Art Spiegelman Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Maus: A Survivor's Tale I: My Father Bleeds History and Maus: A Survivor's Tale II: And Here My Troubles Began Art Spiegelman

(Has also written under the pseudonyms Joe Cutrate, Al Flooglebuckle, and Skeeter Grant) Swedish-born American graphic novelist, illustrator, editor, essayist, nonfiction writer, and children's writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Spiegelman's two-volume graphic novel Maus: A Survivor's Tale I: My Father Bleeds History (1986) and Maus: A Survivor's Tale II: And Here My Troubles Began (1991) through 2001.

Spiegelman's two-volume graphic novel Maus: A Survivor's Tale chronicles the struggles of comic book artist Artie Spiegelman as he interviews his father Vladek, a Polish Jew, regarding Vladek's experiences as a survivor of the Holocaust, Nazi Germany's massacre of six million Jews during World War II. The work skillfully utilizes a graphic novel format of illustrated panels accompanied by narration and dialogue in a complex and richly nuanced story. The plot recounts Vladek's experiences in Auschwitz, a Nazi concentration camp, and the difficult interpersonal dynamics that can manifest between Holocaust survivors and their children. Spiegelman uniquely portrays his father's story as an epic parable of the Holocaust, representing the Jewish characters as mice and the Nazi characters as cats. Through Spiegelman's innovative use of the comic book medium, Maus puts into question traditional notions of history, memory, and narrative, offering a fresh perspective on the legacy of the Holocaust. Spiegelman was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992, acknowledging his achievement with Maus.

Biographical Information

Spiegelman was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1948 to Vladek and Anja Spiegelman, both Holocaust survivors. As a young child, his family emigrated to the United States, where he grew up in Rego Park, New York. At the age of thirteen, Spiegelman was illustrating for his school newspaper, and at age fourteen, he had already sold artwork to the Long Island Post newspaper. He attended the High School for Art and Design in New York and later attended Harpur College (now State University of New York at Binghampton). After leaving Harpur in 1968, Spiegelman began working for Topps, a novelty and trading card company, with whom he remained affiliated for the next twenty-five years. Also in 1968, Spiegelman's mother, Anja, committed suicide. His father later remarried a fellow Holocaust survivor. During the 1970s, Spiegelman became involved in the underground comic book movement, made popular by such artists as Robert Crumb. In 1975, along with artist Bill Griffith, Spiegelman founded Arcade magazine to showcase new work from underground artists and writers. In 1977 Spiegelman married Françoise Mouly, who became one of his most frequent collaborators. The couple has two children, Nadja and Dashiell. In 1980 Spiegelman and Mouly founded Raw magazine, a bi-annual anthology featuring avant-garde comics work from around the world. Spiegelman also contributed to Raw, and many of the chapters of Maus originally appeared in the magazine. The publication of Maus: A Survivor's Tale I: My Father Bleeds History in 1986 attracted a massive amount of popular and critical attention as did the release of Maus: A Survivor's Tale II: And Here My Troubles Began in 1991. Along with the Pulitzer, Maus has been awarded a wide variety of awards and accolades, including the Joel M. Cavior Award for Jewish Writing, a National Book Critics Circle nomination for My Father Bleeds History, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the American Book Award, and the Before Columbus Foundation Award for And Here My Troubles Began. Spiegelman also received a Guggenheim fellowship for his work on Maus. In addition, Spiegelman frequently contributes to such publications as the New York Times, Playboy, and the New Yorker, among others.

Plot and Major Characters

Throughout both Maus volumes, Spiegelman uses different species of animals to represent different ethnic groups—Jews are mice, Nazis are cats, the Polish are drawn as pigs, and non-Jewish Americans are drawn as dogs. However, only their heads resemble animals, and the rest of their bodies look, act, dress, and talk like humans. Maus: A Survivor's Tale I: My Father Bleeds History opens with Artie Spiegelman, representing himself as a humanoid mouse, going to his father, Vladek, for information about the Holocaust. During a series of visits between the two during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Vladek tells his story, recalling his life from the mid-1930s to the winter of 1944. In the first chapter, “The Sheik,” Artie visits Vladek in his Rego Park, New York, home for the first time in two years. Artie's mother committed suicide in 1968, and his father has since remarried to Mala, another Polish Holocaust survivor. Vladek has suffered two heart attacks and is struggling with diabetes. Artie, a professional comic book writer and illustrator, wants to write a book about his father's experiences during World War II. Vladek exercises on a stationary bicycle in his house while Artie interviews him and takes notes. Vladek describes his life as a young man in Czestochowa, a small city in Poland near the border of Germany. He discusses how he met and married Artie's mother, Anja Zylberberg, and recalls his career as the owner of a hosiery factory given to him by Anja's father. In chapter two, “The Honeymoon,” Vladek continues his story, remembering the early years of his marriage to Anja, the birth of their son, Richieu, and Anja's bouts of clinical depression. Vladek explains that he was drafted into the army shortly before the invasion of Poland in 1939. In chapter three, “Prisoner of War,” Vladek tells Artie of his experiences as a prisoner of war captured by German soldiers early in the conflict. He is eventually released by the Germans and returns home to his wife and son in Poland. “The Noose Tightens” recalls the increasing hardships Vladek and his family experienced during the continuation of the war and the occupation of Poland. In late 1941 all Jews are ordered to move into a restricted area of the city. Vladek, Anja, Richieu, and nine other relatives live together in a two-room apartment, while Vladek and his male relatives make money trading on the black market. In chapter five, “Mouse Holes,” Vladek explains that, in 1943, all Jews in his city were ordered to move into a ghetto in the nearby town of Srodula. They are confined into a crowded area, surrounded by fences and locked gates, and are made to work in inhumane conditions in German factories and shops. As news of the Nazi “Final Solution” spread throughout the ghetto, Vladek and Anja decide to send Richieu to stay with family friends living outside of the ghetto, hoping he would be safer there. Later, they learn that the woman taking care of Richieu has poisoned herself, along with Richieu and her own children, in order to avoid being taken to a concentration camp. In the last chapter, “Mouse Trap,” Vladek and Anja escape the ghetto, hiding in the cellars and barns of sympathetic Poles. In March 1944 they arrange to be smuggled from Poland to Hungary but are double-crossed by the smugglers. Vladek and Anja are separated and put on crowded train cars for shipment to Auschwitz. At this point, Vladek admits that Anja had written her own Holocaust memoirs after the war. When Artie asks to see his mother's notebooks, Vladek confesses that he burned them after Anja committed suicide, infuriating Artie. Maus also includes “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” a short comic story drawn by Spiegelman in 1972 concerning his mother's suicide. “Prisoner” is notable because it is the only section of Maus where humans are not drawn as animals.

Maus II: A Survivor's Tale: And Here My Troubles Began covers the time period from Vladek's confinement in Auschwitz to the present. The first chapter is titled “Mauschwitz” and opens during a summer vacation Artie is taking with his wife, Françoise. They receive a phone call from Vladek, who is on vacation at his summer home in the Catskill Mountains. Vladek's wife, Mala, has left him, thus Artie and Françoise travel to the Catskills to help him through his crisis. After they arrive, Artie takes the opportunity to continue interviewing his father about his experiences during the Holocaust. Vladek explains that he was kept at Auschwitz, while Anja was sent to Birkenau, another nearby concentration camp. Chapter two, “Auschwitz (Time Flies),” begins with Artie's personal difficulties in dealing with the publicity he has gotten from the publication of Maus I. Artie goes to visit his therapist, Pavel, a Czech Jew who is also a survivor of Auschwitz. Artie discusses with Pavel the dilemmas he faces as the child of a Holocaust survivor attempting to write about his father's experiences. He then returns to his drawing board and replays his cassette recordings of his interviews with his father. In these recordings, Vladek describes the hardships he experienced in Auschwitz in graphic detail as well as his efforts to secretly communicate with Anja. While in the concentration camp, Vladek works a series of jobs and copes with the ever-present fear that he—or Anja—may be among the next Jews sent to the gas chambers. In “And Here My Troubles Began,” the third chapter, Vladek relates to Artie his experiences toward the end of the war. With the Russian army advancing on Germany, the prisoners of Auschwitz are marched out of the camp with the retreating Germans. They are eventually taken to Dachau, a concentration camp inside the German border. The fourth chapter “Saved” describes how the Nazi war effort collapses, and Vladek and other prisoners are able to escape and make their way to Poland. Although the war was officially over, German soldiers and Poles continued to persecute and murder the newly released Jews. Vladek hid out in various rural locations until American soldiers arrived to protect the Jews. The last chapter, “The Second Honeymoon,” opens with Artie discovering that his father has suffered another heart attack, and Mala has returned to him. While Artie attends to his ailing father, Vladek explains how he and Anja were reunited after the war and moved to Sweden, where Artie was born. The final frame of And Here My Troubles Began is an illustration of a gravestone, bearing the names of Anja and Vladek Spiegelman. Vladek died in 1982, four years before the publication of the first volume of Maus.

Major Themes

The central theme of Maus focuses on the legacy of racial genocide enacted by Germans against Jews during the Holocaust of World War II. Vladek's experiences during the war detail the brutal persecution of Jews by German soldiers as well as by Polish citizens. Vladek's personal saga takes the reader inside the Auschwitz concentration camp and illustrates the daily horrors he experienced during his imprisonment. Spiegelman's choice to represent national and ethnic identity groups as different species of animals in Maus emphasizes the atmosphere of racial prejudice during the war. His depiction of the Jews as meek mice and the Germans as predator cats illustrates the insurmountable power the Germans wielded over their victims. However, Spiegelman further explores the complexities of racism by demonstrating Vladek's own racial prejudices against African Americans and his inability to draw parallels between his own experiences as a victim of racism in Poland and his position in the United States as a perpetrator of racism against others. Maus also addresses psychological issues facing the children of Holocaust survivors, who are often confounded by the burden of the legacy of their parents' persecution. After the success of Maus I, Artie is consumed with guilt for receiving so much acclaim in light of the suffering of his parents. Artie's dialogue with his therapist about the effects of his parents' history on his own psyche helps him to explore how he views his parents both as Holocaust survivors and flawed individuals. Artie's difficulty with getting his father to finally recount his experiences during the Holocaust also demonstrates the complex elements of memory, history, and narrative in representations of the Holocaust. Artie's attempts to recover the story are frequently frustrated by his father's physical ailments, personal preoccupations, and emotional state. For example, Vladek's grief after Anja's suicide caused him to burn her notebooks, which would have provided Artie with an invaluable historical record about his family and the Holocaust as a whole. The tension between Artie and Vladek illuminates the ways history is filtered through the subjectivity of individual experience, making the search for historical truth a subjective and difficult endeavor.

Critical Reception

Maus has been widely praised by audiences and scholars alike as an outstanding achievement and an unique addition to the canon of Holocaust literature. Commentators have lauded the complex ways in which Spiegelman addresses the difficulties of representing the Holocaust, particularly his use of the non-traditional format of the graphic novel. Arlene Fish Wilner has observed that Maus is, “a testament to the ultimate incomprehensibility of the Holocaust and to the impossibility of representing it within the logic of narrative structure.” Critics have applauded Spiegelman's use of a “frame narrative,” in which Artie's process of recording his father's tale is incorporated into the storyline. Many have argued that, through this frame narrative, Spiegelman has been able to effectively show the lasting impact of the Holocaust on the children of survivors. Mark Cory has commented that Maus focuses, “more on the formation of a consciousness of the past (in Artie) than on details of the past itself.” Spiegelman's use of animal species to represent ethnic and national identities has been complimented by several reviewers as an imaginative method for emphasizing the racial prejudices prevalent during World War II. However, some scholars have argued that, by reducing racial groups to animal archetypes, Spiegelman perpetuates unpleasant cultural stereotypes. Critics have also favorably noted how Maus II addresses the role of mass media and commodity marketing in representations of the Holocaust. Michael Rothberg has asserted that, “the power and originality” of Maus is derived in part from its portrayal of the Holocaust through a visual medium “as one more commodity in the American culture industry.”