Monday, July 9, 2012

Guest Post: Why "Maus"?

Maus: My Father Bleeds History
Rob Kristoffersen is a writer for and is a fellow nerdy connoisseur. He focuses on music, books, comics, and his guilty pleasure, professional wrestling. He hails from Northern New York where he lives with his wife, Beth and the cat from hell, Annabelle.

I began Maus on Father's Day in the laundry at my place of employment. I lost my father five years ago to a heart attack, and in the wake of that event I felt a great sense of guilt. I never got the chance to know my father on a personal level, and in retrospect, there are many things I can recall about him today. At the heart of Maus is the story of one man trying to understand his father, a story that as it progressed, became more important to me.

Along with Art's narrative concerning the writing of the book, is the tale of Vladek Spiegelman's time during the Nazi occupation of Poland and his struggles through history's most trying period. A narrative in this style is generally delivered by prose, for instance, such classics as The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and Night by Elie Wiesel are simple and visceral in their imagery. Maus crosses a number of boundaries, groundbreaking for its style and brutal in its spirit, introducing the imagery directly as opposed to coming straight from the reader's imagination. Since its publication, the comic has been translated into a number of languages, read the world over, and went on to win the famed Pulitzer Prize in 1992 under the Special Citations and Awards category. Its importance is unmatched, but why is it so successful? What makes Maus more widely known than Victor Klemperer's I Will Bear Witness or Wladyslaw Szpilman's The Pianist? And why does the comic medium work so well here?

Maus is a fusion of three unlikely influences forming two volumes of what could be considered the most groundbreaking "graphic novel" in history. The first was Harold Gray's comic strip Little Orphan Annie. With Gray's work, Spiegelman emphasizes the strip's loquacious nature as opposed to its graphic prowess. Justin Green's Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary furnished the autobiographical subject of Maus; Green's work is about his struggle with what would later be named Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) while attending Catholic school. The third is culled from Frans Masereel's wordless, woodcut novels, like Mon Livre d'Heures. It's that graphic style that became mice, cats, pigs, fish, frogs and butterflies in Spiegelmean's world, updated to accommodate a modern style.
Frans Masreel's Woodcuts

The presentation of the book is very economical; there is no color, there is no embellishment, it's bare bones and it's presented in a style fitting of Vladek's character. Vladek, in many ways is what you'd call a "hoarder" by today's standards, but an economical one in every sense of the word. He tries to obtain as much as he can for free, a true penny pincher created by the Hitler era. He takes paper towels from rest rooms and uses them as napkins or at the grocery store, he returns used product to get a discount on fresh produce. In circumstances like Vladek's, people are known to be as conservative as possible, for instance, with people who lived through the Great Depression. Vladek is even economical with his words, in every sense he's to the point, he doesn't elaborate, he doesn't try to feed you a deeper meaning, he just tells you how it was and in doing so creates a vessel for the reader can interpret. The success of holocaust literature is how it never tells the reader how to feel; it is human experience, stripped away, reduced to its base level before complete destruction.

Vladek's story, like every holocaust tale, is very unique; he was able to make deals to stay out of Auschwitz as long as he could. He bartered, traded items precious and valuable to him, doing so to support his wife. The Polish troops serving in the Nazi Army were very sensitive to fellow countrymen and he was able to use that sympathy to stay out of P.O.W. camps and avoid German raids. Even in the concentration camp he was able to use his skills to make his life a little better, obtaining food and privilege, taking jobs just to see his wife as well as making his time there more comfortable. Vladek redefines what it means to survive; it affects his life from there on out and the relationships he has with people, including his son.

Maus' finest achievement is how it takes an emotional subject, strips back that emotion, and presents it as a bare bones retelling of events. This again allows the reader to become as invested in the tale as they choose, as well as aiding in the style it's presented in. In a further turn, the emotional investment that is displayed in the novel comes mostly from Art; in the second chapter of the second book, he feels guilty for not having gone through the holocaust himself, feeling that his father holds that over his head as often as he can. Even from an early age (10), Vladek is doing this, referenced by the prologue at the beginning of book. It's only ten small panels, but it's one of the most powerful moments of the book.

This is a book that changed me, as it has millions of people. In a way, I feel drawn closer to my father, scrounging my memory to think of the times we shared and the events that mean so much to me. One great lesson Maus informs is the importance of visuals - to this generation and even past generations - to remember the past. Particularly its end segments, as Vladek hands Art the box of photographs. This is how we remember now and it's how I remember my father. As unusual as this story is, it has had an unusual play in my life. I'm closer to my father for it and through it I can forge a new relationship with him. More than a holocaust tale, this is a tribute to every dad that has and continues to walk the earth. Here is to them.