Reading Art Speigelman’s Maus In 2017: A Roundtable

Maus by Art Spiegelman is one of those comics that’s brought up again and again, and not just by people within comics communities. August of 2016 was the 30th anniversary of the Pantheon collected edition of volume one, and 2017 will mark 25 years since it won the Pulitzer Prize. This Washington Post retrospective on Maus and its legacy from last August is a worthwhile read, but several WWAC-ers decided to come together in a roundtable response to talk about what Maus means to us right now.

How old were you when you first read Maus and why did you read it?

Ray Sonne: I believe I must have been eighteen? I read it because I was just getting into comics as a medium and since Maus is one of those must-read classics, I imagine it was one of the first I picked up due to its Jewishness. I found out a few years later that a part of my grandfather’s family died in the Holocaust — so if you’re a Jew who thinks your family escaped the Shoah, you are probably sadly very wrong.

Ginnis Tonik: I just read it, as in read it for the purposes of this roundtable. I knew it as a classic in terms of comics storytelling, but this was my first time to read it. Knowing I would be discussing it with a group of comics journalists, scholars, and fangurls was great motivation.

Alenka Figa: I read it either late in high school or early in college; my first read-through was long enough ago that I don’t quite remember. It was definitely by choice, not for class, and I think I wanted to read it simply because people had told me it was something I should read. I remember being very affected by Book Two but I reread only Book One for this roundtable and found it difficult to get through not so much because of the story — that I remembered fairly well — but because now, as an adult, I can look more deeply into Vladek’s psyche. My family has no holocaust stories that I have been told; I know roughly which family members we lost and that grandparents escaped to the Soviet Union to survive. Because of that familial silence, I can’t approach this objectively (although who can?)

Clara Mae: I took a graphic novel class in college, and Maus was one of the books we studied.

Kate Tanski: There was a Holocaust course at my college, which was a cross-listed history and religious studies course, and one of the course textbooks was Maus. And this was back in the early 2000s when people were just starting to use comics in universities. I didn’t take the course, but having heard about this comic book that was good enough to be a textbook was really amazing to me. I didn’t actually read it until later, after I’d read Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers–which was for a course I took in graduate school.

Al Rosenberg: It was assigned reading in my philosophy program in college.

Did you know anything about Maus’s reputation in the comics community (or the community outside of comics) before reading it? Or to put it another way, had you ever heard people talking about Maus before you read it, and did this have any effect on your expectations for what you were about to read?

Ginnis: Absolutely, it’s talked with a sort of hushed reverence. I kept thinking, “shit, I really need to read this.” Sometimes the content scared me — it’s a lot to take in — the realness of it, and reading it, it didn’t seem to shy away from that, which I appreciated. Knowing I would be reading it and discussing it with this group made me feel I could take on this memorial comic.

Alenka: “Hushed reverence” is a good way to put it. I think when I would talk about my love for comics, people would bring up Maus as a high art comic of sorts, which honestly is kind of infuriating. (We can talk about elitism in comics another time.) My AP Lit teacher in high school had given us a rough copy of books considered to be in the literary canon and there were comics in there — I only remember Watchmen –– so I had an idea that it was a big deal. I definitely expected it to be innovative and unlike other comics, and honestly I think my first read-through was disappointing because the art isn’t very flashy. Upon rereading I really appreciate its subtlety and honesty; I do think it lives up to the hype.

Clara: I had no idea what Maus was, and in fact I’d say most of the folks in the class with me were pretty unfamiliar with any comics outside of Marvel and DC. We had no idea what to expect from Maus, and I think that element of surprise is one of the reasons why it was so powerful for us. The discussions we had in class were very emotional ones.

Kate: I definitely had expectations the way that Ginnis and Alenka mention — the idea of this hushed reverence, this incredible comic which won the Pulitzer prize! That’s just unheard of. But like Clara’s classmates, when I thought of comics, I thought of superhero comics. That’s what I read for the most part, and then I’d read like, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. So I really had no idea what to expect or what I was in for.

Al: Like Clara, I had no idea what it was. My Jewish circle don’t read much comics and my comics circle (at the time) didn’t read much that wasn’t the Big 2.

What stands out for you when you think of Maus the story and the experience of reading it? Was Maus was you expected?

Ginnis: I think so. To answer more specifically: visually it was not at first. I felt like the lines got sharper as the story progressed, but it starts out with these mice in this black and white comic and feels very cartoony, newspaper strip, which is especially jarring when compared to the comic within it about the author’s mother’s suicide: Prisoner on a Hell Planet. Prisoner on a Hell Plant is so sharp and garish — frightening and works so well in terms of storytelling mental illness. I felt like the art in Maus progressed in terms of frightening, and I don’t just mean in showing the atrocities of the Holocaust, but in the actual lines, particularly once the story reached Auschwitz.

Narratively, I found myself sometimes put off by the author’s inserting the actual writing process of Maus, but grew to respect it, particularly when he showed the scenes where he spoke with the counselor about what it meant to be a survivor of the Holocaust, and this little scene at the end of the chapter: “Auschwitz: Time Flies” where Art sprays the bugs. Spiegelman brings the Holocaust into the present as not just a terrible moment in history, but as cultural memory that still impacts.

Emotionally, it was devastating. I knew it would be, but even then I still wasn’t prepared.

Alenka: Ginnis’ discussion of the visuals is spot on; I had pretty much the same reactions. The initial, cartoony nature of the art and it’s progression I think says more about Art than the story as a whole. As his father’s son, he’s reckoning with the issues of their relationship in order to wrap his mind around his father’s story and his father as a holistic person; a holocaust survivor, a frugal curmudgeon, a talented craftsman, a good husband to his first wife and perhaps a bad one to his second. Maus is truly a survivor’s tale because it tackles the aftermath of surviving, both for Art and for Vladek.

Narratively I am again with Ginnis; the frame of the story initially bothered me but I came to understand and appreciate it. Emotionally I think I expected the story of being in the holocaust to be most difficult to tussle with, but it ended up being Vladek himself who really threw me. He made me think about my grandfather and my father and how resilience differs greatly among survivors of trauma. I also found myself admiring how hard Vladek worked to keep Anja, his son and himself out of the camps. Sometimes we talk about the zombie apocalypse, whether we would survive, and how, but this felt like a frightening and viscerally relevant version of what is usually a goofy conversation.

Clara: Visually it was not at all like what I expected considering the material. The drawings are very simple, with the mice showing only the barest hints of emotion. I appreciate the simplicity of the drawings, though, in that it makes it easier to focus on what’s actually being said. Had he drawn Maus in the style of Prisoner on the Hell Planet, I feel it would’ve been too distracting to look at and would’ve ultimately detracted from the story. This way, all you really have are the words and your own imagination, and what springs forth from that is absolutely devastating. I read Night by Elie Wiesel so I had some conception of what I was in for with a story about the Holocaust, but that knowledge didn’t lessen the blow at all. The story is disturbing, and raw, and so very painful to read. Really, I don’t think a story like this should ever be something we can feel we can properly anticipate or expect; I don’t want to see us ever get that numb.

Kate: Having read In the Shadow of No Towers first, and then Maus, which I think is the opposite of most people, I was acutely aware of these sort of larger themes in Spiegelman’s work of memory and trauma and comics as a way of working through that on a personal level. And though I enjoyed In the Shadow of No Towers, I wasn’t prepared for the way that Maus would leave me feeling, like everyone has mentioned, sort of raw and punched in the gut by what are, ostensibly, black and white drawings.

Looking back, I think I had expectations for it being “good,” but was unprepared for the ways in which “good” is somehow the wrong word to describe what the experience of reading Maus is like. And as Alenka and Ginnis have mentioned, one aspect of what makes it have that impact is the honesty in it, and the way that Spiegalman uses his visits to his father’s house as a framing device. If this were fiction, you’d call it a story within a story, but because it’s non-fiction, because it’s life, it really made me think about how we learn about our parents in pieces, and it’s not until much later that you realize who they are and what they’ve been through.

Al: The relationship with the father really bothered me, because I was having similar issues in my own life. I couldn’t seem to connect with certain family members, and we couldn’t see each other’s narratives for what they were at all.

Are there any parts of the story or individual panels that stand out especially?

Ginnis: As I mentioned above, at the end of Book II, Chapter 2, the final panel shows Art spraying some bugs with bug spray and a few are in the gutters, dying. It was so simple, yet so impactful a statement.

Alenka: I mention one in the final question response, but definitely the opening to Chapter 4 of Book I with the mice in nooses. The idea of being hunted and killed slowly, worked to death — “The Noose Tightens” is the title of Chapter 4 — is truly horrific. 

Also, in the introductory story baby Art wears a striped shirt that is reminiscent of the concentration camp uniform his father once wore. I found that very striking; like an echo of a traumatic family history.

Clara: The very first segment in Book 1 hit me hard, where Art’s dad says “Friends? What friends? If you look them together in a room with no food for a week, then you could see what it is, friends!” In any other book that would be interpreted as just a dad being cranky and trying to scare his kid, but here it’s a very real trauma.

There’s also the scene of Art’s father recounting the last time he saw his own father, who snuck into the “bad side” of the stadium, where they were sorting who would go to the camps, to be with his daughter. Art’s father stops talking and riding his exercise bike, saying he’s suddenly too tired. That line and the drawing, of Art’s dad hunched over his bike, is so simple and yet so difficult to take in.

Maus is one of those books that everyone recommends and seems to have a general reputation in the comics community as being something special, and deserving of its accolades. What do you think about its reputation? Was there ever a point when you thought Maus was overhyped? Did something change your mind?

Ray: About two years ago, I think, I went to an exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York that showed all of Spiegelman’s drafts and work up to the final product of Maus. Look, I know many artists pour their blood, sweat, and tears into their projects, but you do not understand until you see it how thorough this man was. It took literally years to get Maus to the point where we read it and I would call it a perfect comic as a result.

Also, if you go around calling a book that’s about the author’s father’s real life experience with surviving a genocide “overrated,” you’re frankly some kind of asshole.

Ginnis: Wow, I would like to see that exhibit. I am glad to say I didn’t feel that way about the story, but like Ray said, it would be hard to see a Holocaust survivor story as overrated, I think. In particular, I really respect that Spiegelman did not write himself in the best light.

Alenka: I am on the same page as Ray and Ginnis! I think when I was younger I wasn’t able to see the subtle ways in which Spiegelman shows both his and his father’s good and bad sides; each interaction between father and son reveals how hard he pushed to portray the two men and their relationship accurately, even when unflattering. From a preservationist perspective, the best way to preserve someone’s story justly is to let them tell it. I think ultimately Spiegelman was able to both let his father tell his story and to show the bits his father couldn’t or wouldn’t tell: how his experience in the Holocaust shaped him, and caused him to shape his family, after.

Clara: I agree with everything that’s been said. I like how everyone comes across as three dimensional, and I appreciate all the story breaks where Art and his father just talk, as Art’s father’s personality really comes through in those panels. And as Ginnis pointed out, I like that I had difficulty liking Spiegelman — he wouldn’t even get out of bed to help his dad fix a drain! Meanwhile, his own father went through so much, and lost his own father! I can tell this novel took a tremendous amount of work to complete and I appreciate it so much.

After the 2016 Election, it seems as though Maus came back as a conversation topic. Is this something that you also experienced? Any thoughts on why?

Alenka: There is a moment in Book One when Art is walking his father to the bank, and his father is describing how he built a bunker underneath a coal tank where they could hide when the Gestapo passed by. Vladek – and remember, Art claims he became an artist partly because Valdek was utterly uninterested in it — takes Art’s notebook and draws the bunker for him, because “it is good to know such things.” Throughout at least Book One, Vladek refuses to pay money even for tasks that are dangerous to him — like climbing on the roof to fix a drainpipe — and throws nothing away, except for Art’s coat, because it is not warm enough. In that moment when Vladek picks up the artist’s pencil, he is revealing that all of his actions stem from the knowledge that events like the holocaust will never be impossible. They can always happen again, and we must always be prepared. When Trump was elected, I think many of us felt this truth in our bones: it can happen again, and it may be around the corner.

Ginnis: At times I have read my favorite writers post-election or even my friends and wondering if they are possibly being alarmist, so this was a good slap in the face for my privilege of even thinking that. Like Alenka said, Vladek knows and Art shows it: that this can always happen again and does.

Kate: A few days after the election I was still in shock, and I came across this article from The Independent about Spiegelman’s latest project and his appearance at a London exhibit, and naturally, Maus was mentioned, and there’s a quote from him about Maus that really crystallized what Maus does and what it’s meant to do. He’s talking about Roberto Begnini’s film Life is Beautiful, and media about the Holocaust and he says:

“There’s a freedom to hallucinate on the Holocaust because it’s become an abstraction, not a real event. Maus, oddly, was using abstractions to make it real. I never did it to make the world better. It didn’t occur to me that it even could be made better, because it just does its own horrifying thing over and over, and thereby becomes lived experience again. But I was hoping, if one has an empathic response through art, that it allows one to absorb an experience so it’s no longer somebody else, but it’s you.”

And there is such an important truth in there — that this kind of empathy through art and identification isn’t necessarily born of a desire to make the world a better place, but really about understanding the ways in which the world is awful, and how we as human beings can be awful to each other.

Clara: The last time I read Maus was at least four years ago, and then I read it again for this roundtable. I think Maus and other tales like Wiesel’s Night and even Farewell to Manzanar are all vitally important points of view that everyone needs to read, especially in the wake of electing a man whose supporters have talked of registrations, stop and frisk policies, building walls, and internment camps. The thing that struck me upon rereading Maus was how it all happened in little increments. They were slowly asked to register, and were assured at every corner not to panic and that nothing bad was happening.

I think that’s the most important lesson we can take from Maus: it did happen, and it could happen again if people spend more time doubting than acting out, so when a wolf in sheep’s clothing knocks on your door and asks to come in, be rightfully suspicious and don’t normalize it. Maus shows us how important it is to speak out early and often, and to question everything. The next four years are going to be difficult and we can weather it, but only if we remember where we’ve been in order to know where we need to be going.

Al: I walked by swastika graffiti the other day, I received a swastika on a postcard at my day job this week, and a man on the phone called me to tell me how disgusting Jews are while I was celebrating Chanukah. I think Maus, and many other narratives about people other than Christian, white, hetero,  cis males are essential right now.

Al Rosenberg

Al Rosenberg

Gay weirdo. Talk to them about tiny games, big books, trash, and all things illness.