Maus is no ordinary book. For one thing, it’s got no words. Okay, that’s not quite true – it’s got little words. Little words in speech bubbles because it’s a cartoon book, a comic. But this is no everyday comic strip. What makes Maus incredibly original is that it’s a graphic novel about Jewish author Art Spiegelman’s father’s experience in the Holocaust.
I would say that, in fitting with its topic, Maus is an unusually un-funny comic. But that’s not quite true either. Maus is funny; not during the Nazi period of recounting admittedly, but in the juxtaposing story line of 1990s America. In this story line, cleverly intertwined with the past, Spiegelman’s relationship with his father is illustrated, often very amusingly. His father is portrayed as being stereotypically Jewish – excessively mean with money for example – to the point where he could be a caricature. The depth in Maus comes with the contrast between the man who is, now, a Holocaust survivor near the end of his life, but who was a man fighting for survival, & taking very shrewd/difficult/intelligent decisions back in the 1930s and 40s. A sort of hero figure then, Spiegelman is overwhelmingly fallible-seeming to his son now (a parent-child relationship that is infinitely relatable). The obvious frustration Spiegelman feels with his father is made a lot harder due to his knowledge of the hell his father encountered in the past. Therefore, lots of his father’s most irritating traits are rendered a lot more understandable – yet they remain excruciating to Spiegelman (for example, his father’s secret throwing out of his favourite jacket because it looked too ‘shabby’ – the author being some 30/35 years old at the time).
Overwhelmingly, Maus is a story of contrasts. And, of course, a shocking account of the Polish-Jewish experience under the Nazis. To be honest, I don’t especially like cartoons and I don’t think I would necessarily read another graphic novel. But something about Maus, maybe its honesty about Spiegelmen (senior), its humour, its credibility, its unexpected form, its clever art (Jews are portrayed as mice/Nazis as cats) makes it utterly mesmerising. I read it once, and then immediately read it a second time. This book really isn’t like anything I’ve ever read before; it’s part masterful artwork, part psychology and history – and, ultimately, a piece on humanity.