Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Art Spiegelman's Maus was one of the most difficult graphic novels I've ever read.

Not difficult because of the subject material- though it's hard to think of a book about the Holocaust as light reading.

Maus is hard to read because it's literarily hard to read. The colorless frames have very little gray; what might seem to be gray at first glance is in fact minutely cross-hatched black and white. This leaves the eye (or, at least, my eye) very little time to rest.

As a story about storytelling, hardly a frame goes by without a word in it, and in most frames, the words overlow. The dialogue bubbles interfere with the images; there's just not enough room for the words and images to co-exist. If that's not trouble enough, Spiegelman's hand printed writing slants and tumbles just enough to make it impossible to scan. Every page is a labor (and maybe it's supposed to be that way).

While the anthropomorphized animals might give a reader the emotional distance to deal with the tragedy (and while Jews-as-mice, Nazis-as-cats motif might help a grade school student keep track of good guys and bad guys), the truth is that none of the main characters are drawn distinctly enough to help me keep track of who's talking to whom across the disjointed and often interrupted narrative. Spiegelman's play on traditional expectations of animals in comics was subversive at the time (compare these Holocaust surviving mice to Donald Duck, Mighty Mouse and Garfield), the artifice doesn't hold up. Comics have come a long way in being appreciated as an artform since Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

Am I harder on Maus than on so many other graphic novels because of how highly recognized and praised it is? Yeah, probably.

I mean, Maus has everything I love in a novel.

Start with the framing tale, the son talking to his father, and his father's story relayed across a barrier of language and years. It's so Heart of Darkness that I could just about squeal with joy (would that make me one of the Polish pigs?).

There are questions built into the narrative about the power of memory to contaminate life, the power we allow our families to have in shaping our adult lives, the difficultly of finding a space of our own as children that still shows sufficient respect for the sacrifices our parents made to bring us this far. Plus, as a graphic novel without anyone wearing spandex, Maus meets one of my personal criteria for graphic novel greatness.

But while Maus partnered with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns in the late '80s to bring comics for adults into the mainstream, the other two book are just so phenomenally more readable, that I have a hard time imaging I'll ever pick Maus up again.


  1. I just finished both volumes of Maus for a English course on the graphic narrative, and although I do agree that many of the panels seem claustrophobic, and it could be difficult to discern the mice character, I think the other strengths of the comic equals out these faults we find. I found the narrative of the present day, about Vladek and how he relates to other people, was pretty interesting because we learn that Vladek himself has many shortcomings and was in some ways not too different to his Nazi tormentors. On it's context of the Holocaust, I am very familiar through film and literature (I loved Polanski's The Pianist) with the atrocities the Nazis commit, but seeing visually how they did much it through Spiegelman's diagrams was interesting, such as the design of Auschwitz crematoriums. I thinks Spiegelman's background as an underground comic during the counterculture movement is interesting as well, this history seems to bleed in the art direction of Maus. Good review overall though, and I agree about Watchmen-- a work that has endless philosophical depth in itself.

    1. Arpan, thanks for the kind words.

      One of the things I just don't know enough about is the underground comics movement of the 80s and 90s. By the time I discovered "grown up" comics, American Splendor was a movie, Maus had won the Pulitzer Prize, and Morrison, Moore and Gaiman were old news with DC/Vertigo.

      Anything from your course you consider "must read"?