Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Review: Maus: A Survivor's Tale, by Art Spiegelman

Maus, as currently published, is a collection of graphic stories that were serialized between 1974 and 1991. (It has been previously released as two volumes--My Father Bleeds History, and Here My Troubles Began, and this edition combines them all.)  I'd heard of it over the years, but finally read it after my daughter was assigned a copy for her history class. (At 17, it was the kid's first experience with the comic book format, which makes me feel as though I've failed as a parent.) It's a family memoir, his father's recollection of the Holocaust, and the author's own reflection of the legacy it left on himself and his family. I've been finding it difficult to review, and obviously it's taken me some time.

I can't do much service describing Spiegelman's significance in the underground comics movement (go to Wikipedia for that), but suffice to say, don't think superheroes and adolescent nerds here: this is a man who advocates cartooning and comics as an intellectual art form (Maus is the first publication in this format to win a Pulitzer), and experiments with the dense quality of the medium for storytelling. He is particularly invested, I think, in working out which sorts of things comic frames are particularly well-suited to convey, and how working concepts out in that medium can add something unique to the storytelling, with a taste for pushing boundaries. (In an explicit example, there's a clever segment discussing how voices and stories can be impositions on memory, but graphic art is unique in that it can communicate wordlessness.)

Although it's told in a visual medium, Maus, as a comic, relies less on the spectacle of those visuals than you might think--it's not a painting, in other words, it's a narrative, and the art serves as an ongoing comment to the plot and character, and often bears the forward motion and rhythm of the story. (The book is entirely in black and white, which I tend to prefer, but it's drawn somewhat roughly and is heavy on the inks.) Speigelman draws humans with animal faces, different ones for different cultures. Jews are mice, rooted out by the Nazi cats. Christian Poles are pigs, Americans are dogs, and there's an occasional French frog or Gypsy cricket in the mix. To me, it called to mind those vintage Donald Duck comics I had in the pile as a kid, and eventually I came to realize that the evocation of Disney was intentional--Maus as the Mouse--a borrowed iconic motif. But the drawings didn't remind me of Mickey and Donald so much as those chimerical dog-faced creatures--whatever the hell species Goofy and Pete are supposed to be--that seemed to populate the entire cast of Disney comic extras, and I found the effect creepily anonymizing. The few times Spiegelman draws the characters with human faces, they get some sudden impact as individuals. 

Sometimes the animal faces are shown as masks. When old Vladek pretends to be a non-Jewish Pole, his piggy face is tied on with a string. And the times when Spiegelman the author gets a little closer to the fourth wall, his mouse mask is revealed too. Is cultural identity something you wear or something you are? I like to think it's the former, but I realize that's a privileged opinion to have. The Polish Jews had no choice in the matter.

Vladek's story is given to his son in a matter-of-fact way (they are based on real-life taped interviews with his father), and even as the world constricts around him, he gets right on with what was happening then and what happened next.  The old man often erupts in incredulity or irritability, and he recalls many people fondly, but the sorrow and the loss are deeper emotions for him, clearly harder to access.  His story is one of luck and uncanny pragmatism as he evades one scrape, buys a bit of time till the next (worse) one, networks within his limits, shaves any tiny advantage, bails when he must.  He and his wife give their first son to an imagined safer haven, and the poor kid and his cousins are poisoned rather than face capture by the Nazis.  One of the scenes that sticks with me is how, at the war's end when prisoners were shipped from the camp, stuffed into railroad cars by the Nazis, Vladek manages to hoist himself up on a hammock made out of a hoarded shirt, while the crowd is jammed in below him.  How can you survive as people suffocate and die in piles below you without shutting off some chunk of your empathy?  And yet it's when his wife--another survivor--commits suicide years after the war, that the old man finally turns into himself, the last moment we see of him before crossing over to inflexible geezerhood. 

It makes it hard for the American son.  Nearly half the story is set in the book's present day, with Art dealing with his relationship with his father, trying to put his own grownup feelings of guilt and inadequacy and irritation in a context he can grapple with.  In some ways, Vladek is everyone's aging parent, caught behind modern sensibilities and too old to care too much about them.  But not much deeper than that, it's been impossible to live up to a dead older brother, or to a dead sainted wife and mother, and given what the old man has been through, it's got to feel incredibly selfish to demand any kind of attention.  So Spiegelman gets him to open up about the experience instead, lets it serve as both therapy and tribute, and the world gets Maus


Inkberrow said...

I've often wondered if it's that we have to live up to them or whether we just have to live too. For instance, while the Greatest Generation were great, didn't shirk, no argument, was their greatness thrust upon them by exigency, or even (blasphemy!) "opportunity", unsought, of course, but great-making nonetheless? Would our oft-reviled Terrible Ignorant Slackers of recent generations maybe have bucked up just as well under the circumstances? Maybe they'll yet have a chance.

I have the two-volume "Maus" on my shelves, and I enjoyed your summary. It's hard for me to judge it because for me everything Shoah seems sui generis whether I like it or not. But it's a graphic novel landmark, period. So is, according to Vern, and for not entirely dissimilar reasons, the Alison Bechdel family biographies, "Fun Home" and "Are You My Mother?". Vern's been hooked on her ever since the early days of "Dykes To Watch Out For", but as with Spiegelman there is serious artistry amid that, er, fun.

Keifus said...

It's strange how the generations which *did* have to jump in and make sacrifices have in turn wanted to subsequent generations to *not* have to do that. (And then they judge us--or we judge ourselves--for somehow being made of lesser stuff.)

I don't really believe people are so different on the whole. The world around us changes though, and we imprint in different starting environemnts, and grow out of them only with the tools we have. A lot of what comes out as Depression-era nobility was forged in a lifetime of getting majestically screwed over by bigger forces. ...Which is to say the Milennials may yet have a chance, the poor bastards.

I'd stopped reading very much graphic material roughly during the time Maus was getting toward its conclusion, about the time I would have been ready for something like that. I would have probably missed Bechdel in any case. I wonder how she feels about her legacy in film criticism.

Inkberrow said...

I agree on it being the situation more than the generation.

BigFan Vern says Bechdel is a bit mortified by the film legacy, because it's not her own conception, but a lesser-known friend's, which Bechdel popularize, her due attribution initially and since largely unavailing.