Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Maus: The Official Haiku Review

So after reading and reviewing the graphic novel Watchmen over six weeks ago, I blithely promised to present my review of the equally groundbreaking graphic novel Maus "soon." And I had intended to get to it soon; I'd already checked the two parts out of the library. But the three-week checkout period came and went, so I renewed the books. Then another three-week period came and went, and the library actually let me renew them again. I hadn't done more than move the books from one spot to another, thinking maybe I would get to them soon. I wasn't in any hurry; after all, Art Spiegelman's Maus is a graphic novel about the Holocaust, so it wasn't the kind of thing I expected to just pick up and read "for fun."

But spurred by my second library notice, I decided to finally crack open the first volume. And it didn't take me more than a couple of pages to get completely sucked in by the story and characters. For while Maus is a story of the Holocaust, it is also a story about fathers and sons and storytelling itself. So now I present the official haiku review: two poems for the two parts.

A father's story
A maze with no good choices
Danger at each turn

Can the son grasp it?
Re-create the father's pain?
Yes; the image speaks.

I suppose the cover of Maus gives you the essential details of the novel: it tells the story of a Holocaust survivor, with all the characters drawn as animals. The Jews are mice; the Nazis are cats*; Poles are pigs; Americans are dogs; French are frogs; etc etc. It's an interesting little metaphor, but I suppose the main advantage is that it mitigates some of the horrific images that the author includes. Now, you may be thinking as I was: do I really want to read something about such a terrible moment in human history? And if Maus was only a retelling of Vladek Spiegelman's experiences in Poland during World War II, it might be heavy going indeed.

But Maus is equally a story of Spiegelman trying to understand his father, who survived Auschwitz but became a frustrating character to live with. So the novel opens with Spiegelman visiting his father's home and asking for all the family stories. How did his parents meet? How did they live before the war? These kinds of stories are always fascinating, and Vladek Spiegelman's is no exception. Soon we are introduced to his soon-to-be-wife and their extended family, who are wealthy business owners until the Nazi occupation. The novel alternates scenes of the son dealing with his father's quirks, and the father dealing with the increasing restrictions put on Jews in occupied Poland. Vladek is a clever and quick-witted man, but at the end of the first part, even he cannot escape the death camps.

The second part deals with Vladek in Auschwitz, where again his ingenuity helped both him and his wife survive. The horrors of the camps are balanced by the modern-day pieces, where a frustrated young Spiegelman is trying to deal with his father, whose second marriage is breaking up. We also see his doubts about his ability to deal with such heavy subject matter. But by making the creation of the book and his relationship with his father part of the novel, Spiegelman creates a story that's accessible without being shallow, and grim yet still life-affirming.

I have to agree with Watchmen creator Alan Moore, who noted in his review of Maus: "Maus surely marks one of the high points of the comic medium to date. It is perhaps the first genuine graphic novel in recent times, and as such its significance cannot be overstated. Please read it."

*Always the cats are the bad guys (sigh); or maybe Spiegelman was thumbing his nose at Hitler, a noted ailurophobe (cat-hater).

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