Monday, November 16, 2009

Review - Maus

Maus II
by Art Spiegelman
1992 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Album: Reprint

Here's the other event from recent history that has been over used for cheap, emotionally manipulative tripe. And just like the previous review Maus is one of those times where the story is told well. Unlike Stuck Rubber Baby though Maus is first and foremost the story of that history even with

While technically the Eisner was awarded to just the second of the two volumes I find it impossible to separate the two since they are one story. That story is the life of Spiegelman's father starting from his life a young Jewish man in Poland. He is in the army when Germany invades and spends years dealing with the occupation of Poland before finally winding up in Auschwitz. Forty years later he's become an overbearing, bitter old man and Spiegelman talks with him and writes Maus in order to come to grips with him.

I think Maus suffers from something that is not it's fault: it is the story of the Holocaust and that story has been repeated so many times that it has lost its impact. If you've read any survivor's account then you know the emotional beats that Maus is going to hit and that drains the power out of the narrative. On the other hand there are few times where the account has been as well done as it is here and I cannot think of another comic that approaches the subject on this level.

Maus also has the complication of not being particularly subtle. Right from the start there's the central image of the Jewish people as mice and Nazis as cats. Speigelman does this a lot; when the metaphors aren't being hammered home his writing tends to bluntly state the obvious. This is one of those rare cases where I think it works. Since this is a book about one of the greatest evils in history there isn't much room for dealing with subtleties.

That is not to say that the technique did not backfire as well. I found that the scope and horror of the Holocaust combined with Speigelman's simplistic storytelling methods made the story of his father after the war much less interesting. A bitter old man being unpleasant to everyone around him inherently doesn't carry the same weight and spelling out in meticulous detail the characters' feelings for the readers drags the narrative down in those sections.

Spiegelman's art uses some thick, scratchy lines that help convey the raw emotion. His choice of character designs for Jewish faces on the other hand tends to not be very expressive unless he is going for an extreme reaction. More often it's page after page of blank expressions due to the simple points for eyes and lack of mouths on the figures. He does capture some some stark scenes but they tend to be stand alone images.

Maus is often hailed as one of the great graphic novels and I think it's reputation is overblown a bit by people's visceral reaction to a comic about the Holocaust. Even so it is still a very good book about that period and if you have even the slightest interest in it then I'd recommend it. It's not brilliant and it won't add much if you're already familiar with the mountain of other Holocaust stories out there but it is very well done.