How do you bring home the horror of a tragedy that’s been dulled by familiarity and the distance of time? Sure, you can tell a survivor’s story, as Spiegelman does here, you can even give it a family angle. But that’s not enough. Spiegelman’s twist of genius is to fuse the ideas of Hitler and Disney, playing the Nazi portrayal of the Jews of subhuman against the Disney conception of mice as cute and sympathetic. Somehow, substituting innocent animals for humans does the impossible and brings home the horrors of the Holocaust – the burning mice portrayed twice in the second chapter of Part II is amongst the most disturbing images I can remember, certainly in a graphic novel. It’s a story that would have been diminished, less powerful in any other medium, the imagery equally as crucial to the success of the story as the words. And Spiegelman never resorts to gratuitous gimmicks to tell the story, instead the artwork and words used are kept as simple as possible. It’s therefore arguable that Maus is the most mature and intelligent use of comic storytelling yet seen.
We get not only an account of the horrors of the Nazi treatment of Jews but how it had lasting consequences too. Spiegelman carefully and subtly lays out how the Auschwitz ordeal left its mark, inevitably warping the survivors , through his portrayal of his father. Spiegelman’s father isn’t a particularly sympathetic protagonist, particularly as an old mouse. What we get is far better, a character who, despite being a mouse, is more human for all the flaws he demonstrates. Eschewing the simple option of a lovable, heroic narrator for a complex and flawed ‘human’ being is another brave move that emphasises the horror. A hero would, by nature, react heroically, a human being’s actions are more recognisable as the ones we probably would make, as opposed to the ones we’d hope we would make. It gives the persecuted a more recognisable face and character.
If there was a minor niggle I can’t say Spiegelman’s exploration of his difficult relationship with his father engaged me, it’s one of those elements that’s been worn into meaningless by overuse, particularly in American fiction. But it’s inextricably linked with the telling of the story, the device that allows him to frame the recollections and bring them to life.
In lesser hands the cocktail of cute animals, cannibalisation of family history and the horror of the Holocaust could have ended up seeming maudlin or exploitatitve. Instead, the strength of the storytelling and characterisation means it This is a story that simply wouldn’t have been half as powerful or effective in any other medium. In short, Maus is the single most powerful argument you’ll ever see for the graphic novel.