and holocaust survivor alongside Vladek, Anja, has died sometime ago, having committed suicide without leaving any note or last testament. In between his father’s tales of WWII and trying to keep Vladek’s new wife, Mala from tearing her hair out, Art comes face to face with not only horrors of the past, but the ghosts that haunt his present.

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The washed-out and destitute look of Maus is no accident.

So, it’s a graphic novel about the holocaust? What makes it special other than that?

Maus’s art style is strictly in a black and white that sometimes feels like a noir tone. The title “Maus” comes from the fact that very rarely are actual human beings depicted in the book at all: different races of people are depicted as different animals. Jews are mice, Polish are pigs, French are frogs, Americans are dogs, Gypsies are moths, and of course, Germans are cats. There are certain panels or scenes, however, where the characters do in fact have human bodies and even human heads – but wear animal masks that hide their faces. Some have accused Spiegelman of blatant racism with some of his animal choices – Polish people being depicted as pigs when the Jewish belief is that pigs are unclean creatures being an example. What these people ignore are the portions of the book where the animal divisions blatantly break down: what about the people who are both German and Jewish simultaneously? Not all mice are good, not all cats are evil. Mice often have to wear cat or pig masks to disguise their true selves. Some crazy allegorical stuff starts going down here.

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Above: historically accurate depiction of WWII

This is, of course, a Holocaust story, but instead of some piss-poor textbook representation of “-blank- million people died”, the reader gets a real story from a real survivor. These are things that really happened, these are real people that are dead and gone. There were moments where I felt my gut wrench because I couldn’t believe people got away with this behavior. This, Emmett Till, Stalin’s Soviet Union(that they don’t teach you about because they’re too busy telling you about the Holocaust), sometimes it seems as though a totalitarian regime led by Superman doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. But even eliminating the WWII aspect of the story, there is still Art’s struggle with what is essentially survivor’s guilt. He didn’t have to face the struggles that his mother and father did. He outlived his younger brother, who didn’t survive the Holocaust at all. He wonders if he would have had the strength to survive, or how things would have fared if his parents and his brother had escaped altogether. There’s more going on here than the re-hashed atrocities of WWII.

So, the verdict?

Read Maus. Read it, read it, read it! And for you teachers-to-be looking to infuse some graphic novels into your class, but you aren’t so much digging my idea for Watchmen, definitely use this. For Watchmen, I felt as though I had to step up to the plate and defend the superhero genre from the criticism of “it’s too campy, it’s not capable of being serious, it’s just comic books”. Maus makes no bones about it’s seriousness. As desperately as these people needed a Superman, one never came. There’s enough historical relevance and social significance here for classroom gold: everything from racial stereotypes to genocide and back again.

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Somewhat Related: in episodes 24-26 of the Justice League, the League goes back in time and fights for the Allies in WWII. Special cameo appearance by none other than a cryogenically frozen Adolf Hitler.

Concordia

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Comments
  1. lechatdu503 says:

    I have yet to read Maus. It’s on my graphic novel shelf of shame. This really makes me want to go out and find the nearest copy though. Why is payday so far away? The whole mask thing sounds really awesome though as everyone is trying to play different roles and hide who they are.

  2. I’m planning to reread Maus over the summer. It’s going to be on the syllabus for my summer online graphic novels course. If I ever get that syllabus written…… Loved this post, btw. As always.

  3. lesannebill says:

    I am slowly tip-toeing my way into the graphic novel world. I think this is one that I would enjoy, especially because of it’s subject matter.

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