Art Spiegelman’s two-volume graphic history of his parents’ experiences in German concentration camps during the Holocaust employs its most prevalent and blatant symbolism in the manner in which he depicts different categories of people, primarily, the Germans and their Jewish victims. The title of his story, Maus, is the actual German translation of mouse. Appropriately, the characters depicting Jews are all mice, which can be interpreted variously as both small and weak and, in the view of their Nazi tormentors, as vermin. The Germans, conversely, are portrayed as cats, the natural predators of mice, and animals that are considerably larger and stronger. This depiction of the real-life figures from the Holocaust as cats and mice is used by Spiegelman to symbolize the relationship between Nazi Germany and European Jews, who were systematically rounded-up, transported in cattle cars to concentration camps, and exterminated.
Spiegelman’s use of animals to symbolize different categories of human being is carried on throughout his story. The American soldiers who liberated the some of the camps are depicted as dogs, the natural enemy of cats. The portrayal of the British, on the other hand, departs from this “food chain” theme, showing British soldiers as fish. Curious, and a little oblivious as to the obvious connotation, I contacted Spiegelman. His response in a note, in answer to my question “why fish,” was as follows:
“Uh huh. British as fish. You know, an island culture separate from Europe, fish and chips, cold-blooded. Sigh -- I dunno. It seemed like a good idea at the time . . .” [Note to this Educator, undated]
Beyond the use of animals to represent categories of humans, Spiegelman used his unique artistic abilities to interject an additional sense of surrealism into an otherwise already bleak story. In Maus I, the author depicts a routine visit to his father’s home, where he encounters Mala, the father’s second wife, Art’s mother having died some years before the scene described. Mala tells Art about his father’s despondency this particular day, and reveals that the old Holocaust survivor had discovered and read a graphic story the son had produced in an earlier time. This graphic story, Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History, is drawn in an entirely different manner than the rest of Maus I and II. Prisoner on the Hell Planet is Spiegelman’s depiction of his mother’s suicide and his father’s tormented heart-rending reaction. It is a powerful vignette, and the artistic style used emphasizes the tragic nature of the episode. Unlike in the rest of Maus, the humans are drawn as humans, but in an exaggerated and exceptionally ugly way. Interestingly, Spiegelman, depicts himself in this vignette in a prison uniform similar to those worn by his parents in the concentration camps. Reflecting on his last encounter with his mother, the “Spiegelman” character describes his mother’s entering his bedroom and asking whether he, her son, still loves her. A clearly disinterested “Spiegelman” coldly replies, “Sure, mom,” and turns away. The next panels depict “Spiegelman” locked up in a prison, peering out from behind bars and exclaiming to his now-dead mother:
“Well, mom, if you’re listening: Congratulations!...You’ve committed the perfect crime. . .You’ve put me here. . .Shorted all my circuits. . .Cut my nerve endings. . .And crossed my wires! You murdered me, mommy, and you left me here to take the rap!”
Spiegelman portayed himself in this section of his book as a prisoner of conscience, the victim of the classic Jewish mother whose successful efforts at instilling a sense of guilt in her offspring thoroughly undermines his efforts at retaining a healthy mental state.
By telling his, and his father’s story in graphic form, Spiegelman was able to depict Jews, Germans, Poles (drawn as pigs), British, French and other nationalities in a symbolic or metaphorical manner. In graphic nonfiction story, his choice served to strengthen the theme by emphasizing the distinctions between nationalities and religions in a manner that would have been lost in conventional story-telling form.