Art Spiegelman won the 1992 Pulitzer for Maus. The complete edition (originally published as two books) comprise a powerful memoir which recounts the lives and survival of the author’s parents Vladek and Anja Spiegelman during WWII in Poland where they were eventually captured and transported to Auschwitz. But it is also a story about Art Spiegelman’s difficult relationship with his father, and the impact of survival on the survivor’s family. What makes Spiegelman’s work so moving is the juxtaposition of a supposedly lighthearted form, the comic strip with the greatest evil and suffering in human history, the Holocaust. Spiegelman’s parents miraculously survived the concentration camps, being among very few survivors, getting by on luck and (in the case of Spiegelman’s father) a lot of resourcefulness. In the comic the Jews are portrayed as mice and the Nazi soldiers as cats, the Poles as pigs, the French as frogs, the Americans as dogs, and the Swedes as reindeer.
Art is trying to reconstruct in cartoon form the lives of his father, Vladek, and his mother, Anja, both survivors of Auschwitz. In 1968 Anja committed suicide, and the first part of “Maus” ends with the young Artie calling his father a “murderer” for having destroyed Anja’s wartime memoirs without even having read them. Early in the sequel, Artie confesses to his wife, Francoise, “When I was a kid I used to think about which of my parents I’d let the Nazis take to the ovens if I could only save one of them. Usually I saved my mother. Do you think that’s normal?” His wife dryly replies, “Nobody’s normal,” especially for a family whose Holocaust legacy still exerts its influence over father and son. But underneath the direct suffering of the Holocaust and the literal cat and mouse game between the Nazis and Jews, the true theme of this book is the lasting effects on the Spiegelman family, including the father’s lasting agony and the mental illness shared by both Spiegelman’s mother and Art. The strained relationship between father and son are the true heart of this remarkable work.
If I had any complaints about Maus, it would be that Art did leave the readers in the dark regarding several instances in his life. We don’t know why he attempted to commit suicide at age twenty or what made his mother ultimately succeeded in her suicide attempt. I was a little surprised when the book abruptly ended, but then again, to quote another famous graphic novel “Nothing ever ends.” Regardless of my complaints, Maus is a remarkable work, awesome both in its conception and execution. It is at one and the same time a novel, a documentary, a memoir, a comic book and an epic tale told in tiny pictures.