Almost five years ago, I published a review of these great books, Art Speigelman's Maus comic series. It is unlike any comic book that came before, because for many, if not most people to that point, comics were generally lighthearted and cheerful, while these books dealt with the darkest days of the Holocaust, culminating with life in Auschwitz as a Jew.
Something strange happened during the publication of this particular blog entry and, for some reason, I apparently did not notice. But it came out on a field of white, and barely legible.
Still not entirely sure why this happened, although today, it seemed appropriate to finally remedy this.
And so, without further ado, here is the review of Maus I and Maus II, originally published on Saturday, June 9, 2012:
Art Spiegelman has done some amazing things with his cartoon. It has come to be a well-known work now, but at the time that the Maus books first came out, it was highly controversial on many levels. First of all, it is a comic, and the subject matter was the Holocaust. Those two things were not transparently going to go together well, and many were skeptical. Secondly, Spiegelman uses stereotypes of sorts to portray the various nationalities and races depicted (Jews are mice, Germans are cats, Americans are dogs, French are frogs, Swedes are reindeer, and so on). There certainly existed some risk in portraying stereotypes in a book that focuses, essentially, on the evils of stereotyping gone too far!
That said, this book is about a lot more than that, as well. Yes, it is mostly centered on the real-life story of Art Spiegelman’s dad, who survived the Holocaust, including a trip to Auschwitz (as did his mom), rather miraculously. But it is also about coping as the offspring of survivors, who happened to lose a child during the Holocaust, and having to compete against that perfect, departed child. It is about having to cope with the father, who is stubborn on so many levels and difficult to deal with, to the point of being almost impossible to live with. It is about the struggles of the author/illustrator himself, coping with his mother’s suicide, his father’s competitiveness and apparent need to always put him down, about his own feelings of depression and inadequacy, and about his comic art progression, which was often misunderstood (especially in those days), even by his father. In fact, this book about surviving the Holocaust and death camps and such juggles many themes, and it is this very humanness that allows it to transcend other material on similar subject matter. That is why, on many levels, this work offers something more unique than other literary works on surviving the Holocaust, such as Primo Levi’s or Elie Wiesel’s “Night”. Not that I am trying to discredit those works by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I enjoyed them immensely, and their very humanness and descriptive powers set them apart from being merely just history books, merely black and white print.
The Maus books, however, take it to another level. Spiegelman’s work tackles many complex themes at once, and does so capably. These works hardly take more than a few hours to read, and yet at the end, you almost feel like you know the main characters more than a strictly written work that might take you, say, a week or two to read. For that matter, they are more effective on many levels than a movie might be, since movies and television tend to limit one’s imagination, limiting the roles to one actor or actress, who may, or may not, do the part effectively. Here, Speigelman’s work allows you to see what he sees and how he sees it, yet it does not restrict your own imagination. You provide much of the material yourself – the voice, the faces, the background. It is more flexible than either a strict, black and white printed book, or a movie. In a very real sense, this genre enables you to step into the shoes of the people inside this work, to see and feel what they feel, to understand the subtleties involved.
That’s not easy to do, and it is a testament to Art Speigelman that he is able to do this with such apparent ease!
It should come as no surprise, if you have read this far into this blog, that I would highly recommend these books, which recently celebrated their 25th anniversary of release. There is a souvenir edition out that includes both books, and if you like, go ahead and get them. But maybe, if you want to save on money, you can go to your public library and get a copy. Either they will get it, or surely they will have associations with another library that will have a copy. Even if you absolutely must buy it (and I would definitely recommend these books for anyone’s personal library), you can probably save some money by getting older editions of these books. The special editions really did not have much more to offer than the packaging, which looks nice, but seemed hardly worth the extra price.
That said, whether you choose to buy it or to borrow it, try and give yourself the opportunity to get your hands on a copy of each of these books, and dive in! It does not take more than a couple of hours per book (I promise!), and the books are rewarding, entertaining, sometimes funny, often tragic, and almost always illuminating. What more can be said about any book? Read it!