Saturday, September 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #258: The Complete Maus by art spiegelman

How long do you trust your value judgments?

If you think of something as a masterpiece, does that still count if you last read it twenty years ago? Or do you need to revisit the greatest works periodically, at least if you're going to say they are masterpieces in public?

The world is full of artistic works, and we can't spend all of our time re-checking our old opinions. But, once in a while, we do need to. We need to remind ourselves of things that really are that powerful, that important, so we can talk about them in public again.

And so I re-read The Complete Maus recently. It's paradoxically both an easy book and a very difficult one: clean and pointed and drawn so exactly that the eye is drawn from balloon to balloon and panel to panel almost without effort. But, at the same time, containing such horrors. Such true horrors.

I won't bury the lede: it's as powerful as everyone tells you it is. It's still as strong as it was when I found the newly-published first book, back in the old Vassar College Bookstore sometime my freshman year there. Art Spiegelman's confident, inky line and blocky, clean lettering are still as close to pure comics as anything we have: you can read it almost without thinking, it's so well-constructed.

The structure of Maus is also absolutely sturdy, as each chapter moves from the modern-day world of Art and his elderly father Vladek back into Vladek's narration of WW II and his life during the Holocaust. Even the most bravura flourishes, like the metafictional opening of Part two, Chapter two, are as electric now as they were in the '80s: precisely calibrated and sharp enough to cut with every panel.

If you've never heard of Maus before...well, I wonder if you've been living under a rock, but maybe you're just that young. Art Spiegelman was an underground cartoonist and publisher in the '70s and early '80s. co-founding Arcade with Bill Griffith and then the hugely influential Raw with his wife Francoise Mouly. In the late '70s, he started recording conversations with his father, Vladek, who was a Jewish businessman in Poland before the war and survived Auschwitz, along with Art's mother Anja (who later committed suicide in 1968).

Starting in 1980, he turned those recorded conversations into Maus, which appeared in installments in Raw (which itself was heavily experimental, and changed formats with nearly every issue). There were eleven chapters in all, eventually, roughly yearly through 1991. The first volume of Maus, collecting the first six chapters, appeared in 1986, and the second volume in 1991. And then it was all collected into one volume in 1996 -- that's The Complete Maus. There are no revisions or rewrites or edits; Spiegelman controlled the editorial and printing of Maus from the beginning, and told the story he wanted to tell exactly the way he wanted to tell it.

Maus's formal conceit is to present its characters as humanoid figures with animal heads, in that old cartooning style. Jews are mice, Germans are cats, Poles are pigs, Americans are dogs. Spiegelman was always fascinated with formalist ideas in comics, and he takes this further than most cartoonists would: Jews pretending to not be Jewish are shown in pig masks, and the "Art" character in the modern stories sometimes has a real mouse head, and sometimes seems to be wearing a mouse mask.

There are so many ways that Maus is important, from the trivial (showing that comics can be as serious and artistic as any other medium) to the vital (powerfully capturing eyewitness testimony to one of the worst and most important events of the 20th century). But we read it because it is a masterpiece, because it is both easy and hard to read, and because it shows us so much of humanity (good and bad), of fathers and sons, of the ways societies fall apart and stick together, of survival through luck and resourcefulness. We all need to read it, at least once.

No comments:

Post a Comment