Thursday, February 28, 2008

'Maus': The Other Holocaust Comic Book

''Maus'' is a comic book! Yes, a comic book complete with word balloons, speed lines, exclamations such as ''sob,'' ''wah,'' ''whew'' and ''?!,'' and dozens of techniques for which I simply lack the terminology. The average frame is two to three inches square and crowded, even shaggily drawn (except for one starker section, called ''Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History,'' involving the author's mother's suicide) though subtly elegant and expressive if one pays attention to details. The style is eclectic, echoing everything from ''Krazy Kat'' to ''Gasoline Alley.'' Naturally, the effect of treating such a subject this way is shocking at first. But with a speed that is almost embarrassing to confess, this reader was transported back to the experience of reading World War II comics such as ''Blackhawk'' or ''Captain Marvel.''

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, the Jewish characters in the book are all portrayed as mice (''Maus'' is, of course, German for ''mouse''), while the Nazis are cats, the Poles are pigs and the few non-Jewish Americans that appear are dogs. To portray a game of cat and mouse is one obvious purpose of Mr. Spiegelman's provocative gambit, as well as ironically to echo the book's epigraph, which is Adolf Hitler's remark, ''The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.''

But the impact of what Mr. Spiegelman has done here is so complex and self-contradictory that it nearly defies analysis. One obvious point would seem to be that by scaling down the Holocaust to the dimensions of an animal fable - or approaching ''the unspeakable through the diminutive,'' as the jacket copy so felicitously puts it - the experience of European Jewry becomes something to be contemplated in less than apocalyptic terms. But leaving aside whether such an effect is desirable, I don't think that it is the main purpose of ''Maus,'' and even if it is, then it remains somewhat beside the point.

Instead, the medium is the message. By claiming the Holocaust as a subject fit for comic-book art, Mr. Spiegelman is saying that the children of the survivors have a right to the subject too and have their own unique problems, which are comic as well as tragic. Even the narrative content reflects that point. By having Vladek recount the farcical elements of his prewar courtship of the author's mother, Mr. Spiegelman is saying that life went on before catastrophe struck. By making bittersweet comedy of life in Rego Park with Vladek, he is saying that life continues to go on.

Thanks to Jeff Mazarate

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