Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History
By Art Spiegelman
Of course when people talk about Maus they talk about the Holocaust.
I feel like this cuts both ways.
For many people Maus is comic books at their most respectful and serious. I don’t think that there’s any subject in the whole world that is treated with more reverence than the Holocaust. For some people it’s almost an event that defies understanding – as something that exists beyond human imagination. And Maus stands as one of the 20th Century’s most notable attempts to make sense of a historical event that is so completely and utterly senseless. How do you explain murder that takes place on an industrial scale? What does one do in the face of genocide?
On the other hand – and how do I say this delicately? – Maus is a story about cartoon mice. I mean actually it’s even worse – it depicts Jewish people as mice and the Germans as cats (not to mention all the other nationalities – Poles as pigs, Americans as dogs etc etc). And yes ok the least you can say is that this is pretty visually striking and unique (I’m pretty sure I could pick a panel of Maus out of a line-up). But also it strikes this reader as being fundamentally unserious. In a sense it feels as if Spiegelman looks into Holocaust and flinches (although – fuck – who can blame him?). Although maybe that’s the wrong way around? Maybe the dress-up is for the benefit of the audience? Maybe it’s easier to read about man’s inhumanity to man when it’s not men who are doing it? Everyone knows the fucked up things that cats do to mice after all.
But then I can’t help but feel that as a device to keep us at a safe distance it ends up doing too much. I mean for some people it seems that that is all that Maus is really about. I’m not sure if you’ve had as many conversations as me about this book but I can’t help but notice that the cats and mice thing is not only the first thing that people mention when they talk about this book but pretty much the only thing. “Oh yeah – Maus? It’s about Jewish people as mice and German people as cats.”
Like I get that it’s cute and distinctive. But I’m not sure that it really tells us that much or – worse – I’m not sure it really tells us anything at all. Because yeah at the risk of ruining everything – Jewish people aren’t mice. German people aren’t cats. In fact – as hard as it might be to face: everyone is a human being.
So. What else is this book about?
Well for me – every time I read Maus – the thing that makes the biggest impression is Vladek – Spiegelman’s father.
I have a secret theory that while comic books do a lot of things successfully they do tend to fall down a bit when it comes to character. That’s why most of the well known comic book characters are defined more by what they wear than who they actually are. But damn Spiegelman manages to capture Vladek’s voice so successfully that you can basically hear him dismissing everything and everyone as you read the book. Hell – at some points I swear I could even smell his breath.
His manners are so sharp and distinctive that I’m pretty sure you could write a book about him taking a trip to the shop and it would still be compelling (“You call these a can of baked beans? Let me tell you what beans should be!”) so yeah – when you have him narrate something so monumental and horrific it’s… incredibly strong and potent stuff. Like vodka mixed with gasoline.
Part of me does wonder tho – what would this book be like with a little less artifice? But maybe without the cartoony softness it would be too much for anyone to take? Maybe it’s only by being a comic book that it’s been able to reach such a wide audience and become the cultural icon it is today? But it’s worth pointing out that both Vladek and Maus itself is a lot more combative and prickly than it’s almost now cuddly reputation suggests…
“I have a secret theory that while comic books do a lot of things successfully they do tend to fall down a bit when it comes to character.”
Can you elaborate on this because I can think of many brilliant characters in comics. From Maggie & Hopey from Love and Rockets, Jessie from Preacher, Enid in Ghost World, Punpun from Goodnight Punpun.
I can’t think of a reason which would impede comics as a medium from portraying good characters.
If you compare comic books to other storytelling mediums such as novels and film and TV and theatre I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s more difficult to create characters with a proper sense of depth. Mostly I think that’s just to do with time and – how to say? – informational bandwidth? Novels are better at comics at doing interiority because while they have less pictures they do have a lot more words – and words are the best way to give a sense of what a human being is like on the inside.
You’d think maybe they’d be on the same playing field when it comes to film and TV and theatre because (mostly) they don’t do interiority as well. But their big advantage is that they have movement. And like ok – I admit that this is a pretty sweeping generalisation and I don’t have any real evidence to back this up but – I think you can tell a lot more about a character via how they move than how they look. There’s a whole thing in animation right about how a walk will give you everything you need to know about a character?
Of course I’m not saying that comic books can’t do character. It’s just harder. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most famous comic book characters are pretty basic archetypes. Judge Dredd. Calvin and Hobbes. Tintin. Morpheus. Tank Girl. Hellboy. Astro Boy. I’m not saying that this means comic books are bad or anything like that. It’s just that different mediums have different strengths.
I hear what you’re saying but completely disagree.
I feel comics achieve the same interiority of prose because they use words too and have the cinematic tools of visually getting that across not only by facial expressions but visual metaphor and juxtaposition.
For me, Maggie and Hopey feel more rounded and alive than archetypes like Dredd and Tank Girl.
Mainstream superhero Comics since the 2000s and a lot of recent Image/Vault/Boom comics have suffered from being more like TV in their storytelling and foregoing the interiority of characters but comics as a medium I think is as strong as any other in creating realistic characters
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