24 March 2005

Tomboy's Take: Maus I & II Make History Approachable

The Holocaust is an intimidating and frightening subject, but Art Spiegelman's Maus I: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began makes it more accessible without dumbing it down, enabling his father's emotional tale of life in Auschwitz to reach an audience it probably wouldn't have otherwise.

When the Maus books came out, in 1986 and 1991, respectively, Spiegelman went from being an underground comic artist to a key contributor of revolutionary literature to the canon. As comic books, Spiegelman's work risked being shoved aside as belonging to a disrespected genre dominated by superhero books aimed at adolescent boys and young men. They also brought the media spotlight to his family's personal matters in a way that some may have feared would be demeaning to the memory of the Holocaust. Instead, the Maus books helped revolutionize the graphic novel format while also receiving credit in academic settings. Spiegelman was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Maus, and countless academic works encompassing topics from oral storytelling to Holocaust in the media have referenced it.

In the Maus books, people are characterized as animals, with Jews as mice; Germans, cats; Americans, dogs, etc. Having this true story told through animals, though, doesn't lessen its value, emotional impact, or integrity at all. In fact, its innovative attempt at telling a difficult story is admirable, inspiring, and smart.

It's amazing how much expression Spiegelman portrays through his characters. The stark black-and-white format adds to the books' bleak atmosphere, accentuating the text without detracting from or having to carry it. There are scenes where, instead of using an anthropomorphic character, Spiegelman portrays his characters in "real-time" as humans wearing masks of their respective animal totems. This reminds us that these are real people who lived through these events, and that while the masks represent an important part of who we are, there's always someone behind the mask worth noting.

Spiegelman alternates between telling his father Vladek's story as it was lived in Auschwitz, and his own story as he interacts with the person his father became. As the stories progress, switching between past and present, we see reflections of how history has affected Vladek's current-day mannerisms, and how his actions in turn have adverse effects on Art's life. The dialogue is always emotionally intense, and it's rare that Spiegelman has to rely on commentary-only text boxes to help move the story along. He constantly reminds us that the stories come from recorded interviews with his father, but he moves his story effortlessly into a dialogue format between the people who populated his father's history, then comes back seamlessly to the present time, proving how closely intertwined past and present really are.

Maus II opens up with Spiegelman depicting how difficult it was to deal with the success of the first book as people come at him wanting to know the "moral of the story," when all he wants to do is tell a powerful, important story. He succeeds, completing the sequel and finishing Vladek's story.

When I first read these books for my college Holocaust and the Media class, my classmates and I were intimidated by its depressing nature. Upon rereading them, I remembered how accessible the format made the Spiegelman's difficult story. The Maus books are brilliant examples of how the graphic novel can be used as educational tools in the classroom. They're also an appropriate and highly effective medium to portray important and difficult events in history in an approachable manner to an audience who probably wouldn't run out and grab a traditional non-fiction book on the Holocaust.

Maus I: My Father Bleeds History (Pantheon Books, 1986; $14.00); Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began (Pantheon Books, 1992; $14.00) By Art Spiegelman.

No comments: