Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

Maus might be one of the most well known modern graphic novels. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize, widely studied in schools, and generally lauded in not only the graphic novel world but in the world of literature in general, it is the subject of both praise and controversy. This edition collects both Maus and Maus II in one volume.

Maus tells the story of Art Spiegelman's parents' life under Nazi occupation, as told to him through interviews with his father. The book alternates between modern-day Rego Park, Queens, depicting Art's interactions with his elderly father, and the elder Spiegelmans' life (or lack thereof) in the Warsaw ghetto, and later in the concentration camps.

What is perhaps one of the most famous and iconic aspects of the book is that the characters are drawn as animals--the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, the Poles as pigs, and the Americans as dogs. I've read some criticisms of his characterizing Poles as pigs, but it doesn't really bother me. Spiegelman certainly doesn't believe that Jews are really vermin--it's more the symbolism, and the ability to distance oneself from the story by seeing them represented as animals, rather than people.

Flipping through the book I was struck by this panel, in which a fork in a road is drawn in the shape of a swastika.

There is one section of the book in which the characters are drawn as humans, a comic book within a comic book, called "Prisoner on the Hell Planet," the title of which brings to mind sci-fi comics from the 50s. It tells the story of Art's mother's inability to assimilate back into the world after surviving the concentration camps, leading up to her eventual suicide. It's a pretty chilling sequence, which reminds readers that the story isn't really about mice and cats but about the devastation of an entire population of human beings.

The Maus symbol on the book board underneath the dust jacket is rather striking.

The end papers, depicting rows upon rows of prisoners, whose eyes are still pretty haunting despite their being drawn as cartoon mice.

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