Life & Culture

Of Maus and men: Valuable insights into a controversial classic

A significant aid towards the understanding of the graphic novel


People visit the exhibition 'Co-Mix' by US comic book artist Art Spiegelman (C) during a private viewing at the Pompidou centre in Paris on March 20, 2012. The exhibition will run from March 21 to May 21, 2012. The Swedish-born New Yorker Spiegelman, 62, is known as the creator of "Maus", an animal fable of his Jewish father's experience in the Holocaust -- the only comic book to have won a Pulitzer Prize, the top US book award. AFP PHOTO / BERTRAND LANGLOIS (Photo credit should read BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Maus Now: Selected Writing
edited by Hillary Chute
Viking, £20

Not everyone likes Maus. Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, based on his father Vladek’s memories of the Holocaust, was published as a comic between 1980 and 1991 and as a book in two separate parts in 1986 and 1991.

It was a massive popular and critical success: in 2003, the British novelist Philip Pullman wrote, “If the notion of a canon means anything, Maus is there at the heart of it.” Yet there were dissenters.

Maus is a powerful, complex work, with multiple timelines and narrative frames, and other formal subtleties, but its central piece of artifice is apparent throughout: the use of animal heads to demarcate different groupings of human characters. Jews (including the author himself) are represented as mice, Nazis as cats, non-Jewish Poles as pigs, and so on. Pullman remarked that this “risky artistic strategy” would “jolt” readers. Well, quite.

Some reasons for upset about Maus are more understandable than others.

The very notion of a comic book about the Holocaust was upsetting to many Holocaust survivors.

More perversely, in Russia, the book was banned for featuring Nazi symbols, completely ignoring its anti-Nazi content, while in 2022, the school board of McMinn County, Tennessee, removed it from the arts curriculum because it includes the depiction of a public execution, some swear words, and a scene of partial nudity.

Nevertheless, as Pullman predicted, the use of animal imagery has proved the most controversial aspect of Maus. Critics have complained that it reproduces stereotypes; the metaphor of Jews as mice has been taken to reinforce notions of Jewish victimhood.

The representation of non-Jewish Poles as pigs has been denounced as an ethnic slur (there have been staged burnings of the book in Poland).

The depiction of the Nazis as natural predators (cats) has been said to let the Hitler regime off the hook. Ilan Manouach’s graphic novel Katz (2012) replicates Maus in its entirety, except that all the characters have the heads of cats, ramming home the point that the Holocaust was inflicted by humans on humans, not by one species on another.

Maus Now is a collection of writings on Spiegelman’s novel, edited by the academic Hillary Chute. Much to his credit, Spiegelman appears to have encouraged the inclusion of negative reviews, but, apparently, no such documents satisfied Chute’s “best of” criterion.

What emerges is a set of reflections on Maus, broadly aligned in their outlook. There is a lot of overlap: it can sound like an internet bubble.

Even so, this volume contains an enormous amount of insight. The first group of essays detail Spiegelman’s relationship with various literary and artistic traditions, including the avant-garde comic strip and the graphic novel.

Adam Gopnik writes beautifully about Spiegelman’s place in the history of the cartoon. Dorit Abusch considers the relationship of Maus to the comic as a genre.

A second set of pieces focuses on “Problems of Representation”. It includes influential work by Marianne Hirsch introducing the concept of “postmemory”: the experience of growing up under the domination of the previous generation’s traumatic narrative.

Andreas Huyssen draws on the philosopher Theodor Adorno, whose views about the impact of the Holocaust on aesthetic representations of atrocity are mentioned by many contributors.

The final group of essays, “Legacy”, provides insight into the way Maus has been curated and disseminated. It includes Robert Storr’s illuminating notes to Spiegelman’s 1991 MoMA exhibition, and the transcript of a Q&A session with Spiegelman to accompany a career retrospective at Manhattan’s Jewish Museum.

Whether or not you like Maus, its impact on contemporary culture is undeniable. Despite the McMinn County school board’s efforts, through Maus people of all ages will continue to engage with the memory of the Holocaust. Maus Now provides significant aid towards the understanding of a modern classic.

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