The Many Afterlives of Art Spiegelman’s “Maus”

The Many Afterlives of Art Spiegelman’s “Maus”

Past and Present

How Maus changed the way we think about comics.

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When I was a junior in college, I studied abroad for a semester in Rome. I only managed to make one Italian friend, a charming boy with a winsome smile who, when he focused his attention on you, made you feel like you were at the center of the world. Needless to say, I had a crush on him. He did not have a crush back, but we spent a lot of time wandering Rome’s cobblestoned streets and sitting on the graffitied embankment of the Tiber River. On one of those occasions, he admitted something: He had read Mein Kampf and found it interesting. He knew what Hitler had done was wrong but was intrigued by the book nonetheless.

I didn’t know what to do with this confession. As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors whose families were almost entirely killed during the war, I could not assimilate this information into my relationship with my friend or even the context of my life. I had grown up with the importance of Jewish identity drilled into me—but always as a response to, and at a remove from, the past. The Holocaust was an unspeakable horror, but it felt distant to someone growing up as a privileged white person in the New York City suburbs, where I rarely, if ever, encountered anti-Semitism. So when my friend told me he was curious about Hitler, I told him I found it troubling. That was it. We stayed friends for a while and never spoke of it again.

I’ve thought of him in recent years, as overt anti-Semitism has become more of a fixture of American society and the Holocaust an occasional flash point in the right-wing culture wars. This past March, a Florida high school removed the graphic adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary from its library, after someone from the local chapter of a conservative parents’ rights group objected to it and the school principal agreed. Last year, a county board of education in Tennessee voted unanimously to ban Art Spiegelman’s Maus from its eighth-grade curriculum. “I love the Holocaust,” said an unnamed and probably well-intentioned teacher at the January 10, 2022, meeting where the vote was taken. “I have taught the Holocaust almost every year in the classroom, but this is not a book I would teach my students.”

Naturally, once the ban made headlines, the sales of Maus took off. More than 30 years after its release, the book—which intertwines the story of how Spiegelman’s father survived the Holocaust with the author’s own tortured relationship with him, using a visual trope that presents Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs—remains both pertinent and, it seems, controversial. For his part, Spiegelman, now a 75-year-old comics icon, responded to the uproar and attention good-naturedly. He gave interviews addressing the controversy and said he didn’t see it as anti-Semitic so much as representative of a different, arguably related problem: “They want to teach the Holocaust,” he told Vulture. “They just want a friendlier Holocaust to teach.”

Maus can be described as many things, but it is decidedly not friendly. Yet the decades-long transition from a comic originally serialized in the pages of an alternative magazine to a mainstream, foundational, and even, yes, educational book has created a tension between the kind of text it is and the kind of text it’s expected to be. It has become a reference work about the Holocaust and a tool for those who are descended from such trauma (like me) to better understand their inheritance. It’s also one of myriad graphic novels about difficult subjects that are often taught in schools today, at least until crusading conservatives try to ban them, thus turning them into identity-politics rallying cries.

At the end of last year, Pantheon—the original publisher of both volumes of Maus, in 1986 and 1991—released two books that help cut through the controversy and showcase Spiegelman’s achievements more clearly. Maus Now: Selected Writing is a collection of previously published critical essays (both academic and journalistic) about the graphic novel, edited by Hillary Chute, a comics scholar and longtime Spiegelman interlocutor. Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! is a collection of experimental comics by Spiegelman, now in its third iteration: The first gathered, in large format, the underground comics he’d made between 1972 and 1977 and was published the following year by a small press; almost half of its 5,000 copies were rendered unusable by an ink spill at the printer. Pantheon revived the book in 2008, repackaging it with new work: a 19-page introduction (in the form of a comic) and a prose afterword. The volume published this fall is essentially the same as the previous edition, except that it is now in paperback, slightly smaller, and with a new cover.

In a way, Maus Now and Breakdowns make an odd pair: The former is so scholarly and focused that it feels almost hermetic, whereas the latter is heretical, a collection of comics that remain as weird and challenging as when they first appeared. Yet what the books have in common is the way they demonstrate Spiegelman’s formal brilliance, whether through a critical reading of his work or one of his own beguiling pages. And what those points of view offer is a kind of contextual reset—a way to reengage with his work that reminds us how groundbreaking it was in the first place.

Maus is so gripping and readable that it’s easy to get caught up in its subject matter and potential lessons (both topics of debate in Tennessee), and in the process take for granted the aesthetic innovation it represents. But arguably, the heart of its radicalness lies in how the book was constructed—and that it was constructed at all. When it came out, Maus was almost sui generis, a combination of history and memory, art and theory, in a genre best known for sex and superheroes. It was, in a way, a proposition: that comics could not only hold the weight of Spiegelman’s complicated and painful story but tell it uniquely, too. The gambit paid off, more than he could have imagined. The fact that Maus feels less rare today, like one book amid a field of many, is a testament to its power and legacy.

The work in Breakdowns falls into two categories: autobiographical and formal, although there’s plenty of slippage between them. The autobiographical comics include an early, three-page version of Maus that’s far more cartoonish and sentimental than the final work. Spiegelman is represented as a young, innocent mouse named Mickey (pun intended) whose father tells him a terrifying (and true) bedtime story. “Poppa,” as he calls his dad, narrates a tale about being forced into a ghetto and then captured and sent to “Mauschwitz.” The details will be familiar to anyone who’s read Maus, but the characters are drawn more expressively, with big, terrified eyes and beads of sweat. This early attempt reads more like a fable or dream than a nonfiction narrative—a quality that connects it with Spiegelman’s other memorable autobiographical story from the ’70s, “Prisoner on the Hell Planet.”

“Prisoner” is reproduced in the first volume of Maus, but in Breakdowns, the comic appears at full size (in Maus, it’s condensed to fit the smaller book) and as a stand-alone work rather than an aside. The strip details the suicide of Spiegelman’s mother, Anja, and its aftermath in a stunning expressionist style: Each panel looks like a faux woodcut, filled with thick black-and-white lines and patterns that accumulate into an uncanny, overwhelming morass. The tone is accordingly dramatic; it ends with Spiegelman locked in a prison, shouting to his dead mother that she “committed the perfect crime” and “murdered” him.

It’s not surprising that “Prisoner” and the first version of Maus both date to 1972—the year that Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary came out. Binky Brown was a comics landmark, a 44-page book about the author’s religious upbringing and corresponding neuroses that opened the door to a new kind of graphic narrative that wasn’t just raunchy, funny, political, or weird but also deeply personal. In the early, three-page “Maus” and in “Prisoner,” Spiegelman began to grapple with his traumatic family history, but he didn’t quite yet know how to represent or transmit it. The strips are powerful but also melodramatic. As the Israeli scholar Dorit Abusch writes about “Prisoner” in her essay in Maus Now, “Horror is the central experience, not a processing of information. Had this expressionist style prevailed over Maus…[it] would have become a surreal narrative bordering on the horror genre and destined to veer into kitsch.”

What Spiegelman needed in order to find his way were the formal experiments that make up most of Breakdowns. Among these are “Day at the Circuits,” a one-page strip that can be read in different orders, by following arrows, like a choose-your-own-adventure that loops back on itself, and “Cracking Jokes,” a strip analyzing how jokes work. The last page and a half of “Cracking Jokes” feature the same panel repeated over and over again—a kind of literalization of the narrative, which follows a man who stands in front of a mirror for three hours, repeating the same phrase. Of course, it doesn’t take three hours to read a page and a half, but this trick is Spiegelman’s way of getting at the foundational idea that “comics represent time spatially,” as he once put it. By spelling that out on the page, he was trying to draw attention to and disrupt the traditional (and mostly unthinking) way that readers approached and understood comics.

He would expand on this idea in Maus, turning a gag into a motif that demonstrates the inextricability of the past and the present. For example, at one point in the second volume, Spiegelman and his father, Vladek, discuss some prisoners who revolted at Auschwitz. Vladek explains that the four young women who supplied their ammunition were hanged near his work site. In the panel where he says this, Spiegelman depicts the women’s legs and the bottoms of their camp uniforms. They dangle from the trees of the upstate New York forest through which Spiegelman and his father are driving—crossing time and space in a way that feels both logical and impossible, and that would be extremely difficult to represent in any other medium.

In Breakdowns, the process of disruption gets stranger and more extreme in “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” a single-page strip that, on one level, is about a man who doesn’t leave his apartment; on another level, it’s about how comics work and the expectations we bring to them. Not only does nothing happen in “Don’t Get Around,” but often the text in one panel refers to the imagery in another, so that the narrative flow is out of sync.

In the afterword of Breakdowns, Spiegelman calls “Don’t Get Around” “the result of my wrestling match with Cubism.” Indeed, just as the cubists shattered single-point perspective by fragmenting their subjects, Spiegelman was deconstructing what we might call single-point narrative. His interest in the movement took a wackier turn in the longest piece in Breakdowns, the eight-page “Ace Hole, Midget Detective,” which is a take on a classic noir story—except the detective is a midget, the femme fatale is one of Picasso’s painted Cubist women, and the villain is Mr. Potato Head. The visuals are equally madcap, with dream sequences, vastly different drawing styles, and images that break out of the panel borders. “Ace Hole” is absurd, but very purposefully so—it reads like the culmination of Spiegelman’s questions and theories about form, shot through, as always, with a wicked sense of humor.

These comics may seem a long way off from Maus, which doubles down on serious subject matter and is drawn in a deceptively simple style. But the experiments in Breakdowns laid the groundwork for what was to come. “I applied the lessons I’d learned while thwarting narrative, spinning them in reverse to make a flowing story,” Spiegelman reflects in the afterword, noting that he’d “dreamed of a comic book that was long enough to need a bookmark.”

In other words, before he could make something like Maus, he had to take the comics medium apart and study its elements. He needed to examine how the panels work individually and as a whole, how the images and text relate to one another, the ways that comic-book drawings signify, and what narrative pieces were required to tell a story. Consequently, as the critic Bill Kartalopoulos put it in a conversation with Spiegelman at last year’s Wisconsin Book Festival, Breakdowns offers a lens for reading Maus by refocusing our attention on the latter’s formal qualities and experimentation. Seeing how Spiegelman tested out different styles and approaches makes you increasingly aware of all the choices that went into Maus, from the tight, at times almost claustrophobic page layouts to Vladek’s broken English.

Maus Now has the same effect. If Maus can sometimes be mistaken for a reference book today, the 432-page Maus Now is perhaps a reference book for a reference book—not unlike MetaMaus, which came out in 2011. Whereas that text went behind the scenes to detail the making of the graphic novel, Maus Now is more of a guide to the many ways it can be (or has been) interpreted and read. Some of the essays provide interesting historical context, such as Ken Tucker’s 1985 piece for The New York Times Book Review, which isn’t the most insightful of the collection but is fascinating for having grappled with Maus early, while it was still being serialized in RAW, the alternative-comics magazine that Spiegelman coedited with his wife, Françoise Mouly. Hillary Chute says in her introduction that Tucker’s review, in which he calls Maus an “unfolding literary event,” “helped convince Pantheon to issue the work in two volumes”; in fact, as Spiegelman explains in MetaMaus, he wanted to publish the first half of the book sooner, but Pantheon refused until Tucker’s piece came out and spawned a slew of letters inquiring about the status of the book.

Others, in particular many of the academic essays, help the reader revisit dimensions of Maus that have become hallmarks—and easy to overlook—such as the inclusion of Art and Vladek’s contentious relationship. Marianne Hirsch’s contribution, for example—titled “My Travels With Maus, 1992–2020” and written, revised, and updated over the course of three decades—uses the book to help shape her concept of “postmemory,” which she defines as “the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation shaped by traumatic events that can be neither understood nor re-created.” This dovetails with an idea of intergenerational trauma that’s somewhat widespread and accepted today but was not in 1992. Hirsch’s elaboration of the pains of postmemory highlights how important it was for Spiegelman to feature himself as a character in Maus and to place his father’s story in conversation with his own, reflecting the way one generation’s trauma flows into the next. In her essay, Dorit Abusch posits that this conversation—which in the book takes the form of literal ones between Art and Vladek—“softens the experience of reading difficult biographical materials…helping anchor this nightmarish reality within everyday life.”

Several pieces analyze Spiegelman’s decision to depict people with animal heads, which has long been a point of contention, or at least hesitation, for readers of the book. Thomas Doherty contextualizes it in relation to Nazi aesthetics and argues that the visual trope allows Spiegelman to render both “the truth in stereotype…and the lie,” offering “a literal illustration of the complexity of being human, of being both an ethnic type and a unique individual, a cartoon character and a fully realized human.” Andreas Huyssen posits that Spiegelman needed a nondocumentary approach to his subject and that “drawing the story of his parents and the Holocaust as an animal comic is the Odyssean cunning that allows Spiegelman to escape from the terror of memory…while mimetically reenacting it.” In this way, the essays in Maus Now offer the reader a deeper understanding of Spiegelman’s decisions, and they often feel like they’re in dialogue with one another, despite being written at different times for disparate sources. As critics and scholars approach the same points or ideas from various angles and arrive at their own conclusions, they demonstrate just how wide-ranging Maus is.

The only irksome refrain in the book is the way many of the authors insist on the “shock” of someone making a comic book about the Holocaust; this feels dated in the 2020s, when we’ve had graphic novels about the Bosnian War, Korean “comfort women,” and what it’s like to work in the Canadian oil sands—and yes, we have Spiegelman to thank for paving the way for all of them. Maus can feel somewhat dated when placed next to those other, newer books, which take Spiegelman’s breakthroughs and expand on them. The visual style feels rudimentary now and the layouts a bit limited compared to, say, Joe Sacco’s incredibly detailed drawings or Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s dramatic washes of black ink. But Maus Now is a welcome reminder that Maus was made by painstaking design; a work that “teaches you how to read it,” as Chute writes, it successfully conceals its own complexity. In that Wisconsin Book Festival conversation, Spiegelman noted that Maus operates on two levels: You can read it for the narrative or you can read it for the formal innovation—but ideally, you end up reading it for both, because the two are irresistbly linked.

When I reread Maus recently, what struck me again was the unsparing authenticity embedded within the artifice. Spiegelman shaped the story as a son and artist, but he didn’t sugarcoat it: He presents both world-historical events (the Holocaust) and personal history (Anja’s suicide, Vladek’s cruel neurosis) as sources of trauma and horror. The one doesn’t preclude or excuse the other. McMinn County school board member Mike Cochran took issue with this at the meeting where they voted to ban Maus, complaining, “I thought the end was stupid, to be honest with you. A lot of the cussing had to do with the son cussing out the father, so I don’t really know how that teaches our kids any kind of ethical stuff. It’s just the opposite: Instead of treating his father with some kind of respect, he treated his father like he was the victim.”

Almost five years ago, my grandmother died. Amid my grief, I had the profound realization that I would never know her full story of the Holocaust, because she had only ever shared small pieces of it, and now she was gone. It was shocking, this idea that we were condemned to not know; I had spent my entire life operating under the assumption that one day we would. We would never know more of the details of how she’d survived, and we’d never know more about the person she’d been before and during the war. A lot of the time, my grandmother was mean, but I’d always given her a pass because of what she’d lived through. Subconsciously, I’d ennobled her suffering, because it was easier than grappling with the pain and confusion.

Maybe, as Spiegelman said of that Tennessee school board and the others who have taken issue with Maus, I have also been seeking “a friendlier Holocaust”—or at least some clear moral lessons to draw from the brutal reality. But sometimes the only lesson is that there are none, and learning that can take decades. Sometimes you have to take apart everything you know, just so you can find a way to put it back together.

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