November 8, 2011

Understanding Maus

Art Spiegelman’s Maus is one of the most significant graphic novels in existence; a fact signalled most obviously by its status as the only graphic novel to have won the Pulitzer Prize (in 1992, by special commendation). As if to underline this unprecedented, and as yet unrepeated, endorsement from the American literary establishment, the collected volumes of Maus grace every “Graphic Novels you Must Read” list that is worth its salt as well as several lists which do not restrict themselves purely to graphic novels as a medium.

What lifts Maus above other graphic novels isn’t purely its subject matter, depicting the Holocaust with the Jews as mice and the Germans as cats, but the complexity which Spiegelman instils into the text (far above and beyond my simple summing up of the animal analogy). The irony of the animal imagery is that Maus is also very effective at reminding the reader that what is being depicted is a true and human story, with real people and real lives behind the words and images.

[For me this is one of the most powerful moments in Maus, it portrays both the horrendous nature of the Holocaust, but also its effects on those of subsequent generations who did not live through it, but who are tasked with continuing its memory – Spiegelman is tired, depressed, stressed, but he’s also become trapped amongst the horrors which he has written about: the pile of discarded corpses, but also (and not often noticed) the watchtower and wire fence of the concentration camp outside his window, not to mention the at first ominous exclamation by an unseen seeming gunman off panel.]

The publication of MetaMaus further emphasises the human element of the book, sometimes unbearably so. It’s a hefty volume packed out with photos, preliminary sketches, interviews, and the original script to the comic, seeking to answer the three most common questions which have followed Spiegelman since Maus’s first publication: “Why the Holocaust?”, “Why Mice?” and “Why Comics?”. Some of this material is familiar, although it has never been so beautifully presented, or been placed in the company of so many other wonderful insights. The gem in the crown of the book is the interactive DVD which is included; on the disc is a digital version of the complete Maus, with audio commentary and sketches available for almost every page and panel at the click of a button. The content of the MetaMaus book is expanded tenfold, with extra pictures and material which would not have been possible to squeeze between the bindings of the text. Finally, and most haunting to my mind, are the audio clips of Spiegelman interviewing Vladek. To hear Vladek relaying the now familiar story of his life first hand in that thick Jewish-American accent sends genuine chills down my spine.

There is always the danger in supplementary material that it can lessen the impact of the original text, that it will strip away any mystique. However, rather than diminish the magic and power of Maus, MetaMaus complements it perfectly, offering insight at a historical, artistic, and that crucial human level. We come to understand a little of Spiegelman’s motivations, his way of viewing the world, and in doing so we come to appreciate and understand Maus that little bit more. It’s also a boon to those interested in the art and craft of comics, with step-by-step drawings leading up to the finished product showing the evolution not just of the art but the idea behind each panel, if you ever doubted the work that goes into something like Maus then MetaMaus will set you straight.


Glyn Morgan
Waterstone's bookseller and comix expert


Glyn Morgan is a Ph.D research student at the University of Liverpool. His research is concerned with non-mimetic narratives of the Second World War. This allows him to spend most of his time reading and thinking about texts which have always interested him: alternate histories, science fiction, and comic books. More about his research and academic life can be found at his blog.



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