Review: The Complete Maus

By Noel Weichbrodt

The beauty of the comic book Maus is like the beauty of a garden gate: both offer easy, accessible entrances into tangled, overwhelming places of living and dying. In both, the living struggle with the legacy and leftovers of the dead who now decay and fertilize the ground from which the living draw strength and new life.

A comic can, if used properly, make completely accessible a large number of otherwise avant-garde and complex narrative possibilities. Simultaneous narratives, multiple time-lines, intratextual interaction and criticism, and visual play are all wrapped up in Maus, and the thing is you never know them by names at all1 . The book is simply rewarding, challenging, and revealing, using all those technical devices to play upon and re-tell the central story: The Holocaust’s effects still reach down past the first generation and into the second and third generation of survivors. There’s much more, of course. The struggle for authenticity, love, hate, survival, the family, the father, friendship, neuroses, they are all explored in vital ways in Maus. That the thrust of the narrative still remains so strong while all those other issues are explored is a testament to the possibilities of using those technical narrative devices well.

Race still is an issue2 . In reading Maus, I was distinctly aware of my racial make-up: German, Native American, and Ukrainian. My German great-grandfather, according to family tradition (which is, of course, a patchwork of guesses and inferences), was secretly half-Jewish. He fled Germany at the end of 1939 as Hitler’s National Socialist party rose to power, working in the Merchant Marine and jumping ship off miles off Canada, swimming the North Atlantic in the winter to find freedom and security in, of all places, the prairie of Oklahoma. He was raised by his aunt and uncle, who never let him meet his father and mother. He would never talk about his ethnic heritage to us.

Why is that important? His body, along with my Blackfoot, Iroquois, and Ukrainian ancestors, is the hill on which I live. Spiegelman himself is painfully aware of this—in a panel of Maus, he sits at his drafting board atop a pile of naked, starved, dead Jews killed at Auschwitz. They died, he still lives, and their deaths made him what he is.

The humanity of Maus is in the end what I take away. Falling in love, surviving fearsome trials and suffering, dealing with your dad, those are all things that life entails3 . Although God is discussed, and even believed in, He is silent while people die. Such silence, though troubling and scary, focuses your attention on the pathos of the Jews—Spiegleman’s dad, his mom, his now-dead big brother, their friends. Every work of art about the Holocaust should, most people suppose, state emphatically, “never again!” Maus does, and then asks, “what now?”

1 Robert Leventhal discusses some of these technical narrative devices in his modern critical piece on Maus, at http://www.iath.virginia.edu/holocaust/spiegelman.html.

2 Art Spielgelman has trouble with his family’s racism too. In a Mother Jones essay, he shares his son’s racist tendencies, while meditating on how his father affected his racial views. That somebody who wrote the best-reviewed book on the Holocaust, who’s work has been exhibited at a number of Holocaust museums, still struggles with not liking black people points to a fundamental problem with human nature. See the essay at http://bsd.mojones.com/mother_jones/SO97/spiegelman.html.

3 Umberto Ecco collects this from Maus too. He says, "Maus is a book that cannot be put down, truly, even to sleep. When two of the mice speak of love, you are moved, when they suffer, you weep. Slowly through this little tale comprised of suffering, humor and life's daily trials, you are captivated by the language of an old Eastern European family, and drawn into the gentle and mesmerizing rhythm, and when you finish Maus, you are unhappy to have left that magical world." Available at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/stores/detail/-/books/0394747232/reviews/ref=ase_glaremagazineA/103-7370689-8073461