PX86: Maus I: My Father Bleeds History

Maus I: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman (mm)

This is it: The pivot point in this blog series. You may not have thought so (if you’ve been reading a few of these blog posts), but there’s a kind of loose structure going on here. I wanted to divide the series into a “before” and an “after” part, and Maus I is where things change. (That I’m buying more stuff from ebay confuses the picture even more, so er sorry?)

Anyway! This is the most important single comic book in the history of comic books.

I don’t mean that as an aesthetic judgement or anything, but just an impartial observation.

This was the first comic that showed the normal, non-comics-reading audience that there existed some comics worth reading. (And for two decades, it showed that audience that there was exactly two comics worth reading: Maus I, and Maus II, and that didn’t change until Fun Home was published in 2006, and after that, the floodgates opened.)

This is when art comics went from being a punk, underground thing to being something that normal, well-adjusted, educated and/or rich people would buy (and read). In principle.

I remember visiting a couple in Manhattan a few years ago that owned an entire house on the lower east side — it was totally gorgeous; smart and interesting people. And in their bookcase, filled with Pulitzer prize novels (think Philip Roth and John Updike) and art books, there were the two red spines of Maus I & II, and absolutely no other comics: Among a certain class of people, these are still the only two comic books that are worth reading.

Maus I led to all the major publishers, all over the world, going “there’s a market here”, and for a couple of years, they all published “comics for adults”… and nothing else sold to a general audience other than Maus, and they all shut down that thing fast.

But, I think, it made the world aware that reading a comic was, like, possible, and I don’t think the post-2006 comics history would have been possible without Maus I opening some doors. These days, the New York Review are publishing comics, and The Paris Review are interviewing comics creators.

Before this blog post, most of the comics covered were either self-published or published by various oddball art publishers. The rest of this blog post will be dominated by comics published by the big, mainstream book publishers. (I mean, modulo what I’m finding on ebay…)

I didn’t actually own this book back in the 80s: I had read the booklets included in Raw, and I got a collected edition decades later, so this is the first time I’m reading the Actual Book.

This turns out to not actually be The Actual Book — this is (re)bound by Turtleback Books, and was published after Maus II had been published… so… sometimes in the mid-90s? Darn those ebay peeps.

Does this mean that I have to find an actual early edition… My CDO is acting up… let’s see what happens…

And does that line of 75 … 71 mean what it usually does? That this is the 71st printing of Maus I? It sounds in-credible, but… I tried googling how many copies of this has been published (by Pantheon), but I’m unable to find any numbers. So…

There’s been a buttload of translations, though — that page lists more than a 100 different editions.

The first few chapters here have been redrawn from the original booklets in Raw, making the artwork more consistent.

The lower left hand corner panel now seems more than a bit funny.

You may find this mixture of telling the reader about the making of the book they’re reading kinda cutesy? I think it works brilliantly — it’s not just a gag; it gives us some breathing space between the pages of heartbreak from Vladek’s story.

His incredible daring and intelligence…

… and at the same time being the most exasperating parent ever.

But you’ve all read Maus, so I’m not going to natter on about it. And I’ve read this already once over the previous months in serialised form, and I was wondering how it read in book form… You read some serialised works and it’s WOW and then it’s collected and it’s “eh?” Loses some of the magic in book form?

That’s not the case with Maus. It was really flabbergasting reading it as inserts in Raw, and it’s still a punch to the stomach to read it in book form.

I love reading take-downs of books that I love, so let’s look at the only negative article I can remember seeing about Maus, and this is from 1986. Harvey Pekar writes in The Comics Journal #113, page 54:

Spiegelman diminishes his book’s inten-
sity and immediacy by representing humans
as rather simply and inexpressively drawn
animals—Jews as mice, Germans as cats,
Poles as However, the animal metaphor
is ineffective because this single element of
fantasy is contradicted by Spiegelman’s
detailed realism. For instance, he uses the
real names Of people and places; i.e., a mouse
named Vladek Spiegelman lives in the
Polish town of Sosnowiec, wears human
clothing, and walks on two feet.
The animal metaphor also perpetuates
ethnic stereotypes. Spiegelman generally
portrays Jews as prey (mice) for the Germans
(cats). However, he shows some Poles tak-
ing risks for Jews, yet insultingly pictures all
of them as pigs.
Art’s narrative sometimes rambles and
bous down, partly because he is preoccupied
with making Vladek look bad. Using a sub-
plot involving contemporary sequences is
good idea, but in them Art denounces his
father as a petty cheapskate and tyrant far
more Often and predictably than is neces-
sary. This distracts attention from the Holo-
caust story, clamorously interfering with the
elevated tone of Vladek’s reminiscences.
One might think Spiegelman dwells on
his father’s faults to illustrate the terrible
mark the Holocaust left on people. How
ever, he quotes Mala, who also ‘ ‘went
through the camps” as saying that no Holo-
caust survivor she kne.v was a heartless
miser like Vladek. A complex person With
contradictory characteristics, Vladek isn’t
portrayed clearly in Maus, but perhaps the
next volume will allow us to understand
him better.
Spiegelman’s prose is sometimes stiff, but
this problem is largely overcome by the rich
material he presents. He does not attempt
to sensationalize information already so evo-
cative, but lets his father speak of his
Holocaust experiences simply and With dig-
niry, creating a work historically significant
and often moving.

[…]

I hold to the opinion that Maus is overall
good and a significant work, primarily,
because of Vladek Spiegelman’s moving and
informative narrative. That seems obvious.
It seems equally obvious to me that Art
Spiegelman has done some things in Maus
that are less than admirable, and I have
heard some criticism of the book expressed
privately but for some reason people seem
reluctant to go on record in print about its
defects. Perhaps the serious tone of Mates
and its subject matter cows them. Howard
Chaykin, who has a reputation for being
outspoken, seemed on the verge of saying
something “pejorative” about Spiegelman
during a recent Comics Joumal interview but
asked that the tape recorder be turned off
at the crucial moment. A gentile comic
book fan suggested to me that some people
might be reluctant to criticize Maus for fear
of being called anti-Semitic—that’s under-
standable these days when right-wing Jews
accuse left-wing Jews Of being “self•hating
Jews,” their definition of a self-hating Jew
apparently being any Je.v more liberal than
Ariel Sharon.

[…]

Questions occur to me in this regard, such
as why, if Spiegelman is so offended by
brutality, he prints such violent, ewen
sadistic, stories in RAW as am a Cliche,”
“Tenochtitlan,” “Theodore Death Head.”
and “It Was the War Of the Trenches.” I don’t
criticize him for doing this; I merely point
out that it seems inconsistent with his state-
ment abhorring inhumanity in the Louis-
Ville Times. (These stories, incidentally, con•
tain human characters, not cats and mice.)
The major defect in Maus, one that is far
more disturbing than the use Of “animal
metaphors,” is Spiegelman’s biased,
sided portrayals of his father, himself, and
their relationship. Some reviewers of Maus
have come away with the impression that
Art is the hero of the book and Vladek the
villain. Let me, for example, quote from
Laurie Stone’s Village Voice review. “Spieg-
elman’s finest, subtlest achievement is mak-
ing Art’s survival of life in his family as
important as Vladek and Anja’s survival of
the war… It doesn’t dawn on Vladek that
his tyrannies are a mouse-play of Nazi ter-
rorism; nor does he question why Anja
lived through Auschwitz but not her mar-
riage to him… The irony that the Holo-
caust alone gave Vladek a chance to be
brave and generous—to rise above his small-
mindedness—isn’t lost on Art… Spiegel-
man understands that Hitler isn’t to blame
for Vladek’s and Anja’s personalities. Long
before the war Vladek was wary of other
people and Anja nervous, overly compliant
and clinging—she had her first nervous
breakdown after the birth of Richieu.
Vladek and Anja don’t recover from their
lives, but their son does. He lets his parents
live inside him in order to let them go. And
detachment has served this brave artist
ceptionally well.”
I disagree with Stone’s interpretation,
especially assuming it is based solely on
evidence presented in Maus. For one thing,
there is very little meaningful material about
Anja, always a subsidiary character in the
book. To blame her suicide on Vladek, or
Art, for that matter, as One of the family
friends does is to jump to conclusions with-
out sufficient evidence. Perhaps Art can give
us more facts in Maus’s second volume to
clear things up, but until then there’s n0
point in jumping to conclusions, especially
as Anja’s mental breakdown in the 1930s
occurred at a time when she was seemingly
getting along with Vladek.
I also would question whether Art is as
noble and Vladek as base as Art apparent-
ly would have us believe. I see Art in Mates
as a guy going after a big scoop who cares
less about his father than his father does
about him. Why is Art finally visiting
Vladek after two years, though both live in
the same city? Is it because Vladek has had
two heart attacks, lost vision in one eye, and
Art wants to comfort him? No. it’s because
Art wants a story from him. That is clearly
demonstrated in the book. Art shows
Vladek asking him to leave information
about his bachelor lovelife out of Maus, say-
ing that it has nothing to do with the Holo-
causti Art protests but Vladek holds firm
so Art promises he won’t use it. But, Sur-
prise, it shows up in the book anyway.
Did Stone notice this occurrence involv-
ing her “brave” artist! The reason I men-
tion it is not to question Art’s ethics, which
are of no concern to me, but to point out
that it and other things make me doubt
whether Art’s portrayal of his father is
accurate.
It’s easy for American Jewish writers to
parody their European-born parents,
especially if they’re old and sick like Vladek.
I’ve done it and it is often justifiable because
someof them have less than admirable char-
acteristics. However, in a parody, readers
recognize that distortion and exaggeration
are involved in order to draw attention to
these characteristics. people are So holy
that they can’t be parodied or kidded. Mat’S,
howe.’er, is presented as a “serious,” realistic
work that attempts to portray characters in
a multidimensional manner. Why then is
Vladek routinely shown to be a crazy, pet-
ty, tyrannical miser at both the beginning
and end of two-thirds of Maus’s chapters
(the third, fourth, fifth and sixth)! At the
beginning of the second chapter Vladek
isn’t counting his money but he is counting
his pills—there’s another metaphor for you.
What’s the reason for this overkill? Is
Spiegelman afraid we’ll miss the point about
his feeble old father, that we might overlook
two or three incidents of Vladek’s cheapness
so that ten must be cited? The malice in
Spiegelman’s portrayal of his father is so
obvious to me, despite the fact that Spieg-
elman tries to veil it, that I question his
ability to portray Vladek accurately. Is
cheapness Vladek’s only qualityd
I am a Jew with a background similar to
Spiegelman’s. Many of my relatives died in
the Holocaust. My parents, uncles, aunts,
and some Of my cousins were born in
Poland. Furthermore they came from small
towns and probably would seem unsophis-
ticated and puritanical to most Americans
ewen by comparison with Spiegelman’s pap
ents. Spiegelman’s father owned a factory;
my father was literally a teamster, driving
a horse and wagon for a living, picking up
grain from farmers and taking it to mills to
be ground into flour. My folks were tight
with me about mone,•; it seemed that I had
fewer toys than everyone else, that my
clothes were older, if not hand-me-downs.
I resented my parents; they were trying to
raise me as their parents had raised them.
They didn’t realize treating urban American
children as if they were living in a Polish
shtetl could result in serious problems. They
didn’t understand and I didn’t realize that
they didn’t until a lot Of damage was done.
But if Eastern European Jews like my
parents didn’t provide their kids with a lot
of toys that seemed worthless to them, they
good about other things. If possible
they made sure thgir kids had good health
care and ate well and they sacrificed so that
their children could go to college. They tried
to be good parents but often didn’t know
all that being a good parent in America
involved.
I have the feeling based on the informa-
tion in Maus, which is all we readers have
to go on, that Art deliberately tried to make
Vladek look bad, yet there are scenes in the
book where Vladek does show concern for
his son, despite Art’s intentions. For ex-
ample, once befuddled Vladek throws out
an old coat that Art’s been wearing, cone
sidering it shabby, and offers him another
one which he believes is better. Art has a
fit, accusing the old man of treating him like
a kid. L imagine most people sympathize
with Art during this scene, especially the
way it’s presented, but is what the old man
did really so terrible? Yes, he misjudged his
kid, something parents commonly do, but
Vladek was trying to help him by giving
him what he thought was a better coat.
What’s the big deal? Don’t gentile parents
throw out their children’s stuff too—even
their valuable baseball card and comic book
collections? Some mildly unpleasant things
have to be taken in stride because they’re
so common. It’s silly for a 35-year-old man
to blow up athis sick Old father an Old
coat.

Heh heh heh. I love Pekar.

There was much backlash.

The Comics Journal #116, page 78:

Further into the review, Pekar
says that he feels “that Art delib-
erately tried to make [his fatherl
look bad.” Here, especially, Pekar
presumes too much. First of all,
both father and son are shown to
be alternately compassionate and
reactionary; in other words,
human. Secondly, in reading
Maus, I gave the benefit of the
doubt to both Spiegelman and his
father. insofar as the passages they
share are personal reflections that
can scarcely be considered per-
fectly factual or entirely objective.
I have to doubt that the various
situations between them happened
as depicted. but to expect such
scenes to be anything but subjec-
tive is to miss the point entirely.
Pekar justifies his presumptions
by saying that lots of kids have
problems with their parents, so
what’s the big deal? When citing
a sequence in which Spiegelman’s
father throws out his son’s coat and
gives him one he thinks is better,
Pekar writes,’ “It’s silly for a
35-year-old man to blow up at his
SICK old ratner over an old coat:
It’s equally silly to presume that it
was simply the loss of a coat that
was the basis of Spiegelman’s out-
burst. I would venture to say that
it was more a matter of personal
respect, as well as the likelihood
that Spiegelman and his father
simply did not get along, and that
this was just another in a lifelong
series of mounting frustrations.

Edward Shannon writes in The Comics Journal #116, page 78:

Throughout his piece, Mr. Pekar refers to the
character Of Art Spiegelman as if he were One and
the same with Spiegelman the artist. Not only is this
impossible for us to know (as Pekar does admit), it
is completely beside the point! Although Spiegelman
uses his own name, he gives his readers a clue as
to just how closely he is identified with his character:
Spiegelman isn’t a mouse!
Indeed, the quality Mr. Pekar despises is the very
quality that makes the character Of Art, and the rest
of Maus. work. This quality is pettiness. Art, in the
story, is a selfish brat who cares little about what
his father has experienced except that it is useful
in his own work. In the same way, Mala and Vladek
do not try to understand each other and grab what
they can get out of their own lives—just as the Nazis
feared and hated the Jews for being different and ex-
ploited them for what they could supply.

Pekar and R. Fiore went into an endless discussion…

It started like this in The Comics Journal #132, page 43:

Now that you’ve all had time to digest
Harvey Pekar’s article in Journal #130
— and what a great, big, fiber-laden
chunk it was — it’s as good a time as
any to examine the stool. What it
demonstrates primarily is that, other
accomplishments notwithstanding, Pe-
kar is a lousy critic: slipshod in his
methods, weak on facts, given to shod-
dy reasoning even when he’s correct,
and largely motivated by envy of any-
one in comics he perceives to have a
higher reputation than his.

But what did Fiore really mean?

It went on for years.

Did somebody ever collect the entire discussion?

Anyway: Maus I: The comic book that changed everything forever.

This blog post is part of the Punk Comix series.

Leave a Reply