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Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History
Maus I
by Art Spiegelman
Pantheon, $16.99, 159pp
Published: November 1991

This isn't my graphic novel for the month, but it's a graphic novel nonetheless. The reason I'm taking a look at it is because, on 10th January, the board of trustees of the McMinn County Schools district in Tennessee unanimously removed the book from its curriculum, supposedly because of content like "rough language" and "unnecessary profanity". Somehow I've never read either of Art Spiegelman's two 'Maus' books, even though they've both sat on my shelves for a long time and they're renowned as examples of comic books as literature. So hey, it's about time.

Maus is not a long book and it wasn't difficult to read through in a single session. Even though I know what the Holocaust was and I've read and seen plenty about it—the longest film I've ever seen was a nine hour documentary entitled 'Shoah', the Hebrew for "Holocaust", which recounted the history of what happened without using any period footage—'Maus' still featured moments where I felt that I needed to pause for a moment to recover before continuing. Part of that is because this is a personal story and it's one where the true horrors were hidden or obscured for the longest time. Then they're there, in all their awfulness, and we can't help but react.

That personal story is partly Spiegeman's, as he interviews his father about his experiences in Poland before and during the war, and mostly that of his father, a well-to-do Polish Jew called Vladek. What's interesting is that this is far from a hagiography. Spiegelman seems to love his father but not really like him very much. When he interviews him, Vladek is unhappily married to his second wife, Mala, an old friend from childhood, who's a little more sympathetic but not much. The relationship is nothing to write home about it, partly because Vladek is almost a caricature of the stingy Jew. It's odd to see Spiegelman depict his father so stereotypically.

His main conceit in telling this story is also odd, because he depicts the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice, as if the Nazis were right to consider them not as different nationalities but different species. The Poles are pigs, the French frogs and the Americans dogs, which could easily be seen as a further perpetuation of stereotypes. This didn't worry me to the point of putting the book down, but it was a constant reminder to me of how much there is in this book that's worthy of discussion, with not all of it placing the author in a positive light.

What hit me hardest here was how abstracted Vladek Spiegelman was as a Polish Jew from what was going on. He certainly knew about the Nazis and he didn't like them, but initially they weren't worth much consideration, given that they were across the border in Germany. Vladek is busy living his life, marrying into a wealthy family and running a business. Initially he's in Czestochowa, then Sosnowiec, and the Nazis aren't.

Even when the Nazis directly impact his life, when he's drafted into the army and sent to the front to fight them, it seems like an inconvenience rather than a struggle for existence as a race. He's caught and forced into labour as a prisoner of war, but he eventually finds his way back home, to find his city occupied by the Nazis, who are slowly increasing their oppression of the Jews. Even now, Vladek aims to carry on as best he can. There are rumours, but they're not taken seriously enough to warrant the evacuation of children or grandparents.

Inevitably, of course, the horrors gradually descend and people start to vanish. They're moved, taken away, consolidated into ghettos. Almost suddenly, Vladek finds himself having to escape places, build bunkers to hide in, make seriously tough decisions that revolve around living or dying. And, tellingly, this first book ends with Vladek and his first wife Anja arriving at Auschwitz, and finally realising that their lives are over. There's a telling line that feels almost like an admission of reality after years of living through ignorance, hope or distraction and by the seat of their pants. "This was 1944... we knew everything. And here we were."

This really isn't a book to like or dislike. It's very telling as a piece of literature, an important book in the history of comic books, a pioneering work that helped to establish the medium as something that wasn't just for kids. It was originally serialised between 1980 and 1991 in 'Raw', a self-published avant-garde magazine, which puts much of it ahead of other groundbreakers like 'The Dark Knight Returns' and 'Watchmen'. It's quite the achievement and it's easy to see why so many schools and colleges are so keen to discuss it, if not the McMinn County Schools district. I can see this being an introduction to many to the Holocaust and, on that front, it's mostly a good introduction.

What might be jarring is the art, because it feels like an underground comic, relatively crudely drawn in black and white and so carrying with it a perceived kinship to self-published counterculture comics by people like Robert Crumb or Gilbert Shelton that we expect to be prosecuted for obscenity, being all about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll for no better reason than, dude: sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll! That doesn't carry over to the content otherwise, which didn't seem to me to contain anything that might be considered not age-appropriate for anyone. I didn't even see the nude mouse that was such a big deal to the McMinn board and the language is milder than anything you'd hear on a playground.

The content that's troubling for kids is the very content that they should be reading about: the Nazis, the philosophies that drove them and the atrocities that they committed. They aren't actually in this book that much but, when they are, they're as disturbing as they should have seemed to the populace at large. No, seeing armed soldiers dashing the heads of children against walls to kill them as they're not following orders to peaceably get on trains that would carry them to the gas chambers isn't at all pleasant, but that's what the Holocaust was. Take that out and you have a strong population drop on a chart detailing the Jewish population in Poland. The impact is the point.

I'm glad that the Streisand Effect continues unabated. In the wake of the McMinn decision, Amazon's graphic novel charts quickly featured four editions of 'Maus' and its sequel in its top five sellers. That the book isn't going to be taught at McMinn is awful and yet another black eye in the reputation of a country that sees itself as free but somehow bans things on a regular basis. That people are going to read it anyway is a good thing and, as I found here, an overdue one. I'm eager to dive into 'Maus II' in March. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Art Spiegelman click here

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