Maus is one of those rare works that fully encompasses its medium. There is a constant tension between the narrative Spiegelman tells and the artwork he uses to tell it; as such, this graphic novel is one of the most effective and powerful Holocaust narratives I’ve ever read.
The barbarity of the Holocaust is almost incomprehensible. The systematic murder of Jewish people happened on so large a scale that the true horror can be hard process. In other words, it’s easy to reduce a genocide down to a figure, a historical fact, because it’s difficult to approach from an emotional stand point. Maus, like other powerful Holocaust narratives, circumvents this by telling a deeply subjective and personal story. This graphic novel is autobiographical, following Spiegelman as he interviews his father about his experiences as a Polish Jew during World War 2. The parts of the comic set in the 1940s are appropriately dark, particularly the latter half of the novel set in Auschwitz. Very rarely does the novel approach the grand, historical narrative of the war; it only ever follows Vladek Spiegelman through all the horrors he himself faced. Whilst it might be hard to understand the scale of this genocide, it’s easier to empathise with the Jewish prisoner who was responsible for removing the bodies from the “showers” at a death camp.
All these horrors are told through a frame narrative of Art visiting his father in 1980s America. Spiegelman doesn’t hide the fact that his relationship with his father is less than perfect. If anything, Vladek Spiegelman is difficult, abrasive and confrontational. In one particularly funny page, Art complains that it’s hard to confront the spectre of racism when his father conforms to the the racist stereotype of the “miserly old jew”. These moments of brevity never once detract from the horrors of the war, they make it seem all the more painful. You can’t have darkness without the light, and by allowing some comedy Spiegalman provides something to juxtapose against the unimaginable horror of Auschwitz. The frame narrative further humanises this story: ultimately this is a realistic portrait of a difficult and flawed man, who survived one of the worst genocides in human history.
But there’s a constant tension between such a personal narrative and the art style of the book. The graphic novel opens with a quote from Hitler – “The Jews are undoubtably a race, but they are not human.” This justification for murder is reflected within the art style of Maus. All of the Jewish characters are drawn as mice, literally dehumanised on the page; Spiegelman reflects the attitude that an entire race of people were viewed as vermin. But the author/artist goes further by depicting all of the Nazis as cats. Thus the Jewish characters are not only vermin, they are prey – the art defines them all as something that deserves to be hunted.
The juxtaposition between narrative and art is challenging and powerful. Spiegelman presents a deeply emotional, “human interest” Holocaust narrative through a focalising lens of anti-semitism. Maus never once deals with anti-semitism at a conceptual level, it never needs to. The paradoxical relationship between narrative/presentation works to undo any argument that presents the Jewish peoples as subhuman; how can these characters be “vermin” when their story, full of suffering and unimaginable brutality, is so very human?