Classic Fantastic: Of Maus and Metamaus

Maus is a framed memoir – a survivor’s tale told to and by the survivor’s son.  The primary subject is a man (Vladek Spiegelman) who lived through the Holocaust and had a son (Art Spiegelman) who went on to write his biography Maus.  In Maus, the Jews are depicted as mice and the Nazis are depicted as cats.  Other Nationalities are also anthropomorphized.  There is more to the comic than extended metaphor however.  In fact, Art Spiegelman won a Special Pulitzer Prize for it in 1992, and it is widely regarded as a seminal work in comics.

In MetaMaus, the author of Maus revisits this work that has come to define him.  It is primarily structured around a series of taped conversations between Spiegelman and Hillary Chute that read like one long interview in the book.  It is broken up by other short pieces, such as interviews with Art’s immediate family (wife Françoise, daughter Nadja and son Dashiell), short comics previously published, and remarks made at various other times (such as when receiving an award in Germany).

My recollection is that I first read Maus while high school, probably as a freshman or sophomore,  and was immediately struck by the aforementioned overarching animal metaphor.  The text sat in my head percolating, (there is a weight to it – the first impression of Maus, possibly due to the subject matter) and when I got back into comics after college it began to recede and was perhaps superseded by other comics that more fully represented my experiences.  I wanted to re-read Maus and did so before starting MetaMaus. Maus holds up.

Due to its framed structure, Maus cannot be seen as only a Holocaust story, it is also very literally a survivors tale (the subtitle of the first volume).  Anja and Vladek the younger lived through the Holocaust, and had Art who is surviving Vladek the elder who survived the Holocaust.  It is a remarkable story.  How many couples, who married before the war, and were then sent Auschwitz, made it out alive?  Just contemplating that is enough to give a child an existential crisis.  In reading MetaMaus we find out that on one level that is what Maus is all about – coming to grips with being the child of survivors.  This is perhaps why the story’s art seems so intimate, so personal.

Spiegelman himself at times describes it (the cartooning of Maus) as done in somewhat of a confessional style.  He chose not to downsize the art, but rather Art drew Maus at the size he chose to publish it at.  This was deliberate, he wanted the imperfections of his drawing hand to be on display.  In other places in MetaMaus we can see Art draw and redraw individual panels and scenes – this gives a sense of the work and deliberateness that went into the construction of the seemingly “rough” and imperfect drafting.

Art often calls himself a technically poor artist.  In that he feels like he can’t really draw all that well.  While I am not equipped to judge the technical mastery of his lines, I will say that it is fascinating to read the more general thoughts of cartooning that Spiegelman has.  Most of these are viewed through the lens of Maus and his career in general, nonetheless they illustrate what thought and struggle the artist has put in his pursuit of cartooning.  I very much liked his analysis of Harvey Kurtzman and the three panel beat, which he then shows an analogous panel in Maus.  It shows very directly what has influenced him.

MetaMaus does a phenomenal job of contextualizing Maus.  Reading through it enhances any previous or subsequent reading of Maus.  In this way MetaMaus must be seen as a wildly successful publication.