Art Spiegelman titled the opening chapter of his two-volume graphic narrative of his parents' experiences during the Holocaust "The Sheik" because of a story his father, Vladek, tells Art about the former's once-promising youth. Maus is subtitled "A Survivor's Tale" because the author possessed a deep-seated need to know his father's history--his mother had committed suicide—in order to better understand this difficult, aging man with whom Art had endured a strained relationship. Having succeeded in convincing his father to tell his story about his years in German concentration camps for the crime of being Jewish, Art is finally able to hear Vladek’s description of his life dating to the days before the rise of Adolf Hitler and the invasion of Poland. Vladek describes himself as a “young, and really a nice, handsome boy,” who was avidly pursued by many an attractive young woman. Emphasizing his physical attractiveness, Vladek adds, “people always told me I looked just like Rudolph Valentino.”
Rudolph Valentino, a famously good-looking Italian-American actor from the silent film era, starred in a movie titled The Sheik, about a dashing Arab sheik who kidnaps and ferrets away a beautiful British woman who eventually succumbs to his charms. The association of Valentino to the image of a handsome, daring Arab sheik was cemented in American, and European, culture to such a degree that the actor became virtually synonymous with that image. Vladek’s use of that comparison emphasizes both his handsome physical appearance and his attractiveness to members of the opposite sex. As is already evident from the opening pages of Maus, however, Vladek is a cantankerous old man who treats the women in his life poorly, and Spiegelman’s descriptions of his father draw a sharp contrast with the old man’s self-image.