Book #12: The Complete Maus

One of the reasons I came to Art Spiegelman's Maus so late in the game is it's almost mythic status as both an account of the Holocaust and an example of a literary work transcending its (comic) form. The cover is so iconic, the image of Jews as mice and Nazis as cats had impressed itself so deeply in my mind that I actively postponed first purchasing and then reading the book. Finally reading it, I'm left with very little to say, except that the accolades and awards and reputation is more than deserved.

In brief, Maus relates the story of Art's father Vladek's life in Poland and the various concentration camps during WWII. It's also the story of Art's attempt to record his father's experiences during the Holocaust as a comic book, thus creating a sort of loop as we read of Art's struggles to create the book we're actually reading. Vladek's recollections of begin driven from his home and the horrors he experiences in Auschwitz and Dachau both propel the narrative and serve to act as a counterpoint to his present and very different life and interactions with his son.

The most striking feature is of course the art, and the depiction of the various groups in the book as different animals, most notably mice for the Jews and cats for the Nazis. The effect this has on the storytelling is staggering. Seeing a line of mice hanging, their stars pinned to their shirts, conveys heartbreak and loss that is totally different than actual photographs. The cats are terrifying, more like mountain lions than common house cats, and the fact that the art is exaggerated to a more cartoonish style accentuates the violence - you don't expect these things to be happening to such cute creatures, and that shock brings everything to a laser point.

The other piece to assist in making Vladek's imprisonment and heroic survival more striking is the second (but no less important) storyline of Art's relationship to his father as he relates the story in the present day. The younger Spiegelman refuses to flinch in depicting his less than tolerant behavior at his father's seemingly incongruous mannerisms, and as you follow Art's struggle to accept both sides of his father, the one he's lived with his whole life but can't relate to and the seemingly indestructible one who lived through the Holocaust the truth that the reverberations of the Holocaust still linger to this day is impossible to deny. This is an essential book that raises the standard of storytelling, regardless of the medium.