I read Spiegelman’s Maus series when I was very young (my older sister was a big fan) and, as a child, read the book as purely a comic. I don’t think I was even old enough to understand the impact of the Holocaust or even what had truly occurred during the Holocaust. I probably just flipped through the images, pretending to know what was happening. All I knew was that mice equal good and cats equal bad.
Reading it today, I’m totally blown away by what Spiegelman was trying to portray in his work. Yes, it is a story about the Holocaust and does a wonderful job of showing us the horrors (both visually and emotionally) of what happened in Nazi concentration camps but, in reading it this time, I found I connected a great deal with the father-son relationship, which ties into the past-present relationship, which, ultimately, ties into how stories are perceived. Spiegelman’s graphic novel becomes just as much about perception and how humans look at the world (how we look at the Holocaust, how we look at our relationships, how we look at ourselves, etc.).
Take for example on page sixteen as Artie and Francoise are driving to Vladek’s place in the Catskills and Arties says, “There’s so much I’ll never be able to understand or visualize. I mean, reality is too complex for comics…So much has to be left out or distorted.” I think that one line basically embodies the entirety of what Spiegelman is attempting to do. He is trying to recreate reality through his comics; he wants his father to recreate his experience in the Holocaust so he can feel as though he was there too; and, as the time changes in the graphic novel and we see Artie as the award winning novelist, he is recreating what the present was for him. But these are things that can’t fully be recreated. So the focus goes away from just a story about the terror of a concentration camp but how a story is told. Artie is telling us a story about how he wrote a story from which he based on his father’s own stories. Thus, at times, Spiegelman is able to create this kind of filtering down of reality into these images that become more of a reinvention of the events that have happened.
In doing so, Spiegelman is changing our own perceptions. For instance, on page fifty the image of the German in the camp who believes he shouldn’t be with the “Yids and Polacks” changes from the way the Germans saw this man to the way the man saw himself (as an image of a cat, not a mouse). In addition to this, it could be said that maybe Artie is seeing this man in the back of the head as being German and, because of this, his perception, as represented by the background image in the comic, our own perception changes. Reading Maus, this tension between how all the different characters see the world becomes the reader’s own anxiety.