Book Review: The Complete Maus – Art Spielgelman (Graphic Novel)

The Complete Maus – Art Spiegelman

 “Why do you cry Artie? Hold better on the wood.”

“I-I fell, and my friends skated away without me.”

He stopped sawing.

“Friends? Your friends?… If you lock them in together in a room with no food for a week…. then you could see what it is, friends!”

This book is another selection to satisfy my BookRiot’s Read Harder Challenge: a graphic novel or graphic memoir or collection of comics. Originally I read Superman: Dark Knight Over Metropolis, but lets be honest – I’m not fifteen any more, and I needed something with a bit more substance to it. So I picked Maus.

I’m really glad I did.

 The Complete Maus – 5 out of 5 stars

Something I need to get out of the way before we start this review – for this graphic novel, I have changed my rating system. Normally a 5 out of 5 star rating means:

5 stars – Brilliant. I would recommend this to everyone, and it is very likely I will re-read it in the future (possibly many times).

But for Maus, 5 stars means something different:

5 stars – Moving. This book will make you uncomfortable and should be read by everyone. This is a story that needs to be told and re-told.

Synopsis

I expect many of this blog’s readers would already be aware of Maus – it is a Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel, and is thoroughly and devastatingly non-fiction. Art Spiegelman is the cartoonist here and through Maus tells two stories – each threaded skilfully throughout the book.

The first story is of his Jewish parents survival during World War II, mostly from his father’s (Vladek)  perspective. It starts from his parent’s meeting and marriage in Poland, through the German occupation, and onto the persecution of Jews until both his parents end up in Auschwitz in 1944 then through to the wars end.

The second story thread is of Art Spiegelman interviewing his father for the first story, and the complex and frequently difficult relationship between father and son.

Art – style

Normally when I review a normal book, I look to themes, writing style, but I feel a graphic novel – particularly this graphic novel – needs to start with big emphasis on the art.

As suits the deeply dark subject matter, the art is Maus is bleak. Black and White drawings only, I think it is amazingly effective. When the book calls for the expression of horror, it is brutally honest, even cold in its depiction, without glorifying or fetishising the tragedy.

Equally though, these stark high-contrast pictures are capable of expressing extreme emotion with just a few character lines. Worry, fear, terror… the drawings are expressive and really draw the reader into the tale.

When drawing the characters, the cartoonist used anthropomorphic animals as substitutes to represent the races – the Jewish people were mice (apparently a play on the German’s propaganda of Jews being vermin), the Germans are cats (who play with the mice before killing them), French are frogs and the Poles are pigs. I think this is a pretty clever device as a character could be easily identified as a particular race without the dangers of needing to rely on cartoonish over-emphasis of stereotypical features. It also worked well when a character wore a disguise – when Spiegelman’s father disguised himself as a Pole, he was drawn wearing a pig mask.

Spielgelman also peppers the book with photo’s of real people, maps of the war, diagrams such as one explaining POW cigarette exchange rates, and a schematic of an execution chamber. These details serve to remind the reader that this is a true story, that this really happened. They prevent the comfort of the reader’s ‘denial’ (whether a conscious denial or not) that this is ‘just a story’.

Themes

“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.”
Art Spiegelman, The Complete Maus

Clearly there is a lot going on in this book and a lot of themes and guilt was a big one. A survivors guilt that seemed to hit Art who was born after the war, more than Vladek who actually survived these horrors. Art mentions on a few occasions that he feels guilty for living an easier life, and struggles in the shadow of his dead older brother, who died before the war ended. This guilt is not helped by Vladek, who loads on the familial guilt freely by asking Art to help with chores around the house, and even tries to get Art and his fiancé to move in with him! Again I got a real sense of stereotype reinforcement here.

“No, darling! To die it’s easy… But you have to struggle for life!”
Art Spiegelman, The Complete Maus

Survival was another theme, or perhaps more specifically, what you have to do to survive. Both of Art’s parents survived the unbelievable horrors of German occupation and then a Nazi death camp. From the story, it is his father’s resourcefulness, intelligence and ability with languages that keeps him alive when so many others died. Trading on his skilled hands and ability to identify an opportunity, Vladek Spiegelman scrounges, barters, bargains and saves extra food and important favours to get him and his wife through. Vladek carries these scrounging, saving, ways with him after the war, much to the despair of Art – particularly as he fears he is depicting his father as a caricature of the ‘miserly old Jew’ stereotype. But looking at the whole story, these mannerisms are completely understandable – when your survival depended on your ability to save, to scrimp, then it is understandable that this would be difficult habit to break.

It’s interesting that during the story there is a fair bit of betrayal by people that the Spiegelman’s trusted. Before the camps you see friends turning on friends, people selling out and betraying others, as the fear of the death breaks down the normal community bonds. But I didn’t get any sense of anger from Vladek in the novel – I got sense that these betrayals were – if not forgiven – simply accepted as an effort to survive in a hellish situation. Possibly though I am reading too much into this – it could be simply because all of these abusers of trust ended up not surviving the war, and bitterness against a dead person is pointless.


I found Maus a thoughtful and emotional graphic memoir, successfully telling the harrowing tale of the Holocaust from a deeply personal perspective.

I strongly recommend this book.

KT

I almost hit post and realised I hadn’t didn’t addressed the ‘comic book controversy’ – essentially when this was written and published there was some push back that the use of comic animals to tell the story was not treating the subject matter with proper respect. The fact this has won a Pulitzer shows that this is hardly the case – this is a mature book designed to challenge mature readers. But its format may open this important story, this important topic, to people who would not otherwise exposed to it.

To quote the introduction to a similarly controversial supplement to my favourite role-playing game (Wraith: the Oblivion):

I started to argue, to say that the Holocaust was not a game, but a voice inside my head stopped me. We must teach them through the tools with which they are comfortable, it said. – Janet Berliner, Foreword to Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah.

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