Digging Through the Past
The book The Complete Maus contains both A Survivor’s Tale, as well as, And Here my Troubles Began, by Art Spiegelman. First off, it is the story of a Polish Jew and the horrors he lived through during the Holocaust. If the books were just about that, they would be an important look at history, but at the same time I don’t know if we would have a place to talk about them here. I mean sure I love to look at history and horrors are a big part of the stuff we sift through, but historical horrors and such aren’t necessarily a normal commodity we experience here, at least not real life horrors.
So where does this diverge from the things we don’t normally discuss? First and foremost, these books are graphic novel renditions of Vladek Spiegelman’s life as a Jew during World War II. And second, the characters are drawn as animals. I know right… Crazy. To make it simple, the Jews are mice, the gentile Poles are pigs, and the German Nazis are cats, and of all things, when we finally run across US soldiers during the war they are dogs (Love that, the dogs of war).
On the surface, there is the whole personal history of the war and the horrors; the books are worth reading for that alone. But Art Spiegelman originally approached the story for an entirely different reason. He wanted to connect to his father. Throughout the stories we are shown candid moments between father and son and his father’s interactions with others around them. It is within these interactions that I found something more personal that brought me into the books.
One of the things that we can find through the lives of others (real and imagined) is a link to human experience. It doesn’t matter if the characters we read about are like us or not. It is the situations, their lives, the things around them that shine through and touch us on a deeper level. Vladek Spiegelman and his Wife Anja lived through some of the worst horrors a human being can be put through. Their pain affected them in different ways and even as they went through it all there were those around them who gave up. But through the eyes of Vladek we find a man who suffered many tragedies and still found ways to work through the situations.
The stories hit me on a personal level. My father was born in 1930 and my mother was born in 1940. Though neither of them were even old enough to be part of the fighting in Europe they still felt the pains of the war. The Great Depression raged around them, food-rationing, people out of work, and in desperation, these were all conditions that had a huge impact on the lives of those who lived through them. As I read through the stories I saw my father and the world I grew up in. It can be difficult for children of survivors to understand the world their parents came from.
You would think that all of this alone would be a mark for how well the book transcends its own humble page. But it bears another mark to put it into a much larger world. It was the first graphic novel to receive a Pulitzer Prize. Imagine a world in which a comic book, something believed to be children’s folly can receive such an honor.
Maus Volume 1 (My Father Bleeds History) was originally published in 1973. At that time the story broke trends and accepted guidelines. Instead of relying on the color palettes at the time, Spiegelman used black and white for his medium. At times his panels broke ranks, sometimes without borders, sometimes panels within panels. But even through that the art was used to convey the story as much as the words. This was a big job considering that the story was incredibly text intensive.
In the end, the storyline tends to be a heavy hitter. This is a story you will want to spend some time with to absorb the full weight of it. And of course unsurprisingly, I suggest you read it. The aspects of exploration within the horrors of our past and the connections they bring within our world are a rich tapestry we should all learn from.
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