Book Review: ‘The Complete Maus’

Front cover of The Complete Maus. Cover art by Art Spiegelman. (C) 1996 Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House

Rating: 5 out of 5.

On November 19, 1996, Pantheon Books published the hardcover edition of Art Spiegelman’s The Complete Maus, a 295-page omnibus edition that combines the two volumes of Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, with a related comic, Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case Story, included as a unifying element.

Originally published in Raw – a comics and graphics magazine published by Spiegelman and his wife Francoise Mouly – between 1980 and 1991, Maus is a multilayered story that intertwines the overlapping narrative of the author’s parents, Vladek Spiegelman and his wife Anja, who survived the horrors of the Holocaust after Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, and the author’s strained relationship with his father, who disapproves of young Art’s involvement with the hippie movement of the late Sixties and early Seventies.

From the Publisher’s Website

THE DEFINITIVE EDITION: The Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel acclaimed as “the most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust” (Wall Street Journal) and “the first masterpiece in comic book history” (The New Yorker).

A brutally moving work of art—widely hailed as the greatest graphic novel ever written—Maus recounts the chilling experiences of the author’s father during the Holocaust, with Jews drawn as wide-eyed mice and Nazis as menacing cats. 

Maus is a haunting tale within a tale, weaving the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father into an astonishing retelling of one of history’s most unspeakable tragedies. It is an unforgettable story of survival and a disarming look at the legacy of trauma.

The Book

The Complete Maus’s hardcover edition – it also comes in a paperback edition – is about the size of your average novel, measuring  ‎ 6.73 x 1.15 x 9.42 inches and weighs 1.9 pounds. On the front cover we see Art Spiegelman’s iconic image of two anthropomorphic mice that represent Vladek and Anja Spiegelman in the foreground, with a stark image of a Hitlerian cat set on a menacing swastika in the background.

On the back cover, in addition to the usual blurbs from contemporary (1992) reviews from The New Republic, Esquire, Washington Post, and the New York Times, we see two maps: a large one of World War II-era Poland that shows how that nation was carved up by Nazi Germany and the former USSR in 1939, as well as the various places mentioned in Maus, including Vladek and Anja’s town of Sosnowiec, Krakow, Warsaw, and – of course – the major Nazi death camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The smaller map is of the Rego Park neighborhood in New York City, where Vladek, Anja, and Art (who was born in Sweden in 1948) settled as immigrants after leaving war-torn Europe and starting a new life in the U.S. The Spiegelman’s house – on Carlton Street and 63rd Avenue – is highlighted.

As I mentioned earlier, The Complete Maus is an omnibus edition that combines the following works that were originally published separately:

  • Maus: A Survivor’s Tale I: My Father Bleeds History (Page 9)
  • Maus: A Survivor’s Tale II: And Here My Troubles Began (Page 167)

There is also a short prelude set in 1958 Rego Park. We see young Art skating with two friends, Howie and Steve. As they race to the schoolyard, Art’s skate comes loose and he falls, but his friends merely laugh (Ha! Ha! Rotten egg!) and leave him behind. Distraught, Art returns home and finds his father in front of the house, fixing something. When Vladek asks Art why he is crying, the boy tells him that he fell while skating and that his friends left him behind. The hard-bitten reply from Vladek: “ “Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week, then you could see what it is, friends!”

Art and text by Art Spiegelman. (C) 1996 Pantheon Books and Art Spiegelman

Maus I: My Father Bleeds History covers the time period between the mid-1930s and 1941, intertwined with a “present-day” (1970s) frame story centered on Art – currently estranged from Vladek -and his efforts to interview his dad about his and Anja’s experiences during the Holocaust. In this era, Anja has already committed suicide and Vladek is remarried to his second wife, Mala, another Holocaust survivor.

Maus I: My Father Bleeds History is divided into six chapters and tells us not just about Vladek’s life before World War II, but it also delves into the strained relationship between father and son. As depicted in Maus, the very qualities that helped Vladek survive the horrors of life in the camps make him a difficult person for his family – especially the Americanized Art – to deal with.

That’s not to say that the author depicts himself as a saint. Far from it. In his Maus incarnation, Art is angry, prone to feel sorry for himself, and is often impatient with his father’s miserliness, obstinacy, casual racism – especially toward blacks – and neurotic behavior. In addition, as he tells his wife Francoise, he feels that he has to compete with his late brother Richieu, who met a tragic fate in wartime Poland but is a constant presence in the Spiegelman home.

In the early stages of Maus, Art is not too charitable toward Vladek. However, as he learns more about his father and his parents’ experiences during and after World War II, Art becomes more sympathetic.

In between Part I and Part II: And Here My Troubles Began, Spiegelman inserts Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case Study. Originally published in the days of “underground comix” long ago, it is a short comic that deals with Art’s release from a mental health clinic after a nervous breakdown and his reaction to his mother Anja’s suicide in 1968.  Here, the characters are depicted as humans and not anthropomorphic mice, and the drawings are in a different style, but since the existence of Prisoner on the Hell Planet strip is a plot point in Maus, Spiegelman includes it in The Complete Maus.

Maus uses a minimalist drawing style, but it still shows the horrors of the Holocaust in stark, unforgettable images. Art and text by Art Spiegelman.

Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began begins in 1941 and ends in Present Day Rego Park (around 1980 or so). It is subtitled From Auschwitz to the Catskills and Beyond, and it continues the saga of Art and Vladek as the younger Spiegelman – in what we might call a “meta” method – interviews his father for his work-in-progress, Maus.

(C) 1996 Pantheon Books

My Take

I first heard about Maus after it earned the Pulitzer Prize (Special Awards and Citations – Letters) in 1992. Maus was the first – and as of this review, the only – graphic novel to win a Pulitzer, and because I am opposed to fascism and far right extremism, I wanted to buy it as long ago as the mid Nineties.

However, as it often happens in my book buying ways, I always ended up buying other books (usually World War II books that are not about the Holocaust or, more commonly, novels by Tom Clancy or Star Wars-related titles) instead.

It wasn’t until May of this year that I decided to get The Complete Maus for myself; a few years ago, I bought a copy for the Caregiver’s youngest daughter – she had to read it for her high school English class – but I loathe borrowing books, so I got my own hardcover instead.

Art and text by Art Spiegelman.

 Maus is a fascinating – if sometimes heartbreaking and infuriating – masterpiece of the graphic novel format. Indeed, it’s one of the early classics of the genre – a mix of serious, adult-level storytelling and the graphic stylings of comic books, which up to the 1990s were often dismissed as slick but superficial material aimed at immature teens who did not read “serious literature.” (The other books often cited as masterpieces in the new subgenre of “graphic novels” are Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight.)

It is, of course, a difficult task to tell the story of the Holocaust and its effect on its survivors and their children in “comics.”  The Shoah is too huge, too horrifying, and too morally complex a subject to portray in feature films or TV-movies without trivializing its subject, and in documentaries and print media the sheer figures alone are staggering: the Nazis’ “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem in Europe” set its sights on murdering 11 million Jews – men, women, and children – and exterminated an estimated six million.

Art and text by Art Spiegelman. (C) 1992, 1996 Art Spiegelman and Pantheon Books

And yet, Spiegelman manages to convey the horrors of the greatest crime in history through his family’s traumatic experiences during the war and his own relationship with his parents, especially his often stormy but eventually loving one with his father Vladek.

Per Penguin Random House’s Teachers’ Guide to Maus, Part I: A Survivor’s Tale:

Maus has recognized the true nature of that riddle by casting its protagonists as animals—mice, cats, pigs, and dogs. As Spiegelman has said (in an interview in The New Comics, p. 191): “To use these ciphers, the cats and mice, is actually a way to allow you past the cipher at the people who are experiencing it.” When Maus first appeared as a three-page comic strip in an underground anthology, the words “Nazi” and “Jew” were never mentioned. Spiegelman’s animals permit readers to bypass the question of what human beings can or cannot do and at the same time force them to confront it more directly. His Jewish mice are a barbed response to Hitler’s statement “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.” His feline Nazis remind us that the Germans’ brutality was at bottom no more explicable than the delicate savagery of cats toying with their prey. And although Vladek Spiegelman and his family initially seem even more human than the rest of us, as the story unfolds they become more and more like animals, driven into deeper and deeper hiding places, foraging for scarcer and scarcer scraps of sustenance, betraying all the ties that we associate with humanity.

Although The Complete Maus has its fair share of warm, even humorous moments, Spiegelman’s blend of European history, personal memoir, and sociological examination of Holocaust survivors (both first- and second-generation) in postwar America is also a horror story of man’s inhumanity to man. From the early stages of the destruction of Central European Jewish communities by Hitler’s Germany and its anti-Semitic collaborators in occupied Poland (and elsewhere) to the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in January of 1945 and beyond, Maus is a record – imperfect as it may be because it is primarily based on Vladek’s experiences and told mostly in his voice – of a horror story that is more frightening than any novel by Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft. There are monsters in Maus, but they are not vampires or interdimensional creatures – they are racist white Europeans who believe they are superior to other ethnic and religious groups in Europe.

The Complete Maus is worth reading, especially in these times where white supremacy and far right extremism are making a comeback in many countries, including the United States, the UK, and much of Europe. On social media (especially on Facebook) I see echoes of Nazi propaganda in the term used by Trump supporters when they refer to the Democratic Party or liberals in general, especially on social media, where conservatives tend to call liberals “Communists” – Hitler was a rabid anti-Communist, after all – and label Democrats as “Demon-Rats,” a not-too-subtle (if perhaps unconscious) callback to Nazi iconography that compared Jews to rats and other pests.

Maus is not a “light read” despite its presentation as a “comic,” but it is a moving story of loss, tragedy, survival, and the struggle to maintain human dignity in the shadow of war and intolerance. It should be read by everyone aged 15 and up as a reminder that history is repeated by those who choose to forget it.

Sources:

Teachers’ Guide to Maus, Part I: A Survivor’s Tale:

Penguin Random House/Pantheon Books: The Complete Maus

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘The Complete Maus’

  1. What a great book review. These books sound very interesting and I think I would enjoy reading them.
    So I found ‘Maus the complete set’ on Amazon in paperback for $4 with free shipping and ordered it. It’s scheduled to be delivered between July 15th & 21st.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. You’re welcome. I’m pleased that my review evoked an interest in “Maus.” It REALLY is one of those books that should be read at least once by anyone who wants to see the effects of anti-Semitism and authoritarianism.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. I understand.

        I, too, hesitated about reading “Maus.” I think, in part, it was because I didn’t want to buy it in separate paperback editions when it was originally published back in the day. And it is, of course, a Holocaust story, and thus loaded with tragic episodes.

        Still, the fact that it won the Pulitzer Prize and to this day is the only graphic novel to have done so, helped me decide to read it. That, and the fact that Trumpism has echoes of Nazism in its DNA….

        Liked by 2 people

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