“I value literature because in it men look at life with all the vulnerability, honesty, and penetration they can command . . . and dramatize their insights by means of a unique relationship with language and form.” (Hoggart, as found in Chambers, 1973, p. 132.)
The comics excellence of Art Spiegelman’s two-volume Maus (1986, 1991) certainly exemplifies Richard Hoggart’s comments (above) about valuable literary qualities. Even so, I was afraid to read a comic about the Jewish Holocaust. The enormity of that history weighs on me like a mountain, and the prospect of reading the comic sickened me. I have already sobbed, had nightmares, and trembled over The Diary of a Young Girl (Frank [English translation], 1952), Sophie’s Choice (Pakula, 1999), and Schindler’s List (Keneally, 1982). My psyche buckles and weeps when my friend, Stan, talks about being a young Polish Jew at the time, witnessing atrocities, and surviving hidden in a pantry.
The importance of Maus, however, is compelling. Noted as a comics paradigm (Martin, 2011, p. 172), it is recommended as significant to readers and celebrated by a Pulitzer Prize. And so, I decided to ‘meet’ the titular ‘mouse,’ Vladek Spiegelman, a human Holocaust survivor whose story is told by his son, Art.
Maus includes the experiences of Vladek and his wife, both Polish Jews who survived a Holocaust ghetto, concentration camps, and life-threatening times after World War II. Concurrently, Vladek’s relationship with Art and other family happenings are disclosed. Now having read it, I believe humankind must know the history and the account. Librarians need to know more than is conveyed by the summaries and subject headings.
Art Spiegelman mixes a mammoth story with ‘undersized’ comics features, making Maus readable and engaging. At just 23-24 centimeters with fewer than 300 black-and-white pages in all, the physical books are easy to handle. Small panels laid out neatly allow accessible bits of story to form impressive sequential art. The text font is small and does not overwhelm. Human characters have familiar animal heads (Jews are mice, Polish folk are pigs, Nazis are cats, and more). This anthropomorphism becomes understated as it continues but demands constant visual interpretation. As a result, various players and their plights become familiar.
What happened to me as I read Maus was unexpected. My fears did not keep me from reading on, and horror and grief did not make me cower, buckle, or weep. This comic provided a reading experience diminutive enough to be safe, yet it was potent and gripping. Vladek’s feisty survival, albeit imperfect and painful, serves as a powerful example of response to unbelievable brutality. Art’s candor is refreshing. At the end, I was somber but revitalized.
Chambers, A. (1973). Introducing books to children. London, UK: Heinemann.
Frank, A.; Mooyaart-Doubleday, B. M. (Translator). (1952). The diary of a young girl. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Keneally, T. (1982). Schindler’s list. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Martin, E. (2011). Graphic novels or novel graphics? Comparatist, 35, 170-181.
Pakula, A. J. (Screenplay and Director); Pakula, A. J., & Barish (Producers). (1999). Sophie’s choice [DVD]. Santa Monica, CA: ITC Films.
Spiegelman, A. (1986). Maus I: A survivor’s tale: My father bleeds history. New York, NY: Pantheon.
Spiegelman, A. (1991). Maus II: A survivor’s tale: And here my troubles began. New York, NY: Pantheon.