The graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman tells the story of one family’s experience of the Holocaust portraying anthropomorphic mice as Jews, cats as Germans, and pigs as Poles. The idea for the story began when Spiegelman was asked to write and draw a three-page comic strip on racism, but he had to use animals as characters. Choosing the subject of the Holocaust, Spiegelman showed the comic to his father, Vladek Spiegelman, who agreed to tell him his own Holocaust testimony. From 1980 to 1991, Maus was serialized in the publication Raw before being published as a graphic novel in 1991. It would become the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. Published in two volumes, the first volume of Maus narrates Vladek’s life beginning when he first met Art’s mother, Anja, in Poland during the early years of Hitler’s rise to power. Soon after their marriage, he joins the Polish Army and becomes a prisoner of war. After being released Vladek makes his way back home. The rest of the novel depicts their life in a Polish ghetto, years in hiding, and eventual capture and transportation to the concentration camp Auschwitz. The timeline jumps back and forth between the 1930s and the 1970s, during Art Spiegelman’s visits with his father.
Art Spiegelman, https://alchetron.com/Art-Spiegelman-435777-W
The novel is not only about the Holocaust, but in many ways, it is even more about the author’s relationship with his father and his experience as the child of survivors. Born three years after liberation, a lack of understanding has formed between Art and his parents. His parents, for the most part, shielded him from their history; his mother only giving him small details of the events that contributed to her ongoing depression and eventual suicide and his father refusing to talk about it at all. [i]
His father’s attention to detail, distrust of others, and habits of hoarding money helped keep him alive through the Holocaust, but now alienate him from his family and friends, most of whom are also Holocaust survivors. The differences in the behaviors of the Holocaust survivors shown in the story remind us that not all survivors had the same experiences and that they are individuals who cope in different ways. His father’s stubbornness combined with Art’s inability to relate to him drives a wedge in their relationship. After going to his father for comfort as a child after being left behind by a group of friends, his father’s only remark is “If you lock them together with no food in a room for a week, then you could see what it is, friends.”[ii] By the end of the first volume, their relationship has after Art finds out that his father had burned his mother’s journals after her suicide, journals that she had hoped Art would read. He calls his father a murderer as if he has killed his mother all over again. Throughout the novel, Art is brutally honest depicting both his own flaws and those of his family.
During the time of Maus’s publication, graphic novels were relatively unheard among an American audience. Most graphic narrative arts was published through comic books about superheroes. Graphic novels are defined as a different medium than comic books, through their inclusion of form equivalent to that of a written novel and often their inclusion of more mature themes.[iii] To an American audience, illustrated novels are often seen as “picture books”, more appropriate for children. Graphic novels such as Maus demonstrate the ability of an artist to use drawn medium to tell a story with content equal to that of a written adult work. I remember first reading Maus in middle school and still not fully being able to comprehend all of the subject matter depicted in the novel.
Spiegelman, Art. 1997. Maus: a survivor’s tale. New York: Pantheon, 32.
Art Spiegelman, as an artist, is able to express emotion through drawn narratives in a way that he may not otherwise have been able to through written work alone. One of the aspects that make this such an engaging novel is its unique storyline, which includes his process of writing the novel within the novel itself. His illustrations allow readers to go seamlessly from one timeline to the other. First drafts of Maus contained much more detailed illustrations, which graphic images. What would eventually be published shows much more simplified artwork, giving readers the same information without the shock value and allowing readers to notice the small details of the illustrations, such as the tattoo always present on Vladek’s arm and the emotion (or lack of emotion) on the character’s faces.
While told through the mouths of animals in a comic book, Maus is a memoir and a work of non-fiction. While some details were changed in order to make the storyline more readable, for example, the author did extensive research on the Holocaust and spoke to several other survivors in order to fill in areas missing from his father’s story, the overall content of the story is true. Maus provides an example of ways that media other than written works can be used to convey difficult stories.
[i] Kincade, Jonathan (2013) “Art Spiegelman’s Maus: (Graphic) Novel and Abstract Icon,” DISCOVERY: Georgia State Honors College Undergraduate Research Journal: Vol. 1, Article
[ii] Spiegelman, Art. 1997. Maus: a survivor’s tale. New York: Pantheon.
[iii] Kincade, Jonathan (2013) “Art Spiegelman’s Maus: (Graphic) Novel and Abstract Icon,” DISCOVERY: Georgia State Honors College Undergraduate Research Journal: Vol. 1, Article