The Holocaust. It isn’t really the jazziest thing to think about. There’s no good that came out of it; apart from explaining where all the Jewish and gays went during the war. It’s undoubtedly one of the worst things to happen in modern history, and maybe it’s because one of Our darkest days, or perhaps because it’s so unusually violent, the events seen by internments and displaced persons under the Nazi regime have inspired some graphic and really thought provoking art (some of the art drawn by internments at Auschwitz really hit home how horrific the place was) but as well as some terrible things, it has also thrown up some really touching and beautiful pieces that not only make you think about what it must have meant to go through such hardship and survive, but also allow you to reflect on your own life at the same time.
Maus, by Art Spiegelman is one of these things.
At first thought, Maus might seem like a teenage boy’s wetdream; anthropomorphized animals recreating some of the worst atrocities in recent history, but as you delve deeper into the story, there’s more than one layer of, almost, glorifying the events. There’s a tale of a dysfunctional family, suicide, family secrets and, I feel kind of irritating explaining how terrible the Holocaust was, but it really was awful.
Maus is more than an account of an Holocaust survivor however, it’s also a postmemoir of the entire life of an Holocaust survivor and how what happened in places like Dachau and Auschwitz continued into later life and weren’t just switched off in 1945. Which may seem like a really simple thing to say, but during the 1950s it was easy to remember what happened, but sixty years later, it’s more difficult to put it into context. Thankfully, Maus, which centres of Art Spiegelman’s father, Vladek’s experiences, is given an entirely human context to put it in. There’s no generic numbers, or grainy photographs of American soldiers peering into mass graves, this is a recent tale about a recently deceased person and the effects that it has on people who are still alive now.
What makes Maus even more impressive, is that it helped redefine what comic books were in the late 80s. Before the 80s, comic books were pretty chipper and colourful things that didn’t really address issues (Green Arrow in the 70s addressed homosexuality and drug addiction, but that was rare), and it wasn’t until the publishing of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Rises that comic books were taken more seriously and took on a more adult approach. Maus’ effect on the medium was far reaching and is even now used by experts as anecdotal evidence.
Maus is, by and large, one of the most perfect graphic novels of all time (Wizard even voted it first in their 100 Greatest Comic Books Of All Time); the art, simplistic and minimalist keeps the story focused on what matters and Spiegelman’s post modern approach (he draws Jewish people as mice, and Germans as cats to reinforce the Nazi ideal that Jews were a different race), which keeps the story inwardly focused on itself by following the main character’s life as he deals with what he hears from his father, and even refers to the massive popularity of the series by having Spiegelman on the cover of issue 7, in a mouse mask, atop a pile of mouse corpses, implying his guilt at making money from the deaths of millions (he even addresses this with scenes where he visits a psychiatrist).
There is literally nothing bad to be said about Maus. It’s largely one of the most perfectly timed and beautiful pieces of literature ever created and should be shown to every child when they reach 13. The emotions so succinctly tapped in Maus resonate with every single person whether they have elderly parents, they are elderly parents, or they will be elderly parents. If you’ve become tired of Event Fatigue and want something a bit more subtle and nuanced, then Maus, however direct and unsettling it may be, will entertain you for hours and leave you thinking instead of instantly forgetting what you’ve read and moving onto whatever generic superhero DC are pumping their ideas into this week.