“Let me get this straight, Spiegelman: You want to pen a graphic novel about your father’s experience in a concentration camp during World War Two, but instead of drawing people, you’re going to use a number of animals to represent different races and nationalities, and then on top of that, you want to have a parallel narrative with your modern-day father, who’s a stingy, prejudicial, pain-to-be-around, stereotypical Jewish penny pincher? You do? Oh, and you want to take thirteen years to complete this work…”
This is the response I imagine if Art Spiegelman ever tried to pitch The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale to a publisher (which he didn’t—he serialized most of it through a publication he co-edited with his wife). Admittedly, if a friend shared this plan with me, I imagine I would count on the quality being cringe worthy poor and the effort fizzling out twelve years and eleven months early, but the beauty of Maus is that it takes so many aspects that shouldn’t work and makes it the award winning, rousing it success it is.
Volume one, “My Father Bleeds History,” focuses on the lives of Spiegelman’s mother and father, Anja and Vladek, in Poland before and during World War Two. Volume two, “And Here My Troubles Began,” picks up the story as Vladek and Anja entered Auschwitz as prisoners. All information comes purely from Vladek’s lucid memory, and in each volume there’s the parallel story of the modern-day Vladek living in New York, annoying his son (the author, Art) and his second wife, Mala. Almost immediately, the reader learns that the Spiegelmans survived the Holocaust, but that Anja committed suicide soon after Art was released from a mental hospital in 1968. In many ways, there’s little surprise to the unfolding of the main story, but it’s fascinating to read one man’s personal account of a war generally viewed through an epic lens. Seeing what happens to all the minor people along the way—how loyalties, roles and morality shift—is also heartbreakingly intriguing.
Although I found the artwork charming and the visual symbolism of animal hierarchy well done (with the Jews portrayed is mice, Germans as cats and Americans as dogs), most animals were drawn similarly, making it occasionally difficult to distinguish between characters of the same nationality. (There was also controversy over Spiegelman’s decision to portray the Polish as pigs, despite conveying a variety of interactions.) Finally, the end is ridiculously clipped, coming to a screeching halt halfway down the final page. Considering the length of the work already (both in time and page commitment) I’m surprised and annoyed that Spiegelman didn’t take a few more pages to roll things to a close. While it’s not enough to kill my praise of this creative handling of such a serious topic with what was, at least thought previously, a big-gun-big-breasts funny book medium, I very nearly pulled off a star for the fault. Regardless, Art Spiegelman’s Maus remains a charming and important standard in visual storytelling that couldn’t be told any other way. The power of what he conveyed, often with a single panel, cannot be denied. Four stars. Barely.