Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

10 April 2009

Maus: A Survivor's Tale, v. 1: My Father Bleeds History

Collects: Maus stories from Raw #1-8 (1980-6)

Released: August 1986 (Pantheon)

Format: 160 pages / black and white / $14.95 / ISBN: 9780394747231

What is this?: Art Spiegelman uses not-so-funny funny animals to tell the story of his father, a Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Along with The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, Maus is one of the three pillars of the “greatest comic-book story” argument, the one comic book fans trot out to meet the argument that all comic books are are superhero stories. It is a story of the Holocaust and one family’s struggle to stay alive. In 1992, Maus won a special Pulitzer; it and author Art Spiegelman have drawn very high praise from Alan Moore. There is no doubting Maus is a formidable work.

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, v. 1: My Father Bleeds History coverSo then: Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History is the first of two volumes of Maus. Spiegelman weaves two threads together: his father’s retelling of his family’s life in Poland in the late ‘30s / early ‘40s and Speigelman’s relationship to his father. The Spiegelmans’ story is a thoroughly crushing one; anyone who knows any history knows that no matter how bad Vladek and Anja Spiegelman have it, it will get worse. (Even if you don’t know history, the title of v. 2, And Here My Troubles Began, will give you a hint.) No hope is offered; the story is told in the voice of Vladek, Spiegelman’s father, a pessimistic old Jew who knows the depths his story will sink to even better than we do. Vladek doesn’t seem to understand or value the heroism he exhibits to keep himself and his wife alive. The reader must watch Vladek sell more and more possessions, take more and more chances, watch friends and family get captured and sent away, until the inevitable happens.

To break up this long march into atrocity, Spiegelman includes interludes with his adult self and his father. Their conflict begins as seemingly the standard generational struggle, amplified by the hardships Vladek endured, while Spiegelman has grown up in a relatively stable and secure environment. But as the story goes on, there is more; the reader begins to suspect there is something beyond Vladek’s stereotypical kvetching, parsimonious Jewish exterior, and Spiegelman reveals some of his true difficulties with his father. It is completely different type of story than Vladek’s Holocaust memoir, but since the Holocaust helped form Vladek’s relationship with his son, the two stories dovetail well.

All the characters, past and present, are depicted as anthropomorphic animals, with each race being a different species — Jews are mice, Germans are cats, and Poles are pigs (although cartoony pigs, not dirty farmyard swine). Spiegelman made this decision because the Germans referred to the Jews as “vermin” and the Poles as “swine”; the art shows the absurdity of the claim. When Vladek or another Jew attempts to pass himself off as a Pole, Spiegelman ties a simple pig mask around their face. The artifice is simple yet effective. The story is so human that the reader quickly forgets it is being told through animals; the symbol of the animals is understood while the inner humanity is remembered.

As I read v. 1, I always felt as if I were missing something. My mind kept going between two extremes: Maus is an absorbing tale told well, but haven’t I seen this somewhere before? It made me doubt my own maturity, and in the end, I felt Spiegelman’s style had thrown me. Whereas complexity and richness have made Watchmen one of the greatest comic-book stories, Maus excels with a story that is spare and bleak. There is no color — an artistic as well as a financial concern, certainly. Seeing simplicity, I searched for complexity in the wrong places: the story, the characters of Vladek and Anja. That’s not where the richness and reward are; they’re in the style, the artifice, and the fact that the story was told at all.

Rating: (5 of 5)

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