Powerful. Evocative. Raw. Intense. These are the words I would use to describe Maus, a comic by Art Spiegelman, and indeed many have. Given the turbulent times we find ourselves I would use one more word: TERRIFYING.
A few caveats before we start, however:
I don’t know how long this post will be. I can guarantee it will be a bit lengthy though.
I am NOT an Essayist. I am not a writer. I’m a normal person/ninja that likes to write and almost definitely suffers from ADD (well, personally I’d call it a strength). There will be tangents.
This will get political. You may not agree. We can discuss any part if it as rational adults, no matter how strong our respective stances are. (If you need proof, ask Datacide for a link to the time we talked religion)
Finally, as this is about the most senseless & tragic atrocity documented (and well documented at that), there’s a chance it could upset you. Some of this is graphic. Your mileage may vary, but possessing even a modicum of empathy may cause you to fall into a depression.
But don’t, like, NOT read it, yknow? Cuz I don’t want to waste my time here writing all this for nothing. Just, like...have YouTube ready with, like, puppy videos or something.
That’s all for warnings. I don’t plan on spoiling much of the story- I want you to read it. So I won’t give it all away.
Now, onto the body...
Maus tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Jew, survivor of the Holocaust, and father of the author. But it also tells the story of the author himself, dealing with his father (their relationship is estranged) and interviewing him about the Holocaust for a book idea he has.
It’s a very personal tale, and Art Spiegelman tells it in a raw and uncompromising way- presenting moments as-is and letting readers draw their own conclusions. Whether witnessing Art berate his father or watching the surreal depths humans are capable of sinking, you will always feel the way you would. That’s to say, you will never feel how the Author makes you.
Every moment of this book is presented as-is, in a matter-of-fact way. You don’t see the Holocaust exactly as it was, you see it as it was for Vladek. Directly from his memory, directly from his mouth. The same is true for the authors interactions with his father. It’s not how Art felt, it’s just how it happened, regardless of how you feel.
That’s not to say there aren’t ANY liberties taken. After all, Spiegelman is a comic artist, he chooses what to show and what angle to use. It’s just that it’s all done in a grounded, down-to-earth way. It feels like a story someone’s telling you over coffee, or an anecdote on your favorite podcast.
So yeah. The story of Maus is as much the story of it’s creation as it is the story of the Holocaust, and there is no way to understate the quality of its writing.
Vladek begins his story by recounting how he came to meet, marry, and conceive with his wife, Anja (Art’s mother, I’m assuming it’s pronounced “ahn-ya”). After giving birth to their first son, Richieu, Anja begins to suffer from post-partum depression.
Anja comes from a wealthy family, so they decide to send her to a special hospital- though it’s more of a rehab/resort with nurses and meds (the ‘30s weren’t renowned for Mental or Women’s health, but the rich are always well off). Vladek comes along, and the whole stay seems like a nice couple’s retreat...only with scheduled doses of the early-20th Century equivalent of Prozac (Lithium, Laudenum, & Heroin??).
On the train ride to the hospital, they make a stop in another town. There, a passenger points out the window and they all see this:
This image does NOT help Anja’s mental state. But it does forshadow the things to come...
Maus is told across 2 books, but composes one story. The first book is full of plenty of heartache, though the second is even more gut-wrenching. While Part 1 is a slow burn that whispers of coming atrocities- due to setting the scene, and introducing us to both the lead roles & the contrast between Vladek the Holocaust Survivor and Vladek the Father (with the latter shaped by the former)- Part 2 is a raging inferno literally screaming at us.
This book also does something I think was unintended: It reminds us of the depths humanity is capable of when seized and gripped by insecurity and fear, and reminds us how easily the lessons of the past- that took many human lives to learn- are quickly forgotten.
I think this story is important. Too often our past barbarous cruelty is perceived with a clinical detachment. We may know what has been done, and that it was wrong, but we don’t see it happening “in our time”. That kind of extreme “nationalism” is something old people had to worry about. It’s not something that could happen today.
That flag is not from a fictitious Nazi-esque totalitarian regime in a dystopian comic. That’s the real symbol behind a real political party with real support. Greece’s Golden Dawn party, the far-right, nationalist party that looks on Hitler and Stalin as inspirational.
So the imagery of Art Speigelman, and the story by his father, rings loudly even today. No, ESPECIALLY today. With fear and uncertainty rippling through the world, and nationalism on rise...
...I believe that- no matter how hard to stomach- we need to remind ourselves of the vicious savagery we are prone to when we let ignorance and despair override our basic empathy and rationality. Because it’s never pretty. Case in point, there were screaming Jewish kids:
To reiterate: That is a brief telling of a time in which Nazi soldiers picked up screaming Jewish kids (who were probably upset about losing their homes and/or family) and swinging them hard- by the legs-against a wall until “they never anymore screamed”(& lest you think it false, Number the Stars by Eli Weisel has an equally disturbing eyewitness account of a similar act). It’s awful, horrific, a punch to the gut. My stomach churns and my eyes water just describing it, so I apologise to you reading this, I know it’s morbid. But it’s important.
These abhorrent acts are just the surface, the iceberg’s tip, if you will, of what people are capable of when we dehumanize other people for arbitrary differences. The rest of the ice lies far below, going all the way to the ocean floor.
Yes, this is a global issue...
Ok, so even if you DIDN’T click the buttload of links I’ve dropped, I’m pretty sure this shit is still kinda heavy (especially if you expected the usually goofy, joke-laden posts I normally do). Maybe we should take a teeny tiny break and check on some happy stuff...
First up, here’s a picture where I put down the lightsaber and showed Kim Kardashian how it’s done:
Maybe it’s inappropriate, but it’s funny. I know my phenomenal writing skills are so powerful it’s basically mind-control, so we need a little humor or else every reader will commit suicide in existentially, nihilistic despair. I’m also humble. Like...the MOST humble. It’s part of my awesomeness, people are all, “wow, look how humble that guy is! He doesn’t even have reason to be! Hey, you! You’re so fuckin dope you don’t NEED to be humble!”
Then I butt my e-cig, remove my sunglasses, look them straight in the eyes, exhale, and say, “I know”- before backflipping onto my motorcycle and driving away to “Sister Christian” (or that one part of “In the Air Tonight” where Phil Collins is all, “It’s all been a pack of lies!” *DOO-DOOP DUH DOOP DOO-DOOP DUH DOOP DUH DUH*).
And here’s a #supesadorbz (and very, very good) boy:
Also, when you’re done reading this, may I suggest my post on sex in the Mass Effect trilogy? Or why LA Noire needs a sequel? Those are FAR lighter fare (funnier, too).
Ok. That’s all for break time and shameless plugs. Feel free to take more time if you need. The post continues after the next picture.
And in 3...
Throughout the story, we flash to modern times as Art deals with his father. By the time the Part 2 was released the first book had already won awards and been praised/critiqued/etc, so any stress the author had already felt only compounded.
He lays all his feelings out in the unique, raw manner we already saw in part 1, and his musings- at times- are particularly evocative and powerful. This is definitely the area he succeeds the most in, if you ask me. I may not always AGREE, but I do always understand where he draws his conclusions from.
One line in particular wraps around my head and won’t let go:
This is a sentiment I GET.
Not too long ago, I was reminiscing about America following 9/11. There’s many, many bad things that happened post-tragedy (Islam-hatred, panicked calls for war, increased domestic surveillance, NYPD somehow becoming a global military, etc), but I remember the immediate feeling that followed that tragedy: Unity. We all stood united. It even wound up inspiring a scene in the first Spider-Man film that, while a little cheesy now, brought tears of pride to almost-12 year old me in the theater (“You mess with one New Yorker, you mess with all of us!”- a man screams at Green Goblin, while a bridge full of people throw things.)
I was in the car with my partner, mourning that cohesive unity we briefly had. “Yeah, but we would need another 9/11", she said. “Yeah, you’re probably right...sadly.”
Don’t misunderstand. I don’t WANT another holocaust or 9/11. Hell, in my perfect world, we all see each other as equals, unite the world, raise the base level for living, and focus on taking over the stars. (The Venusian colony’s first part begins in 2025, Mars’ in 2033, and the Lunar Space Station/Observatory’ first parts arrive in 2018.) All the world works together to end injustices (like slave-labor, child soldiers, human/sex trafficking, starvation, etc.), we no longer fight over finite sources that are abundant off-world, people in positions of power and/or authority don’t praise ignorance, every animal with basic self-consciousness is granted basic habeous corpus, food is genetically modified exclusively to benefit people (like larger yields, longer shelf-life, etc), I could go on and on. You get the point. That’s dream world.
But that’s not the real world. And sometimes it feels like only a tragedy can force us to get it together (specifically, our shit).
I feel like the majority of us around a certain age were inoculated against hatred of bigotry. At the very least, we were vaccinated and made aware that it was wrong. Sure, there are still cognitive biases and ignorance we’re blind to, but we still understand what’s wrong.
But maybe that’s bad? I mean, it can’t be but...damn, how do I put this? ... You know how real vaccines have almost completely eradicated polio and measles? Then now, there are people who are “antivax” because they don’t see those diseases as a threat anymore, which in turn results in a rise of those diseases. Well, I think we’re seeing the same thing with hatred, bigotry, and nationalism.
Sure, it never was “eradicated”, but it WAS on the decline. Possibly to the point that most people quit worrying, and now these viruses are rising again.
But this time, they have new recruitment processes.
How many younger kids watch YouTubers do Let’s Plays? How many of those Let’s Players, purposely or inadvertently, are “softening” the ideas of hate? I don’t think all of them are secretly turning out kids into Nazis, but a fair amount- with large followings, even- are cracking “jokes” and parroting phrases that could end up being the gateway that leads someone to hate. And for what? Because they love their 10-12year old audience and want to be the new Tosh?
And sure, PewDiePie has denounced his past “jokes”, and seems to genuinely mean it,
but he also hails from a country with the largest amount of nationalists in Europe- who’s to say another, more serious “comedian” won’t rise in place?
A part of me wonders if this is just the ebb and flow of humanity. Is this where our destiny lies? Are the utopian ideals of a future time of everlasting peace preached by Jesus, Budda, Darwin, Marx, et al. simply dreams by naïve people?
How many times can we repeat atrocities that we later regret before we learn that they’re wrong? How many human lives (adult and child) must be lost before the world decides it’s enough?
Or is it never enough? Will we always be stuck in this cycle? Is tribalism so ingrained even now, 80,000 years later, that we will continue to let this hatred fester? That we will continue to give a pass to ruthless sociopaths as long as they’re “on our side”? At what point will the “Us vs Them” end? When do we realise that every human is us? Are we doomed to never fix society’s infected wounds- opting instead to alternate between bandaids, maiming, and ignoring?
I’m sorry. That’s too many rhetorical questions.
I think I’ll take this time to wrap up. It’s gone on long enough, and if I keep going it will only become more incoherent/stream-of-consciousness and full of links. (Thanks to anyone who is still reading, btw.) Back to the books themselves...
Early in the story, we’re introduced to a man named Mandelbaum. He’s a well off, well connected man in town until the Nazis come to Poland. Though even at the beginning his connections help him, soon enough he finds himself as just another number in Auschwitz.
See in Auschwitz, those who aren’t gassed/burned are forced to run naked to camp, catching whatever clothes and shoes are thrown at them. Obviously Mandelbaum was unable to obtain perfect sized clothes.
In the camp he meets Vladek and relays his woes.
It’s a sad story, even as told through Vladek.
But the next panel was the hardest part of the book, for me. Don’t get me wrong, there are some HORRIFIC images/events that transpire throughout this eyewitness account of the most horrific event in modern history.
But as gut-wrenching, cruel, barbarous, and sickening as everything else was...nothing fills me with the same void of...despair, as this.
I believe that every human has an irrational belief in something. Something we hold true, regardless of whether or not we have sufficient evidence to confirm.
There’s broad, fear based ones, like ghosts, heights, the-bridge-will-collapse, and maybe-someone’s-behind-the-shower-curtain. There’s centralized, tribal ones like religion. Then there’s one irrational belief that seems to permeate all of humanity, regardless of creed, color, or culture.
Every single human has hope, in one way or another. I think it’s a quirk in order to survive. If we all felt the crushing weight of the universe’s uncaring ambivalence or life’s ultimate pointlessness, we would never continue on.
So to see someone brought to the brink of that abyss. To live through such horror that even their hope dies...it’s crushing. These are those intimate moments we usually choose to ignore in a person’s biography.
This panel is equivalent to the letters Mother Theresa wrote, documenting how she came to lose her faith. When she died, she asked that be burned, never shared, lest it undo all her life’s work to better the lives of suffering people (it wasn’t, btw. They’re turning the letters into a movie).
And here...here it is, in ink. One man losing faith. Losing hope.
Yet, while I condemn what happened with Mother Theresa, I commend the account here. Because I feel like it really drives the point home. This. This is what humanity can do to humans when we let fear and hatred take over.
Thanks for reading.