I purchased “Maus” shortly after recovering from The Crow. I found it, as luck would have it, for sale at one of my library’s book sales. (Lucky me, I always got first dibs at the sales since I worked there.) Unlike “The Crow”, I had heard of “Maus” previously and knew the gist of the story: a retelling of the Holocaust, which portrayed the Jewish people as anthropomorphized mice, and the German Nazis as vicious cats. Though this was all I knew about the story, I was interested. I liked the idea of the simple, seemingly childish portrayal being used to tell such a devastating story. However, I was largely unprepared for how powerful the story was.
“Maus” is not simply a World War II story, as I believed when I picked up the book. It is actually a semi-memoir of the author/artist, Art Spiegelman, and his father Vladek. There are two real parts to the story of “Maus” that tie in together. The story is framed by segments of autobiography by Art, depicted as a mouse, as he travels to his father’s home to discuss the war. In this way, the reader actually watches the creation of the very graphic novel they’re reading. It shows Art going to his father’s and explaining that he wants to make a graphic novel about Vladek’s life and his experiences in World War II. It also depicts and explains, in bits and pieces, his relationship with his father and why it is often very strenuous.
The rest of the segments throughout the story are done as flashbacks and stories being told by Art’s father. These segments chronicle Vladek’s experiences leading up to, during, and immediately after the Holocaust. It begins as he is a young man living in Poland, and his introduction and relationship with Anja, Art’s future mother. It follows him into the Polish army, into the P.O.W. camps, back into Reich Poland, and finally, into Auschwitz. You feel for Vladek because you realize he is just an average human being that was put through something horrible: you watch him use common sense, reason, and the things he’s learned throughout his life to keep himself alive.
The power of “Maus” lies in its reality. Despite being drawn with anthropomorphized animals, there is an overwhelming feeling of realism to the entire story. Perhaps because it is being done as a framed narrative, and the reader is constantly being reminded that there is a real man telling his story and a real man sitting down to record it. It is strange, at times, that the reader can feel so close to the characters and see their story as truth when they are being depicted as animals.
The art style is beautiful and haunting. It is unbelievable how moving the images can be, despite being done in a cartoonish, stylized feel. Throughout the novel none of the characters are done realistically*, but they still create a powerful, human feel. Because the characters, specifically the mice, are so stylized, it is often a little bit difficult to differentiate between characters. But by simply paying attention to how Vladek explains the story and minor details (what character is wearing a long tie, a bow tie, who’s smoking, etc), the characters can be determined. These things rarely become a problem however, as the story flows smoothly and the reader gets caught up in the narrative.
Maus itself is broke into two books, “My Father Bleeds History” and “And Here My Troubles Began”. To my knowledge, the books are always sold together in a pack- they may be sold separately, but I haven’t yet seen any book store selling the individual books. The first book contains Vladek’s story beginning just before the war and ending right before Vladek entered Auschwitz, while the second book encompasses Auschwitz and the end of the war. The second book also goes into more detail about Art and his own views of the “Maus” project.
All in all, “Maus” is an incredibly powerful piece. It is a look into two generations of the effects of the Holocaust, and paints a beautiful, haunting picture like no other story could. It is more than just an effective war novel, it is a forceful memoir spanning generations and an insightful look into how we view and treat family. Honestly, I would love to see High School classes working this book into their curriculum; I don’t think there are many war stories out there that are more personal.
*Save for in segments presented as comics-within-the-comic, such as “Prisoner on the Hell Planet”, a comic Art did previous to “Maus” that discusses his mother’s suicide and the effects it had on himself and his father. This story stands alone by itself as an incredibly powerful, personal piece.