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Art Spiegelman – The Complete Maus

June 14, 2010

60. The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman (1973-1991; complete version 1996)

Length: 296 pages
Genre: Graphic Novel, Memoir(ish)

Started: 27 May 2010
Finished: 29 May 2010

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? Another classic graphic novel that I was catching up on.

It’s not so easy
to write a snarky haiku
on the Holocaust.

Summary: Maus is part memoir and part history lesson; about half Holocaust story, and half a tale of Spiegleman’s relationship with his aging father, a Holocaust survivor. Art spends most of the book coaxing his father Vladek to talk to him about his life in Poland before WWII, his time in the Jewish ghetto, and how he survived the concentration camps. All the while he must deal with not only the normal storm of emotions that come with having an aging, fallible parent, but also the added guilt that comes from knowing that parent survived one of the worst horrors of human history, when so many others did not.

Review: There are two things that, in my mind, elevate Maus from being just another Holocaust story to really being something unique, and something special. First, the decision to present the story in comic form, and second, the inclusion of the framing story of Art and his father. Both of those were risky choices that could easily have backfired, but in the end, I think both of them worked to Spiegleman’s advantage.

On the first point: if nothing else, Maus deserves a huge amount of credit for proving that just because it’s a comic does not necessarily mean that the story or the subject matter is trivial. The decision to depict everyone involved as animals (Jews are mice, Germans are cats, Polish are pigs, French are frogs, Americans are dogs, etc.) could have easily become silly and made everything inappropriately cutesy, but I think it actually allowed both Spiegleman and the reader to explore the horror of the story without being thoroughly overwhelmed, and while the characters were literally de-humanized, the underlying humanity of the story bled through on every page. The animalizing of the characters did make them all look somewhat alike – it’s harder to draw hundreds of distinct-looking mice than it would be for humans – but it was always clear from the context what was going on, and who was supposed to be in the panel.

The meta-story, of Art dealing with his father, was another brave choice that worked out wonderfully well. Vladek Spiegleman is not a particularly pleasant man; he’s so frugal that he’s almost miserly, he fights constantly with his wife, has no qualms about emotionally manipulating his son, and is more than a little bit racist. At the same time, you just can’t think those things about a Holocaust survivor – he’s been through so much, shouldn’t he be allowed to be difficult if he wants to be? By letting Vladek tell the story in his own voice, Art lets us wrestle with these issues for ourselves, and thus gives us an inside view on his own emotional struggles. It makes the book not just about surviving the Holocaust, but what it’s like to deal with – and to be – a Holocaust survivor.

There were a few meta-meta-story bits that I’m still not sure whether I liked or not. Spiegleman, in the comic, talking about the process of writing the comic, or to his therapist about dealing with the success of the comic, etc. (on one occasion drawn as human but with a tied-on mouse mask) – on the one hand, these things all break the fourth wall and were kind of distracting, but on the other hand, they also add an interesting layer of complexity to the story.

Recommendation: Overall, it’s an amazing book, if not a particularly comfortable one to read, and it’s one that I suspect will stay with me for a long time, and that I think will convince even the most ardent graphic-novel hater that the medium can be used to powerful effect. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Becky’s Book Reviews (1) (2), Book Nut (C), Bookish (1) (2), Books I Done Read (C), Caribousmom (C), Eclectic / Eccentric (C), Fluttering Butterflies (C), Libri Touches (C), Liv’s Book Reviews (1), Maw Books Blog (C), Medieval Bookworm (C), Nothing of Importance (C), One More Chapter (1) (2), Reading Thru the Night (C), Rebecca Reads (C), Regular Rumination (1), Rhinoa’s Ramblings (C), Things Mean a Lot (C), Trish’s Reading Nook (C), The Written World (1), The Zen Leaf (1)
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: I went out to see my Father in Rego Park. I hadn’t seen him in a long time – we weren’t that close.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2010 3:27 pm

    Maus definitely did prove that graphic novels were an appropriate forum for serious subject matter. I love what you have to say about the use of animal depictions!

    • June 23, 2010 11:35 am

      Trisha – I’m not particularly up to speed on the history of comics/graphic novels, but it’s my impression that Maus was one of the first of the new wave of “mainstream” non-superhero comics.

    • Meysmans Jeroen permalink
      May 8, 2011 1:23 pm

      I think it is something special to the use of animal images. Every nation has its own kind of animal species. And that is easy to remember what people on the go.

  2. June 14, 2010 5:47 pm

    I liked the meta-story elements more than the actual story (as I recall – it’s been a few years since I read this). I thought Art captured his father so well, and maintained that relationship realistically and vividly throughout both books.

    • June 23, 2010 11:36 am

      Jenny – I don’t know that I’d say that I liked the meta-story *better* than Vladek’s story per se, but it definitely completed and rounded out the book – neither half would have been as good on its own.

  3. June 14, 2010 8:01 pm

    I am pretty new to graphic novels and this is one that I feel is probably a must read so hopefully I get a chance to read it soon.

    • June 23, 2010 11:37 am

      Lola – Yup, I think this is one of the classics of the genre, and with good reason.

  4. June 15, 2010 1:43 am

    This is one that I’ve been meaning to get to. My husband was really affected by it. Thanks for the review.

    • June 23, 2010 11:37 am

      Jessica – I hope you get a chance to read it sooner rather than later!

  5. June 16, 2010 10:50 am

    My husband had to read this for college and shared it with me at the time. It was the first graphic novel that I read, and it set the stage for my expectations of what graphic novels should be.

    I love you haiku for this one BTW.

    • June 23, 2010 11:38 am

      Alyce – That’s a pretty high bar for later graphic novels to reach! Not that it hasn’t been done since, but you picked a good place to start. :)

  6. January 7, 2011 11:29 am

    This sounds like such a unique and powerful book. I’m going to have to get my hands on a copy. I’ve linked to your review on War Through the Generations.


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