Sunday, August 3, 2014

July's Book: Maus

Maus by Art Spiegelman
Graphic Novel (1991 - 159+136 pp.)

Maus, a graphic novel in two parts, is renowned comic book artist Art Spiegelman's transcription of two years of conversations he had with his now deceased father Vladek, a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor. The book(s) alternate between life in Europe from about 1930-1945 and life in Queens, New York in the late 1970s. Different national and ethnic groups are shown as different animals, most notably Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs. Art, whom I call "Spiegelman" through this entry, shows anguish throughout the book(s) as to how he will represent Holocaust-related events, his relationship with his father, and how to show his father's less desirable traits without conjuring up visions of negative stereotypes of Jews.

I won't get into any political or historical commentary here, as I try to approach my sources as neutrally as possible. Sure, I could get upset that Spiegelman portrays my mother's ancestry as a bunch of pigs, but that wouldn't be much different from a segment of Iran that was offended by 300. I'd rather accept someone's perspective and appreciate a work for what it is than worry about taking offence to things.

The storytelling is quite good. The reader gets an idea as to how Vladek lived, who his family was, what their priorities were, and how World War II changed everything forever. Although I do not know graphic novels that well, I enjoyed the animation thoroughly. Spiegelman invested a considerable amount of work into the panels, which came out in serialized form in his Raw magazine for eleven years (1980-1991). The direct quotations from the family members in their dialects, the emotion the characters demonstrate, and the lack of large blocks of text make Maus a fun, accessible work.

The most interesting part to me is Art and Vladek's relationship. The mention of children being forced to finish food on their plates before eating anything else (I: 43) is something I've encountered in some of my experiences with Continental European culture more generally. Vladek's extreme financial conservatism is evident in statements like, from his second wife Mala, "He has hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank, and he lives like a pauper!" (I: 132) Mala often comes off as overly desirous of Vladek's money, though, especially from Vladek himself, so the reader is left to wonder whether anyone is right or wrong in the frequent arguments about money in the Spiegelman household. A particularly hilarious/worrisome episode comes when Vladek, unable to eat old cereal, attempts to return it despite the box being opened (II: 78).

Spiegelman's struggles with the book go to an existential level. He grapples with attempts to commercialize Maus, something he opposes virulently, (II: 42) and with an inability to draw tin shop equipment he has never seen (II: 46). Then there is the guilt of worrying about things like how to properly depict an electric drill press when so much of the book concerns death and lost love.

Ironically, Maus is very human. It's not educational in terms of politics or history, as I disclaimed above, but it's great for learning about how peoples' experiences shape their lives. It makes me wish I could interview my grandfather, whose story from the same time and place would have been fascinating to tell...

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 6

P.S. I have a bit of a history of publishing these blog entries on my birthday. It's more fun than a lot of the other things I could be doing, I suppose.


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