It cannot be denied that the medium of graphic novel has become one of the most quintessential vehicles of modern thought. What once were considered books aimed at children and teenagers, with highly sexualized content and appealing to the prurient and childish tastes of its consumers, comics have evolved into a legitimate art form studied in university classrooms and lecture halls around the world. Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1987), for example, provided a post-modern commentary on the nature of superheroes, the evils of capitalism, and the futility of the war in Vietnam. The Dark Knight Returns (1986), written by Frank Miller, on the other hand, was credited with bringing superheroes and vigilante crusaders into the mainstream audience, with its dark interpretation of the beloved Batman and of the seedy, crime-ridden Gotham City. One of the more personal and less-commercially-inclined figure of the graphic novel medium, however, is Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Published in 1991, the novel is Spiegelman’s memoir of his relationship with his father, Vladek Spiegelman, as well as Vladek’s own narration of his experiences during Poland at the height of the Holocaust (Hutcheon 7). In the novel, the Holocaust is both a transformative and traumatic experience – one that affects both Art and Vladek. While Art’s interpretation of the Holocaust is one rife with postmodern tendencies that seeks, at its core, an explanation of his strained relationship with his own father, Vladek’s interpretation is that of authentic memory and trauma, infused with Art’s own interpretation of history and of the Holocaust narrative.
Maus is, at its core, a Holocaust tale that is situated in second-generation literature – that is, Art Spiegelman does not have the direct experience of persecution experienced during the war. The novel is, in fact, part of a larger body of work that presents how the children of Holocaust survivors possess a distinct sense of bearing directed at the formation of identity through the retelling of their parents’ memories of the event. Spiegelman’s retelling, in particular, is rife with a postmodern interpretation of the Holocaust. He does not attempt to represent events he never knew immediately and from a first-hand experience, but instead portrays his necessarily hypermediated experience of the memory of events (Young 669). In this way, Art Spiegelman’s Maus is not so much concerned with the Holocaust narrative itself, although it makes the events of that troubled time of central importance in the text. As post-modern text, Maus interweaves both events of the Holocaust and the ways they are passed down to us (Young 669). It is not about the Holocaust so much as about the survivor’s tale itself and the artist-son’s recovery of it. By doing so, Spiegelman essentially transforms his novel into a memoir:
“Spiegelman is not only the author but also the intratextual narrator and co-protagonist of Maus. In order to write and design the storyline, Art records long conversations with his father in Lego Queens and also in their summer house in the Catskills Mountains. These conversations, full of flashbacks, some memory slips and also interruptions are found intact in the two volumes; even though they are not about the Jewish Holocaust, they allow the reader to gain knowledge about the characters’ feelings, thoughts and trauma”. (Ravelo 13)
On the other side of the frame, Vladek’s interpretation of the Holocaust is one of psychological and physical trauma. The reader sees the latter early on in the novel: in one frame, in the very first session of their “talks”, Vladek’s arm is seen with the numbered tattoo so often associated with the survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp. However, it is the narrative of remembered time – the one that takes up much of Maus I – that invariably presents Vladek’s narrative of the Holocaust. This is straightforward, as he recounts, again and again, his experience in the concentration camps. Vladek narrates his frequent techniques to escape hard labor and avoid death from starvation – techniques that proved effective time and again (McGlothlin 177). The present is also a crucial indicator of how Vladek had coped with the Holocaust at the time. He is characterized as miserly and unsupportive of his son, leading to their often frequent quarrels. This, in effect, is a critical personal experience that symbolizes Vladek’s transformative and traumatic experience during the Holocaust.
The conflict between the modern, critical interpretation of Vladek, and the post-modern interpretation of Art of the singular event of the Holocaust is indicative of a divide between generations so often the topic of modern literature. Thus, Maus becomes not so much as a work of a Holocaust narrative, but a narrative that attempts to explain how people like Art and Vladek cope with that traumatic event in Jewish historical identity.
Hutcheon, Linda. “Literature Meets History: Counter-discursive ‘comix’”. Anglia 117(1), 4-14 (1999). Print.
McGlothlit, Erin Heather. “No Time Like the Present: Narrative and Time in Art Spiegelman’s Maus”. Narrative 11(2) 177-198 (May 2003). Print.
Ravelo, Livia Carolina. “Semiotic analysis of Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A war comic with an open ending” Argentinian Journal of Applied Linguistics 1(2), 7-22 (2013). Print.
Young, James E. “The Holocaust as Vicarious Past: Art Spiegelman’s Maus and the Afterimages of History” Critical Inquiry 24 (3), 666-669 (1998) Print.