April 27, 2005
Dr. Robert Hughes
MAUS: A Modern Epic
(MAUS I, 133)
MAUS is an important story.
It is a true story.
And it should be approached with respect.
Written and illustrated by Art Spiegelman, MAUS uses a comic strip to tell the story of one Jewish man’s struggle to survive the holocaust (and subsequently, his family’s survival in the wake of the holocaust). MAUS brings a lesson of history and of survival (perhaps) to a generation of people who may otherwise take no interest in such lessons, but may be intrigued to do so because: it is a comic strip. However, the feature attraction to MAUS is not the cartoons which span its pages, but more sublimely, the candid and brutal honesty mixed into the ink on every page. Using the metaphor of a game of cat and mouse, and set against the backdrop of World War II, Spiegelman portrays Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. The visual component of the comic strip provides a way for extending the cat and mouse metaphor into a full integration with the story, and yet also offers opportunities to express meaning in ways unavailable to prose (or any other form of writing). Spiegelman overcomes any stereotypes or intellectual prejudices against the comic strip (in this instance) by proving that it can be used to produce a serious work of literature. A modern epic.
MAUS was produced in two volumes. The chapters contained in the first book appeared originally as comic strips in Raw magazine between 1980 and 1985, and between 1986 and 1991, the first four chapters of the second book appeared, all in “somewhat different form” (MAUS I & II, 4). The strips were reworked and the fifth and final chapter of the second book was written to complete the books. “In September 1986, after 8 years of work, the first part of MAUS was published. It was a critical and commercial success” (MAUS II, 41). In the opening pages of the second book, Spiegelman thanks the Guggenheim Foundation for a fellowship which allowed him to focus on completing MAUS II, which he did in 1991. MAUS I is subtitled My Father Bleeds History, and MAUS II is subtitled And Here My Troubles Began. The two volumes were published together in 1992, and Spiegelman won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for MAUS.
Spiegelman dedicates MAUS I : For Anja (his mother), and he dedicates MAUS II : For Richieu (his brother, who died during the war) and for Nadja (his daughter). MAUS is an epic about his father’s life. Through MAUS, Spiegelman unites his family as he weaves their memory into the fabric of history.
MAUS is an epic. It begins in medias res. It takes place in a global setting, there is a conquering of overwhelming odds and narrow escapes from fatal trials, and there is triumph and good fortune through cleverness and intelligence. There are flashbacks, foreshadowing, and prophecy. There are, most certainly, the stereotyped epithets (charicaturized in MAUS as cats, mice, and pigs). The hero, Vladek, makes the metaphorical journey into hell. There are shifts in the narrative point of view, and there are (somewhat) long and frequent monoloques of personal and eyewitness accounts. Divine intervention and the power of God are, across the backdrop of the holocaust, unconsciously called into question, yet still have a painfully ambient presence. MAUS does, however, seem to lack the poetic form and ornate similes generally characteristic of an epic. But, does it really? Perhaps, these epic conventions saturate MAUS, but are concealed in its form. Perhaps, the visual metaphors in various drawings throughout the books serve this ‘convention,’ and each frame of the comic strip is the visual equivalent of a line of verse.
The comic strip consists essentially of frames, or boxes which contain both text and drawings, and as each frame represents a measure of significance, or meaning, they will be (briefly) referred to as individual units of representation. A traditional epic consists of lines of verse, and likewise, each line of verse will be referred to (also briefly) as an individual unit of representation. Meaning, or significance, is derived through representation, and, from a structuralist perspective, the comic strip, like verse, gains its overall significance as a result of how its individual units of representation relate to one another, in their arrangement and their sequence, and like the lines of verse found in a traditional epic, the comic strip offers, stroboscopically, a series of representative images in a somewhat rhythmic and repetitive fashion. The comic strip replaces (or, rather, is) poetic form in this modern epic. And just as the ornate similes of an epic occur within the verse of the traditional epic, so do the visual metaphors occur within the frames of MAUS.
The language of MAUS is very plain. Vladek’s is an educated, but broken English that immediately reveals his eastern European background, and Artie’s is that of a New Yorker. MAUS evolves through dialogue, similar to a screenplay, with background and scenic notes. The dialogue is generally presented in a rounded balloon with a tail pointing toward the speaker. The background and scenic information (and inner thoughts) come generally through rectangular boxes.
The colorful metaphors and similes throughout MAUS come almost entirely through visual representation. The cartoons serve as a visual companion for the text, not as a definitive images, but, as gesture drawings, they serve the more suggestive purpose of a visual metaphor. Using the cartoon, as Spiegelman does, in a very gestural manner, the qualities of the line drawings within each frame, then, begin to take on new meaning, not as much for their content as for the emotional nuances and imagery they contribute to the text boxes which form the story. This attribute places the visual metaphors of MAUS categorically identical to that of the ornate similes of a traditional epic.
(The visual simile is an unlikely term. Excepting very rare cases of comparative illustrations – which are essentially macro-metaphorical, anyway – line drawings do not use ‘like’ or ‘as.’ The word ‘like’ or ‘as’ is implied in its transposition from visual material to a modifier for text.)
The visual metaphor is extended to include the stereotyped epithets characteristic of an epic. The Jews are depicted as mice, the Nazis as cats, and the Polish are depicted as pigs. Mice represent the timid, the weak, and the hunted, but they are also witty and resilient. The Nazis are depicted as cats because cats are vicious hunters, and it is inherent to their nature to hunt mice (and perhaps also because of their eccentric natures). As for the Polish pigs – to a Jew, a pig is the filthiest creature on earth. (The Bible’s reference to the Prodigal son’s sleeping with the pigs and envying their slop is a metaphor for the lowest that a man can sink into ruin.) The Polish were likely portrayed as pigs in disgust of their sympathy to the Nazis’ final solution. Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Spiegelman also includes many other visual metaphors in MAUS through clever sketches (of even a few lines) which can get around pages of text that may still not have stabbed at the heart of his intended meaning. One of the most striking of such visual metaphors reinforces the pervading influence of the Third Reich that the title reflects. The roads take the shape of the swastika, illustrating that nowhere was safe, and that the Nazis were everywhere.
(MAUS I, 125)
MAUS is a fitting title. It initiates the metaphor of the cat and mouse. (Important, also, is its singularity. There is one mouse. And the story is about one mouse – Spiegelman’s father.) The intentionally altered spelling of ‘mouse’– the pronunciation of the ‘AU’ (as in ‘Auschwitz’) – immediately references something German (and seen with the swastika, indicates Nazi Germany or World War II), but it also foreshadows a subconcious mood which pervades Vladek’s story, that everything and everyone has come under the influence of the surreality of Germany under the Third Reich. This is also illustrated in the art on the covers of both books.
The cover art features the title, MAUS, in red, as if painted in blood, with spatter and drip marks at the bottom of the letters. This bold red word is centered at the top of the image field and slightly overlaps a large Nazi icon designed by Spiegelman for the books.
The Nazi icon features a highly stylized front-facing, mask-like icon superimposed over a black swastika and centered on a circular white background. The mask-like icon is reduced to very few lines and is a creative blend, or fusion, of Hitler’s likeness with that of a cat, but it also exhibits the features of a skull (with the sharp cut cheek bones and rectangular drop at the ‘teeth area’). The obvious implications of death and danger augment the impact of this icon, adding a sinister nuance to its facial features. The mostly white space (outlined by black) of the facial area of this icon harbors a menacing set of opposing black trapezoidal shapes, slightly askew, in the eyebrow region and, centered below them, echoing the rectangular drop below the cheek bones, is a black vertical rectangle with a small triangular notch from its top, indicating a nose and Hitler’s famous block mustache. Atop the figure extend triangles on either side in the shape of alert cat-like ears. Three bold black lines (referencing cat-like whiskers) extend outward from the sharp angle of the cheek bone and spread along the horizontal axis of the swastika. A black triangle diagonally divides the forehead region, completing Hitler’s stylized likeness by referencing the sleek deliberate part of his black hair.
The sharp angles and straight lines of the Nazi icon, as well as the stark contrast between its black and white composition, give it a sterile, rigid, menacing, and institutional quality far removed from the soft, cool colors and the gestural quality of the mouse-like figures (on the cover of each volume) huddled below it. It appears on the cover of MAUS I as a spotlight. It appears on the cover of MAUS II as the moon. The blackness and emptiness of the Nazi icon looms over the timid and defenseless mice, fueling their sense of impending doom, and presenting to the reader a charicature of the horror of a history already well known.
The general trend of history is to focus on much larger events and persons, whereas MAUS focuses on one (seemingly insignificant) individual in a historical context – a speck amidst the tempest. Therein lies the hero’s nobility. The format of the comic strip allows Spiegelman to diminish the broader cast of history to focus on one man (or mouse) while what is called history now confronts him day by day, living through it. The hero of MAUS, Vladek Spiegelman, like the traditional epic hero, embodies the traits which his culture esteems in a man – humble, meek, and compassionate, yet enterprising, resourceful, and intelligent – but he is a modern epic hero, in that he is not an idealistic citizen of his culture, but an individual, which is a concept of modern culture.
MAUS begins in medias res. It takes place across a span of several years, but actually begins many years after the war has ended. World War II is seen through flashbacks. The flashbacks which reveal the horrors of the holocaust are solicited by ‘Artie’ from his father, Vladek Spiegelman, in different conversations during his frequent visits over the years. Vladek’s long monologues in recounting his own personal experiences (through the holocaust) are standard an epic. Throughout MAUS, from each visit to his father, Artie gets another piece of his story. It was up to Artie to piece together (like a jigsaw puzzle) the fragments of the past. He sorts through the anachronistic tendencies of his father’s tale and establishes an order to the tale, which is nothing less than a poetic achievement of the comic strip. It reads like verse.
The glimpses into Vladek’s domestic life and his relationship with Artie woven together with the flashbacks to the holocaust of World War II form the fabric of MAUS.
Because MAUS is, really, two stories.
It is the story Vladek is trying to tell (about his life during the war), and it is the story Art is trying to tell (about his father’s life as he knows him). However, there are three overlapping sequences of time within MAUS. The key to understanding MAUS is in understanding each of these time frames. There is the time Vladek spent during the holocaust in Poland, which is the story Vladek tells Artie during their visits together; there is the sequence of time Artie actually spent talking with his father, which he recorded on audiotape; and there is the time spent drawing the pages of cartoons (of these events after they have happened). It is this third sequence of time which gives the other two their significance to one another, and it is this time Spiegelman necessarily spent crafting MAUS into an epic.
* * *
MAUS I opens with Art Spiegelman visiting his father, Vladek, in Rego Park, where he lives in New York. He is old and in poor health. He is miserly, crabby, and stubborn, but it also becomes very clear that he would do anything for his son, Artie. Anja, Artie’s mother, survived the holocaust, but killed herself in 1968. She left no note. Vladek is remarried to Mala, also a survivor of the holocaust. They do not get along very well, and they each complain to Artie about one another.
Artie asks his father to tell the story of his life during the war – he wants to write a book about it. Vladek, born a Polish Jew, is a survivor of the holocaust.
Vladek begins telling his story.
In the 1930’s, Vladek lived in Czestochowa, a small city in Poland near the German border. He worked in textiles – buying and selling. He was a handsome and successful man, and a eligible bachelor, popular with the ladies. Every holiday Vladek went to visit his family in Sosnowiec, about thirty-five or forty miles away. One particular visit in December 1935, a cousin introduced him to Anja. She would become his wife, the love of his life, and Artie’s mother. By the end of 1936, they were engaged and Vladek moved from Czestochowa to Sosnowiec. And on Valentines Day 1937, Vladek and Anja were married. Artie’s parents.
Vladek also tells Artie about a jealous girlfriend he had before he married his mother, but asks Artie not to put such personal things in his book. Artie includes this scene at the end of the first chapter to add a likeable dimension to his father – mirth in his life – to contrast the approaching tragic chain of events.
Anja’s father was very wealthy and soon helped Vladek in his business. By October 1937, Vladek had a textile factory in Bielsko and a newborn son in Sosnowiec – Richieu. He visited Anja every weekend. Soon, however, she became sick and suffered a breakdown. Vladek took her to a sanitarium in Czechoslovakia. Here was his first brush with the Nazis.
(MAUS I, 32)
Vladek tells his son: “It was the beginning of 1938 – before the war – hanging high in the center of town, it was a Nazi flag. Here was the first time I saw, with my own eyes, the Swastika.” These words by themselves do not indicate the gravity of this presence, but the gestures of the mice reveal their uneasiness.
After staying in the sanitarium for three months, Anja felt much better, and they returned home. They returned home to bad news. The factory had been robbed and there were anti-Semitic protests in the streets. They recovered and were happy in Bielsko until August 24, 1939 when a notice came drafting Vladek into the Polish army. Anja went to her family in Sosnowiec with their son, Richieu. Vladek went to the German front.
“…and on September 1, 1939, the War came. I was on the front, one of the first to…” (MAUS I, 39).
And then the story is interrupted, and there is a shift from Vladek’s story to Artie’s story. An abrupt shift of time, and Vladek is old, counting out his pills, which he spills, blaming it on his eyes and complaining about his eye doctor. Art Spiegelman, as he is drawing MAUS, uses this technique to add suspense to Vladek’s story, but also uses it as an opportunity to reveal his father as an older man, as he develops his story parallel to Vladek’s. This shift in point of view is characteristic of an epic and is a pattern Spiegelman follows throughout MAUS.
Spiegelman generally begins each chapter with a different visit to his father to get more of his story. He subtly reveals his father’s personality through common, everyday scenes of his daily life (which generally open and close each chapter) – like his peeve for wasting food, his habit of picking up discarded items, his meticulous sorting of pills or nails, his unwillingness to throw anything away, his constant fiddling around the house, or his complaining about Mala in some way or another.
And then, Artie prods his father to finish his story.
Soon after the war began, Vladek became a German prisoner of war. Even in the German camps, the Jews were treated far worse than their fellow Polish prisoners (who were not Jews). The conditions were bad, but he and others volunteered for work and, in return, got better conditions. During this time, Vladek had a dream which told him: “You will come out of this place – free! …on the day of Parshas Truma.” And it was so.
(MAUS I, 57)
Vladek’s dream came true on the day of Parshas Truma, a certain date of the year which has its corrspondence in the Torah. This dream fulfills the prophetic component of the epic tradition.
Parshas Truma became an important date throughout Vladek’s life, as many other important events would correspond to this date, including Artie’s birth.
Upon being released (on Parshas Truma), Vladek and all the other prisoners were put aboard a train and sent (far past where he wanted to go) to Lublin, in the German Protectorate territory of Poland. Being released as a prisoner of war however, did not release him from being a Jew in Nazi occupied territory.
(MAUS I, 61)
The odds build against Vladek.
In Lublin, he managed to get help from a friend of his family, where he rested and recuperated, and then he found his way back to Sosnowiec. He visited his parents (who told him of the humiliations they suffered at the hands of the Nazis and the new curfew) and then he went to Anja. His son Richieu was two-and-a-half. At home, at Anja’s family’s home, little had changed, but now there were twelve in their household.
Vladek was smart and resourceful. Though the Germans had taken over virtually all the Jewish businesses and looted Jewish homes for valuables and Jews lived mostly off food coupons and what little work they could find, if they had ‘working papers,’ Vladek managed to find enterprise in the black market: “secret businesses – not so legal” (MAUS I, 77).
At different times, Nazis would come in and round up Jews, and with (a fair amount of luck, as well as with) friends he’d made, Vladek managed to avoid being taken away. Vladek tells Artie: “And so we lived for more than a year. But always things came a little worse, a little worse…” (MAUS I, 79). On one occasion, he encountered his friend Ilzecki who saved him from and offered to hide Vladek’s son Richieu with his own son until after the war. Anja refused (though they would later have to hide him anyway). Ilzecki’s son would survive the war. Richieu would not.
Vladek continued his black market business, after others were caught dealing goods without coupons and hanged in the street, he had to be more careful. This is one of the most powerful frames in all of MAUS, and to think of it still brings tears to Vladek’s eyes.
(MAUS I, 83)
Vladek wipes his eyes, and continues his story.
Late in 1941 came an official notice ordering all Jews to relocate to the “ghetto” in the Stara Sosnowiec quarter by January 1, 1942, thereby replacing them with non-Jews. Then, another notice ordering the removal and relocation of all Jews over age seventy. Anja’s family tried to hide her grandparents, who were over age 90, but they eventually had to turn them over to the Nazis. Then, a few months later, all the other Jews were called to the stadium to register. They were sorted into what Vladek called the good side and the bad side. By this time, the Jews had heard of Auschwitz. That’s where the bad line was going. That’s where Vladek’s father went. And his sister. And her four kids. That’s where Anja’s grandparents went.
(MAUS I, 90)
And at the end of this visit, Vladek takes a nap, and Artie talks with Mala about her memories of the stadium. Then she starts complaining about Vladek.
On Artie’s next visit to his father, Vladek was acting a little strange. He had found a comic Art had penned years before called Prisoner on the Hell Planet, which dealt with his mother’s suicide and the guilt he felt about her death. It appears in MAUS. When Anja killed herself in 1968, Vladek was devastated, and Artie was in shock. Vladek had found this comic while looking for some things Artie had asked for. Anja had left her accounts of the holocaust in diaries, or notebooks. Artie remembers seeing them as a child. They talked about the comic, about Anja, and then Mala begins to gripe.
Vladek asks Artie to walk to the bank with him, and again begins his story.
Everything was quiet for a time, and then in 1943, a notice came ordering all Jews left in Sosnowiec be removed to a nearby village called Srodula. Conditions worsened. At this time, Vladeka and Anja sent Richieu to live with her sister Tosha in Zawiercie. The following Spring, the Nazis came and took away children to Auschwitz or killed them in the street. Vladek thought his son was safe, but a few months after Richieu went to Zawiercie with Tosha, “the Germans decided they would finish out that ghetto” (MAUS I, 109). Tosha always carried a vial of poison around her neck, and, to avoid the gas chambers, she killed herself and the children. Vladek’s makes no judgments of her decision.
To avoid being deported with one of the Nazis’ routine roundups, Vladek made a bunker where he and Anja could hide. It helped for a while, but he was eventually caught, though he managed to arrange an escape for Anja and himself.
After their escape, a man named Haskel helped Vladek find work in the ghetto. Haskel was powerful, but crooked. He survived the holocaust. He had arranged to have himself smuggled out of Sprodula when the Nazis decided to deport all the Jews left there.
Anja began to get very depressed. Her whole family was gone. (Perhaps, these frames foreshadow Anja’s suicide.)
Vladek had made arrangements to hide in another bunker until the Germans passed through. And they did. And the Germans passed through. But after they did, there was nowhere to go. Vladek and Anja headed toward Sosnowiec. This is where the cartoon appears in which Vladek and Anja are walking the swastika-shaped crossroads – with nowhere to go.
They sought out friends they’d had, but were turned away before they found help. Vladek and Anja moved around Sosnowiec from hiding place to hiding place barely surviving. One day, Vladek heard of an opportunity to be smuggled to Hungary, where (he thought) conditions would be better, and he convinced Anja to go, along with the Mandelbaums. Their nephew Abraham had gone first and sent word that it was safe.
But they were betrayed. Abraham had been taken to Auschwitz and forced to write his letter to Vladek, and the smugglers had turned them in. On the way to Hungary, their train was stopped by the Gestapo and they were captured. They were marched through the town of Bielsko (past the factory Vladek had once owned) to the prison where they were held before they were deported.
And in March 1944, they were taken through the gates of Auschwitz, where Vladek embarks upon his metaphorical journey through Hell. This particular gate to Hell bore the inscription: Arbeit Macht Frei (Your Labor Shall Make You Free).
(MAUS I, 157)
MAUS I ends with Vladek’s arrival at Auschwitz. Beginning with his visit to the sanitarium in Czechoslovakia, the pages of MAUS are filled with a series of narrow escapes and Vladek’s persistence through the building of overwhelming odds (against him) unto their culmination in his arrival (in Hell) at Auschwitz. These necessary epic conventions continue into MAUS II.
In the final pages of the first volume, Artie suggests that they look for Anja’s notebooks (which he remembers seeing as a child). He thought they may be useful in producing his book. He was angry to discover that Vladek had destroyed her notebooks and diaries (and other nice things), which she had left for Artie, and the last word of the book Artie mutters, he calls his father a murderer.
He had murdered all traces of Anja’s memory.
MAUS II opens with Artie on vacation with his wife. (There is a humorous discussion as to what kind of animal Art should portray her.) Just as they arrive at their friends’ house, Vladek calls Artie, and asks Artie to come see him. Mala has just left him (and taken some of his money). They drive to stay with Vladek at his bungalow in the Catskills. (Artie mentions the sibling rivalry between him and the invisible presence of his brother Richieu, who died during the war before Artie was born.)
Vladek explains his situation with Mala and insists on going over his bank records. Artie manages to pull him away, asking his father to tell him more of his story, after he was brought to Auschwitz.
They walk, and Vladek again begins his story.
“Auschwitz was in a town called Oswiecim” (MAUS II, 25). At Auschwitz, Vladek and the others were stripped of their clothing and possessions, made to bathe, and (as they ran wet and naked through the snow) were given prisoners clothes and wooden shoes. Often neither fit. Their names were taken and a number tattooed on the inside of their forearm. The whole time, no one knew what to expect and all feared they could be “gased” or killed in some way at any moment. Conditions were terrible.
Artie later recalls a visit to his therapist, who was also a survivor of the holocaust and had been in Auschwitz. These frames are another fine example of the visual metaphor. When the therapist says: “It felt a little like that,” he employs the use of a simile (where ‘that’ refers to the drawing in the preceding frame. This is certainly an ornate simile (at least, in the substance of its meaning).
(MAUS II, 46)
Vladek died before MAUS was completed. Fortunately, recoginizing Vladek’s declining health, and his own fatigue at taking notes, Artie had recorded many of their talks. He uses these tapes to complete MAUS.
Art Spiegelman uses this portion of Artie’s story to express Artie’s (his own) desire to understand what his father had told him. Spiegelman begins to weave Vladek’s story with Artie’s, and this is where Spiegelman subtly reveals his purpose in writing MAUS. (I shall eventually offer my interpretation of MAUS, but I shall save it for the bitter end.) By the end of MAUS II, their stories are woven together so tightly that, not only do the three sequences of time culminate simultaneously, but they are interdependent upon one another. Vladek’s mission is to tell his story to Artie in its completeness, and Artie’s mission is to get through his father’s stories with an understanding of his father, and hence Art Spiegelman, as the author of MAUS, is dependent on these to stories to mutually resolve themselves in order to have a fitting conclusion to MAUS (ultimately completing his mission).
Vladek, as noted before, was an intelligent and enterprising man. He knew German, Polish, and English. Not long after he arrived in Auschwitz, the kapo, or block supervisor, assembled the prisoners and (likely speaking in German) asked who knew Polish or English. He wanted to learn English. Reluctantly, Vladek raised his hand, and eventually, with teaching him English, he earned some extra food, some fitting clothes, a little influence, but most importantly, he earned the favor and protection of the kapo. The kapo hid Vladek safe in his room for two months while Vladek taught him English. After he could do this no longer, the kapo helped Vladek to get assigned to a crew as a skilled worker. “Always around Auschwitz they were building” (MAUS II, 25). Getting in good with the supervisor is a pattern Vladek would follow. He was a clever and resourceful guy. He earned the favor of Yidl, the chief of the tinmen, with a little cheese. He later worked in Auschwitz as a shoemaker, where he would impress a Gestapo man and ease Anja’s mistreatment by fixing her kapo’s shoes. Vladek had manged to find out where Anja was and pass messages to her. She was in Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, which was much larger and more dismal than Auschwitz. He eventually arranged to have Anja brought to Auschwitz. This was the only time Vladek was happy in Auschwitz.
(MAUS II, 64)
Vladek’s lost his job near Anja and was made to do heavy labor for the last couple of months he was in Auschwitz. Altogether, Vladek was in Auschwitz for ten months.
As the Russians drew near, the Germans began to pack everything and leave – prisoners and all. As a tinman, Vladek helped to dismantle the gas chambers. Vladek and a few others made a bunker to hide, but feared the Germans would burn everything as they left, and so they were one of the last ones to leave Auschwitz. Vladek, Anja, and all the other prisoners were made to march (almost two hundred miles) to Gross-Rosen, a small camp (with no gas) in Breslau. Here, Vladek lost contact with Anja. They were crowded in with prisoners from all over Europe, and the next day they were marched to a train with cars made for livestock, where they were loaded and packed tightly inside. There were no toilets, food, water, space. The train moved for a while and then stopped. It stopped for a week. Most died. Vladek survived on snow.
(MAUS II, 87)
And one day the train began to move again. And it stopped again. When the doors opened, they saw the Red Cross. The prisoners were given a snack and chased back onto the train. They were going to Dachau. Vladek tells Artie: “Here, in Dachau, my troubles began.” This is the frame which gives MAUS II its subtitle.
(MAUS II, 91)
Throughout all his troubles thus far, Vladek had remained present-minded and considerably good-spirited, and relatively healthy. But Dauchau would bring new troubles for Vladek – he suffered through Typhus, which he contracted from lice.
Vladek’s knowledge of English earned him a friend in a Frenchman (who spoke only French and English and had no one to talk to in a German prison camp). He shared food with Vladek, saving his life. (Frenchmen are depicted as frogs.) Not long after arriving, sick and weak with Typhus, Vladek was sent with others by train towards Switzerland to be traded for German prisoners of war. On the train, they were given food from the Red Cross. After a while, the train stopped. They were told to get out and march. So, they marched. Then they stopped. They were marched back to the train and they got back in. The war was over. The next day, the Germans were gone. They left the train again. Then, still more Germans marched them to a lakeside. All the Jews thought they would die there, but in the morning, the Germans were gone. So, they wandered the countryside into yet another German patrol, where they were forced into a barn. The next morning, those Germans were gone, too.
Vladek and his friend Shivek found a place to hide in a deserted country barn. They found food and rest, and then the Americans came. (The Americans are depicted as friendly faced dogs – man’s best friend.) Vladek was free of the Nazis.
As Artie reviews the tapes of his father, it is this portion of the story that Vladek presents Artie with the ‘supernatural weapon’ crucial to any epic. The supernatural weapon gives him the power to complete his mission. (His mission is the same as any other mission: to survive – to live on.)
Vladek interrupts his story to give Artie a shoebox he had found. It was a box of snapshots of Vladek and Anja and their friends and family (mostly Anja’s family) from before the war. Vladek had nothing left of his family – no snapshots. He had only Artie, anymore, and (as the cartoons suggest he understood) it was up to Artie to carry on.
The supernatural weapon which gave Art Spiegelman the strength to complete MAUS, was given to him by his father as he was a participant in MAUS, as Artie. It is this supernatural weapon which merges Artie’s and Vladek’s stories into unity. But, what is this ‘supernatural weapon’? Lineage. Evidence of a family, a past, a history. And what gives his lineage its metaphorical supernatural attributes is by virtue of the survival of the holocaust. Lineage is most certainly a weapon against genocide. The proverbial torch had been passed to Artie. Then Vladek rested, and this visit was over.
Later, Artie receives a phonecall that Vladek is in Florida and had suffered a heart attack. Mala was there, also. Vladek remained crabby and miserly to the bitter end, but he managed to make concessions with Mala. Artie flies to Florida to get his father. It is here that Vladek tells the last chapter of his story to Artie.
The Americans set up a camp for displaced persons where Vladek got his identity papers. Then, he went to look for Anja. He ran into someone from his hometown and learned that Anja was there, but they warned him not to go to Poland because in Sosnowiec, the Poles were still killing Jews. Vladek sent a letter to her with his picture and set out for Sosnowiec to get her. After three or four weeks, he found her.
And Vladek finishes his story:
“More I don’t need to tell you. We were both very happy, and lived happy, happy ever after” (MAUS II, 136).
In his old age, Vladek had begun to show signs of senility. At the end of MAUS II, not long before his death, as Vladek finishes his story, he calls Artie by his brother’s name, Richieu, who had been dead since the war.
“I’m tired from talking, Richieu, and it’s enough stories for now” (MAUS II, 136). Vladek Spiegelman died of congestive heart failure on August 18, 1982. His memory lives in MAUS.
* * *
Now that it has become clear that MAUS is an epic, it must also be understood that it is a modern epic. Without too much diversion into Modernism, I shall simply state the two glaring characteristics which determine MAUS to be a modern work. The first is that the hero is focused on more as an individual than as an ideal of his culture, which is a development which began with the birth of humanism during the Renaissance, but has seen its strongest developments in art and literature from the nineteenth century to the present. So, whereas a traditional epic will be written in an exalting and lofty manner with a glorified hero, this modern epic uses a rather plain manner of speaking about a rather plain man in the midst of extraordinary circumstances. And the spirit and radiance which issue forth from MAUS is a result of this reduction. Another glaring characteristic of a modern work is its deviation from traditional formats, which results in a radical transgression of the expectations of the viewer. (By simply looking at MAUS, one might not guess it to be an epic, but it is. It exceeds the expectations of a comic stip, yet satisfies, but questions the solidity of, traditional epic conventions.)
But why write an epic like MAUS?
Perhaps, Art Spiegelman is attempting (through MAUS) to piece together the fragments of his past to make sense of his own life, to become more intimately acquainted with his own history and heritage in an effort even to gain a deeper understanding of (not only his father, but) the suicide of his mother. His parent’s suffering through the holocaust would affect every day of his life, and through his parents, he experienced the holocaust (or its lasting effects).
Perhaps, Spiegelman wrote MAUS simply a tribute to his father – an honest account of his life – and Spiegelman uses his talent as a cartoonist as a venue for celebrating the memory of his father.
The memories of people long since passed also surface through Vladek’s story and, briefly, live again. Many of Vladek’s friends through these harrowing times are never heard of again, yet through the pages of MAUS, they are again animated and living as Vladek’s life is lived again – day after day, week after week, page after page. The dead rise up and live again, and their history is not forgotten – like the rabbi to whom Vladek confided his Parshas Truma dream while in the German prisoner of war camp in 1939, like his friend Mandelbaum who attempted to escape to Hungary with him, yet they were sent to Auschwitz together, like the priest who read to him the numerology of the number tattooed on his arm when he first arrived at Auschwitz – 175113 – which gave Vladek hope, like Mancie, who helped pass messages between Anja and Vladek while she was in Birkenau and he was in Auschwitz, like many others whose paths cross the pages of MAUS, and like Anja, herself.
Perhaps, MAUS is a way to help keep their memory alive as well.
Perhaps, MAUS is a family album produced for the world to see, for Nadja to see, with Art narrating the present (more or less), and his father, Vladek, narrating the past. And there is a humble pride in the past, in Art’s heritage.
But, just maybe, MAUS is a way to shout out to the world, to history, to Hitler: Look. We’re still alive. Through it all…the Spiegelmans live on.
S T A C Y A T K I N S
Spiegelman, Art. MAUS I: My Father Bleeds History. New York: Pantheon. 1992.
---. MAUS II: And Here My Troubles Began. New York: Pantheon. 1992.