(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The Holocaust hardly seems to fit comic-strip narration. But Art Spiegelman, the son of Holocaust survivors and a gifted artist-writer, proved otherwise in 1986 when he created a new and distinctive form of Holocaust literature by publishing MAUS I. Its sequel adds significantly to that initial achievement.

MAUS I ended as Vladek and Anja Spiegelman, the author’s parents, were about to enter Auschwitz. While the full gravity of Auschwitz eludes words and pictures, MAUS II’s compact, detailed, black-and-white sketches provide striking perspectives on that notorious death camp. (As he did in MAUS I, Spiegelman draws all the people in MAUS II as animals. The Germans, for example, are cats. Roaming occupied Poland, they hunt down all the Jewish mice they can find.) Accompanying those insights are revealing glimpses of Spiegelman’s own vulnerability as he tries to tell a story that can never be told well enough.

Determined to take responsibility for transmitting his parents’ experience, Spiegelman is himself a troubled character in the MAUS strips. His troubles include “guilt about having had an easier life than they did” and self-doubt as he tries to reconstruct “a reality that was worse than my darkest dreams.”

Anja Spiegelman survived Auschwitz but later committed suicide. Vladek’s health is failing, and he worries about money to the point of stinginess. Marriage to his second wife, Mala, who is also a Holocaust survivor, apparently brings neither of them much happiness. While coping with these problems, Art Spiegelman tape-records his father’s Holocaust testimony so he will know what he must include in his tragic-comic book.

Ghettoized and then in hiding, Vladek and Anja tried to flee from Poland to Hungary in 1944. Betrayed at the border, sent to Auschwitz and separated, they lived to find each other at the war’s end. The narrative that Art Spiegelman hears also includes his 1948 birth in Sweden and the family’s immigration to the United States three years later. He dedicates MAUS II to the brother he never knew, because Richieu died during the Holocaust, and also to his daughter, Nadja. MAUS must be their story, too.

The sketches and speeches in Spiegelman’s strips neither trivialize nor sentimentalize the Holocaust. Depicting history—personal and global—with unstinting accuracy, his unconventional approach makes its impact. Thanks to Spiegelman’s craft the chances are better that the Holocaust’s wounds and warnings will not be forgotten.