Maus

maus

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,’ by Art Spiegelman, is a biography of the author’s father, Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. It alternates between descriptions of Vladek’s life in Poland before and during the Second World War and Vladek’s later life in the Rego Park neighborhood of New York City.

The work is a graphic narrative in which Jews are depicted as mice, while Germans are depicted as cats. It is the only comic book ever to have won a Pulitzer Prize.

‘Maus’ (German for ‘Mouse’) took thirteen years to complete. Spiegelman’s first published version was a three-page strip, printed in 1972 in ‘Funny Aminals,’ an underground comic published by Apex Novelties. In 1977, Spiegelman decided to lengthen the work, publishing most of it serially in ‘RAW’ magazine, a comics anthology Spiegelman co-edited along with his wife Françoise Mouly. It was then published in its final form in two parts (Volume I: ‘My Father Bleeds History’ in 1986 and Volume II: ‘And Here My Troubles Began’ in 1991), before eventually being integrated into a single volume.

Spiegelman, wanting to record his father’s history as a graphic novel, conducts a series of interviews with him over several years. Vladek tells how German policy towards Jews slowly changed in the late 1930s, and how his well-to-do family came to suffer penury, persecution, and loss of life. Vladek tried to make the most of difficult situations in Radomsko, Częstochowa, Sosnowiec, and Bielsko. Eventually, he was sent to Auschwitz as a prisoner.

Between interviews, the novel records the contemporary (1970s-1980s) life of the Spiegelman family in the Rego Park neighborhood of New York City. In particular, it depicts Vladek’s difficult personality and Art’s attempt to make sense of it. He is exceedingly stingy and makes life very difficult for his first wife Anja (Art’s mother, a concentration camp survivor who committed suicide) and his second wife Mala (also a concentration camp survivor). Art contrasts the contemporary Vladek with the historical Vladek, whom he only knows indirectly through his research. He also points out that while Vladek was himself a victim of bigotry that he was known to hold bigoted views against African Americans and homosexuals himself. He comments about the difficulties of presenting Vladek’s story accurately.

Throughout ‘Maus,’ Jews are represented as mice, while Germans are represented as cats. Other animals are used to represent other nationalities, religions, and races. Almost all the characters of a single ‘nationality’ were drawn identically, with only their clothing or other details helping to distinguish between them. In making people of a single nationality look ‘all alike,’ Spiegelman hoped to show the absurdity of dividing people by these lines. In a 1991 interview, Spiegelman noted that ‘these metaphors… are meant to self-destruct in my book — and I think they do self-destruct.’

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