For some reason, Maus was the famous, groundbreaking graphic novel that I didn’t read at the time (the 1980s, when I was young and comic books proclaimed their artistic validity for the first time). Strange really, since it was probably the most famous and groundbreaking of them all. Anyway, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first volume’s publication, they (the publishers, too lazy to remember who) released a sumptuous hardback edition of the Complete Maus, and a companion volume of interviews with Art Spiegelman and various other supporting materials (including the transcripts of the tape recorded conversations with his father on which the book is based), called MetaMaus. MetaMaus includes a CD-R, containing a huge amount of further materials, including a digital version of Maus itself, with links to page layouts, and sketches for nearly every panel, the audio of Spiegelman’s interviews with his father, vast numbers of additional sketches (I mean thousands upon thousands of them), essays on Maus and related subjects by various eminent writers, and so on and so forth, until one’s stamina is exhausted simply in describing it…
I decided to read the book, read the companion volume, and then read the book again. I did this because I think I usually read comic books to quickly, and also because I thought that would be the best way to get the most out of the supporting materials, but it turned out to be a good move for other reasons as well. The thing is, Spiegelman is a master technician, by which I don’t mean that he’s a virtuoso draughtsman (he’s not), but that he understands the language of the comic book as well as, or better than, any other artist or writer I can think of; and furthermore, although he doesn’t come from the commercial tradition, he was sublimating his own voice to the story in this case, which meant that his formidable expertise was deployed to promote narrative flow, and to actively discourage the reader from lingering over his drawings and page layouts. As a result, I devoured my first reading of Maus like a cold beer on a hot day.
This is not to suggest that the book is an indulgent pleasure. Far from it; it’s actually one of the most challenging narratives I’ve ever encountered. Anyone who reads this without finding themselves in tears at least once is either a sociopath, or is reading it in the most superficial way imaginable. For the uninitiated, Maus tells the story of the Holocaust, through the exclusively visual metaphor of Jews as mice and Germans as cats. It tells it, unlikely as it may seem, more effectively than I’ve heard it told elsewhere, although it is, of course, still impossible to encompass in the imagination, and trying to do so can lead the reader to some very dark places. Part of the reason it works so well is the humane and humorous meta-narrative in which the author explores his relationship with his father, a cranky and obsessive old man, with a reputation even among other camp survivors as an unreasonable miser; a man who embodies, in fact, many negative stereotypes of Jewishness. The other part of the reason (apart from the sublime and sublimated skill with which it is executed) is the visual metaphor, which has been a major stumbling block for many readers.
The characterisation of different nationalities with various animal types, giving each ethnicity a completely generic appearance, is the sole explicit means by which Spiegelman engages with and criticises the ideologies of racial and cultural essentialism, that informed not only the architects of the Holocaust, but much of the Jewish post-war response to it, both within Zionism and in the American diaspora. The absurdity of considering human beings sui generis, according to their notional ethnicity, for whatever reason, is one aspect of this (as highlighted in the book in Spiegelman senior’s outrage when his daughter-in-law picks up a black hitch-hiker); the other is the starkly horrifying objectification of the human body in the industrial processes of Hitler’s extermination camps, which the author’s father witnessed at first hand. The fact that Spiegelman offers only this visual, metaphoric commentary, and otherwise permits his story to speak for itself, is the source of his book’s unique power.
The drawing style is one of gestural economy, informed by the American commercial tradition, but equally by the experimentalism of underground comix. The most impressive aspect of it is the degree of expressive nuance in the visual characterisation, achieved without recourse to any more than the most basic of facial expressions. In MetaMaus one of Spiegelman’s children expresses their amazement that their father was able to draw this schematic mouse figure which they could recognise immediately as their mother… However, the real virtuosity is to be found in the page layouts, which establish and disrupt discursive rhythms to precisely judged effect, and which weave meta-narrative threads seamlessly together, through the selective use of closed, open and bled panels, disrupting their borders only for very specific reasons. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a comic that flowed better. In one of the interviews Spiegelman says that he doesn’t think comics can achieve their full potential unless they are drawn and written by a single author: while there are many works that give the lie to this claim (Alan Moore anyone?), I can see his point. It is crucial to an understanding and appreciation of comics to realise that they are not illustrated words or annotated pictures; as with songs, the verbal component is not separate, cannot be understood in isolation, and cannot yield up the meaning of the whole. That they can be apprehended separately is no more than an accident of history; Spiegelman is at pains throughout to prevent the reader’s eye from resting on any one image, and it requires a conscious effort to step back and notice the layouts.
This is an awful book. It is grim, horrifying, upsetting, and deeply disturbing. Reading it is moving, funny and far from pleasant. I am filled with admiration for its author, and I regard it as one of the most astonishing artistic achievements I’ve ever encountered, but I won’t be re-reading it casually. It concerns the greatest depth that humanity has plumbed, the darkest era in the entire ca. 100 000 years of homo sapiens’ existence, and it relates its truths too expertly to be easily borne.