Maus is a graphic novel for adults. There are no superheroes in this story, no vigilantes, no pirates and no aliens. Only cats, and mice.
Maus tells the story of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, and how he survived the holocaust. This narrative interchanges with the present day, and the fraught, imperfect relationship between the father who survived and the son trying to understand a brutal family history.
His younger brother was killed during the war, his mother killed herself afterwards. And every so often he makes a trip to Regent Park, NY, to see his aging father. Old Vladek is so cheap it drives his new wife mad; he takes home napkins from restaurants and picks up telephone wire on the side of the street, the only one of the survivors, so his wife says, who acts like this.
Spiegelman worries his father comes off as the stereotypical old Jew. But after hearing his story, and all the money spent on bribes, food, shelter, connections, freedom (if only for a while), it is easy to see why he is the way he is.
The alternating narratives contrast strongly with each other. In the first pages of the book a young Spiegelman remembers falling off his bike and watching his friends ride off without him. When he tells his father, Vladek huffs. Try living in a room for a week with no food and water, and then tell me about friends! Even as a child of Jewish parents after the war, their experiences, what they had to endure, is still almost impossible to comprehend.
The artwork is, at first, a little overwhelming in itself. It is purely black and white, shaded heavily and cramped into tiny boxes and rectangles with very little variation. But you slowly get used to it. I thought the lack of color was going to put me off but it didn’t. After a while you just don’t notice, and it gets incredibly hard to put down.
Vladek’s story is full of close escapes and lucky calls, long moments of stiff reprieve and sharp, sudden acts of horror. But it is not just the holocaust story that makes Maus so interesting, but how the old man tells it, the words he uses, where he stops, unable to go on, and where Spiegelman prods him to continue. Their relationship is at the heart of this book, for me. I sympathized with old Vladek more than his younger self, I hated the way Spiegelman treated his father, how they didn’t really get on, how eager he was to leave once he got what he wanted. There is a real relationship underneath, a flawed, sad relationship that is never resolved.
Maus left me a little shaken. But don’t let the subject matter intimidate you, because it’s a compelling story, and one you won’t soon forget.