Graphic novel depicts tragedy through art
Over the weekend, German bookstores began selling an annotated version of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”. This book, which points out flaws and makes commentary on the original text, is the first time the manifesto has been legally distributed in the nation in the last 70 years. So what better time than now to revisit the Art Spiegelman creation “Maus”?
“Maus” is the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a father, husband and Holocaust survivor. “Maus” is told through graphic novel-style illustrations. As someone who is interested in history and a fan of alternative storytelling, I thought this graphic novel was brilliant.
In a period of history where race was such an important issue, this story basically had to be told visually. Spiegelman, however, decided to portray all the characters as animals, rather than humans with defining characteristics. All the Jews are portrayed as mice, the Nazis as cats. Polish people are illustrated as pigs, French as frogs, Americans as dogs, and so on.
Perhaps the most ingenious use of illustration is when the Jewish mice attempt to disguise themselves as Polish. Vladek and his wife, Anja, wear pig masks. Anja’s disguise is not completely convincing, so her mouse tail is still visible in Spiegelman’s drawings. Meanwhile, Vladek successfully hides himself, and his tail is no longer visible. Throughout the book, if a character is wearing a mask, he or she is passing him or herself off as another race.
This kind of visual information allows the reader to quickly identify the origins of each character and assess the amount of danger Vladek and Anja face.
Rather than spending a long time reading a narrative of the situation, readers glean what they need to instantaneously. This lets readers get caught up in the suspense and the emotions that exist within the panels of the novel.
In addition to the visual storytelling, Spiegelman employs an interviewing technique to help tell the story.
Within the story, the character Artie interviews his father about his past. When the story zooms back out to these interviews, some of the suspense is alleviated and the reader gets a sense of the author’s feelings about his family history.
This storytelling method also does an excellent job pointing out that these experiences are unique to the individuals who faced the Holocaust. Though millions of people were sent to work and death camps between 1933 and 1945, each person and each family struggled with different tragedies. When the story pulls back to Artie and Vladek discussing how Anja struggled with the nightmares she faced in a work camp, emphasis is placed on the unique feelings each person was harboring.
Although this is a technically easy read— it relies heavily on images rather than complicated sentence structure— “Maus” deals with very dark themes. Though the characters are cartoon animals, some of the scenes can be quite vivid.
Nevertheless, I would recommend this graphic novel to anyone who views the Holocaust as a fascinating and emotional subject worth learning about.
The story has two volumes published between 1980 and 1991. I find myself having an impossible time putting the book down whenever I read it, so I would suggest you find a copy of the “Complete Maus” to read both volumes at once.
—Emily Adair, Go! staff