Some feat, I'm sure you'll agree. But it wouldn't mean a thing if Maus was a triumph of hype over substance. Thankfully, it has both in spades.
Written over a period of thirteen years, Maus (alongside Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen) helped to revolutionise the comic book industry by showing that comics could handle adult stories and be as insightful as great literature. As a result, the narrative ambition went up tenfold and the effects from those three books are still felt today.
Maus, however, is different as it doesn't involve superheroes. Rather, it features the Holocaust as one of its stories, while the other story is about the relationship between father and son. Not exactly feelgood fare, but then what is literature if it doesn't make you think once in a while?
Ostensibly about Art Spiegelman recording his father Vladek talking about his life in Nazi occupied Poland, ending up in Auschwitz and surviving, it is also about Art's guilt over his mother's suicide and his deeply troubled rapport with his father. As the tale progresses, it also becomes about how Art struggles to reconcile the success of Maus with the feeling that he is exploiting such material for commercial gain.
The tie between the two is demonstrated as not just a clash of cultures (Art was born and raised American) but also through experiences which Art feels burdened by and the suicide of the woman that both loved. Vladek is depicted as an overbearing, cantankerous old miser who believes black people steal anything that comes to hand. However, when recounting his past, he takes on the role of the haunted but defiant survivor. In some ways, his tale is reminiscent (to a degree) of the old metaphor involving a frog and boiling water. However, it's also clear that himself and the other Polish Jews had no choice but to go along with every new measure and hope for the best, until they landed in Auschwitz.
Art's mindset is summed up by this quote:
I know this is insane, but I somehow wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents so I could really know what they lived through! I guess it's some kind of guilt about having had an easier life than they did.
A pretty horrific statement, but one that is honest and an example of what is referred to as "child of Holocaust survivor syndrome." Through writing Maus, one hopes that Spiegelman was able to find some form of closure.
Spiegelman's depiction of the Nazis as cats, Jews as mice and non-Jewish as pigs has caused various arguments over the years. While some see it as a dumbing down of the horrors of the Holocaust, Spiegelman has been insistent on his belief that it demonstrates the absurdity of trying to divide people purely on the grounds of ethnicity. From my perspective, it also serves as a little nod to Orwell's Animal Farm as well as using the comic book format to accentuate the tragedy of history.
Intimate, sensitive, funny and heartbreaking, Maus is a stone cold classic.
Art Spiegelman, 1996, The Complete Maus. Penguin Books ISBN-13: 978-0141014081.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.