The Complete Maus – Art Spiegelman

Summary from Goodreads:

Combined for the first time here are Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale and Maus II – the complete story of Vladek Spiegelman and his wife, living and surviving in Hitler’s Europe. By addressing the horror of the Holocaust through cartoons, the author captures the everyday reality of fear and is able to explore the guilt, relief and extraordinary sensation of survival – and how the children of survivors are in their own way affected by the trials of their parents. A contemporary classic of immeasurable significance.

I honestly don’t know why it took me so long to get around to this book. It has been recommended to me so many times by so many different people, but for some reason I kept putting it off. To be honest, I have always been a little bit apprehensive (and very ignorant) about graphic novels. I know there’s a lot of good stuff out there, but there is also a lot of not-so-good stuff out there and I guess I never really knew where to start. Anyway, I finally got around to reading this book and it totally shattered all of my previous misconceptions and prejudices about graphic novels. Seriously, if you (like me) have never really gotten into graphic novels, give this one a shot. Please. You won’t regret it.

In many ways, this book stands squarely in the comics tradition, observing many of the conventions of the form. At face value, it is a story about anthropomorphically depicted animals, told sequentially in a series of square panels six to a page, containing speech balloons and voice-over captions in which all the lettering is in capitals, with onomatopoeic sound-effects to represent rifle-fire, and so on. So it looks very like a comic.

But it is so much more than that. This is a book has a profound and unfailing strangeness, which makes it difficult to classify as a belonging to any one particular genre. Part of this is due to the depiction of Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, and so forth. This is a very a risky artistic strategy, as it implies a form of essentialism that many readers will find suspect. Cats kill mice because they are cats, and that’s what cats do. But is it in the nature of Germans, as Germans, to kill Jews?

This question hangs over the whole work, and is never answered directly. Instead we are reminded by the plot itself that this classification into different species was precisely how the human race was then regarded by those who had the power to order things; and the question is finally dispelled by the gradual gentle insistence that these characters might look like mice, or cats, or pigs, but what they are is people. They have the complexity and the surprisingness of human beings, and human beings are capable of anything.

As for the writing style, it is deceptively simple. When putting together this work, Spiegelman experimented with many different approaches and each page underwent multiple re-writes as he strove for clarity and fluidity. He tells the story dispassionately and honestly without any knowing winks to comics-literate readers. There is no glorification of war or survival. There is no glamorising of his father’s story. Rather, what emerges is a truthful and unsentimental portrait of how one man – one resourceful, irritating, cantankerous, and very human man – managed to survive one of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century.

What I found most surprising about this book is that it has several genuinely funny moments. One wouldn’t expect humour given the subject matter, but it is there, often wry and situational. This book will make you laugh out loud, and the next minute you’ll find yourself sickened by the terrifying cruelty that humans are capable of and wanting to bawl your eyes out. And then the next minute you’ll be reminded of the extraordinary kindness that humans are capable of. And then you’ll giggle again, and you’ll think to yourself “is it wrong that I’m laughing at a Holocaust survivor?”. And then you’ll assume a very serious expression. And then you’ll finish this book with your heart both broken and whole. And then you will recommend this book to everyone you come across, whether they’re a fan of comics or not.

Have you ever read The Complete Maus? What did you think of it? Are you a fan of graphic novels? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna