RHC 2017: Maus by Art Spiegelman

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book you’ve read before.

Alternatives: Read a book about war.

I run a book club at work, and Maus was selected while I was out on maternity leave, so I figured I’d use it for this task. I have indeed read Maus several times. Both volumes figured prominently in my senior thesis at Carleton College, where I somehow managed to write a massive paper on the literary significance of comics in 2005 without mentioning any of the following: Watchmen (WATCHMEN), Love and Rockets, Black HoleBarefoot Gen, Ghost World, Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Kid on Earth … yeah.

So, I failed my thesis. Oh, I got it satisfactorily revised in time for graduation, but before that happened I definitely got a slip of paper in my student mailbox informing me that I, Anne Gresham, had straight up failed a very important academic task.

I did not handle this well.

I mean I really did not handle this well.

I sobbed uncontrollably through my meeting with the two professors who’d had the audacity to fail me (those poor people seemed like such nice people and did not at all deserve that hour of their lives). I mean, I haven’t lost it that spectacularly as an adult in a situation that wasn’t a death or a breakup before or since.

But it was entirely my own fault I failed that thing – I probably logged more hours fighting with my long-distance boyfriend on ICQ than I did working on that paper.

[ICQ! Remember that? ICQ made this little “uh oh!” sound when a new message came in that is used on the cash register of several gas stations, and it takes me back to ninth grade so hard and painfully. Said a lot of ill-advised things on ICQ circa 1997.]

Anyway, I’m finally, at the age of 34, taking some ownership of that failure. Using Maus as an example of comics as literature is about as intellectually adventurous as holding up Jane Austen as proof that novels have artistic merit. I deserved to fail, and it was ultimately a good experience for me.

Sort of tainted Maus for me though.

I remembered that Maus used a number of postmodern techniques to demonstrate the disconnect between the reality and the memory of the Holocaust, between father and son, between personal and ethnic identity, etc. I remembered its central animal metaphor and most of the categories – Jewish mice, Polish pigs, American dogs, French frogs, etc.

What I’d forgotten about it is that it’s really, really, really good.

It was also a chilling read in August 2017, shortly after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville organized around the planned removal of a Confederate statue resulted in the death of a counter-protester. There were literal Nazi flags and salutes flying. In the early chapters of Maus, Vladek and Anja see a Nazi flag out of a train window. They hear rumors of violence. They lose their family business. They can’t believe that things will get as unimaginably horrific as they do.

The last time I read Maus, I was living in an economically, racially, and socially privileged position (I still am, but I hope I’m at least a tiny bit more aware than I was twelve years ago). This time around, it made me really panicky. It’s such a devastatingly personal account of a society spiraling hideously out of control with such obvious parallels to what’s happening in the United States today.

And god, the violence in it. As a college student, I think the fact that everyone was drawn as a cartoon sort of insulated me from the full impact. This time, though, I feel like it made it worse. Spiegelman’s characters are so expressive, and there are plenty of sickening moments. I had a very hard time seeing his delicate creatures in so much pain.

Some of the worst violence occurs off panel. Vladek recalls a group of children being rounded up in his family’s Polish ghetto. A child can’t stop screaming, and a soldier swings him by his legs against a brick wall. The art only shows the soldier, a child’s legs, and a black stain. I haven’t been able to get this scene out of my head.

In college, the second half of Maus was the most interesting to me, where Spiegelman himself attempts to come to terms with his family, its history, and his own role in preserving or possibly altering that history. This month, though, it was the first volume that gripped me, upset me, and forced me to take a hard look at what was going on around me.

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