Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Complete Maus (1991*)

     I am going to come right out and say it: I was expecting more from The Complete Maus (1991).  I was expecting a riveting telling of the personal trials and travails of Vladek Spiegelman during WWII and the Holocaust.  I also thought that the artwork would contribute to the story.  I don't think I either happened.  Art Spiegelman has trouble telling his parents' story because – and this is most explicit – he really has no affection (beyond familiarity) for his father, Vladek.  Since Anja, Art's mother, died well before he decided to take on the project, she could not be any help.
     Unfortunately, it seems that Speigelman was more than willing to settle for depicting his struggle to understand his father's struggles and life rather than actually understanding it.  As Vladek is, almost universally, depicted as a miserly asshole, it is hard to imagine why Spiegelman would turn to him for the story.  There were – we are told – many other survivors of Auschwitz in the neighborhood and amongst his fathers friends.  Surely these people would be able to give a better account of what actually happened.
     But maybe Spiegelman had no real interest in the reality of the experiences of Auschwitz or the invasion of Poland.  Maybe the entire exercise is one of trying to reconcile the shadowy understanding he had of his emotionally battered parents when he was a child with the account his father could give him as an adult.  Even so, I feel that Maus fails here as well.  Spiegelman spends much of his time wallowing in his frustrations in dealing with his father rather than showing any level of understanding.
     Now, I will admit that I am coming very late to Maus.  There has been much media about the Holocaust since Spiegelman started the project, so I am sure that I am unfairly prejudiced in expecting it to build upon material that came after it.  At the same time, there doesn't seem to be a compelling narrative to the story; Spiegelman is trading on the horrors his parents endured and survived without giving them a proper representation.
     Worst (for me), I felt that the style detracted from the story.  The choice to have the different races represented as different animals feels small minded and prejudicial rather than revealing. Polish pigs, German cats (Katzen?), French frogs, and Jewish mice may be easy to identify (actually, the cats aren't except for the fact they don't look like the other creatures).  All of the depictions are static in the extreme, even when Spiegelman tries to impart action or movement.  It looks and feels cold and impersonal, which is certainly not the intended effect (though it may be how Spiegelman felt while working through this).
     Now, this is not to say that I didn't find Maus worthwhile.  It is, but it certainly doesn't seem – 20+ years later – groundbreaking or exceptional.  It is too happily self-referential.  Ultimately, I think that it does little to illuminate anything about the survivors other than that they can be assholes or emotionally ruined in other ways as well as being survivors.

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