A Reader’s Response to Maus

MausOver the weekend, the deer and I read Art Spiegelman‘s Maus, a landmark graphic novel that has helped further the serious study of the genre as a legitimate art form. We picked up the book from a reading list in the Comics, Books, and Graphic Novels class we’re both taking via Coursera (this is the first time we’ve ever been classmates so I wonder if the deer will get competitive harhar). There were several other graphic novels in the list but we chose Maus first because it had been recommended by a prof I admired from my undergraduate days.

I’m not a wide reader of comics, though when I was little I read a few titles such as the Spiderman Blood Brothers arc and a couple of Quasar issues, both my brother’s favorites. But I only really started reading graphic novels around two years ago because of the deer’s infectious enthusiasm for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. We later also read graphic novels by Adrian Tomine and Jeffrey Brown. At the moment I’m still slogging my way through the Day Tripper series as well as Fables. I used to be more of an avid reader of manga, gekiga, and manhwa but this was a couple of years ago, and whatever aesthetic sensitivity I gained through my nightly reading has by now gotten rusty. Besides, I only really started to pay attention to graphic novels as an art form after I read Scott McCloud‘s Understanding Comics about a year ago. This scattered reading only really amounts to a smattering.

With such a limited exposure to comics, I could not possibly provide a decent critique on the technical aspects of Maus. As for the narrative telling, it would be better compared to other stories focused on the Holocaust or some work attempting to do the same thing. But it has been a while since I read Elie Wiesel’s Night, Anne Frank’s Diary, or even Leon Uris’ Zionistic pulp fiction. So I’m sticking to my guns and writing a reader’s response instead of a literary critique. I will talk about certain aspects of the story that speak to me.

At the start of Maus Volume II, Artie (Art Spiegelman’s persona) worries that he has portrayed Vladek (his father) in an overly negative light in the effort to present a truthful account not only of his parent’s experiences during the Holocaust but also of its aftermath in their very own American home in Rego Park, Queens, New York. The father and son are estranged and their meetings are usually fraught with anger and tension. Vladek is overbearing and extremely miserly, qualities that make Artie lash out against the elder Spiegelman.

It’s this familial tension that unsettles me throughout volumes I and II. But contrary to Artie’s concern that readers would find his father despicable, it is he whom I instinctively blame for their strained relations. Artie comes to the old family home only to have Vladek cough up his story. He is disinterested in his father’s state of health, his father’s second marriage, his father’s despair over his first wife’s suicide, and even his father’s estate. Often, he resorts to blaming Vladek’s imperiousness for his personal flaws and avoids responsibility for the old man wherever possible. To my eye, it is Vladek who is the hero here. At the height of the Jewish pogroms in Europe, Vladek struggles for his family’s survival, seeking ways to navigate through the brutal system imposed by the Nazis to assure safety and subsistence. Even in old age he continues this fight for life, this time against the threats of infirmity from diabetes and an aging heart. These are feats that are admirable to me.

Already, this scene from the early parts of the book hint at the deeper tensions between father and son. Also, characterization is busy at work!
Already, this scene from the early parts of the book hint at the deeper tensions between father and son. Also, characterization is busy at work!

But there is that question Art Spiegelman the artist subtly posed in Maus: What does it mean to survive? And having defined that, is it the point? These are important questions that will help us understand not only Vladek and Artie, but other victims of trauma as well, and perhaps even history or life itself. I will refrain from delving into these questions further here as they lead to a host of spoilers, and I would rather that you read the book for yourself.

As a reader trying to make sense of the book and the experience of reading the book (the reader’s response, my response), I also posed questions to myself to understand why I responded to the themes and characters in the way I did. In interrogating myself this way, right away I could see that the obvious and crucial lens that mediated my reading was culture. For the typical Filipino, we are shaped to understand and accept that caring for our parents in their old age is our basic responsibility as their offspring. But more than a duty, it is also central to our image of familial love. From the Filipino perspective Artie’s refusal to live with his father is callous and irresponsible. But this is not a universal cultural paradigm. So it’s likely that an urban American reader would find Artie’s response completely normal and justified.  So, by contrasting where I’m coming from with Artie’s urban American culture, I understand his character more without having to agree with him.

Another aspect of the story that resonated well with me is hinged on an exchange between Artie and his wife Francois about how experiences of trauma affect people. Here’s the insightful exchange:

Maus 2

I’ve been made sensitive to this because my grandmother was in a lot of ways similar to Vladek. She was a teenager at the height of the Japanese invasion of the Philippines during the Second World War. As the eldest in the family, with a drunkard and womanizer for a father and a sickly mother, she had to be the adult in the family, ensuring the survival of five other siblings. Even after the war, grandmother lived a life of hardship. It was only later when her children had themselves all married when she could breathe a little easier. She could have lived a life of relative comfort on her pension, but she never did outgrow the mentality of a war survivor. She would scrimp all the time, especially with herself. She had the habit of storing bread and crackers in tin cans under her bed, like food rations, just in case the next unexpected war might happen. I’ve heard one war survivor’s grandson also describe his grandfather in a similar way. His grandfather, he said, would keep a suitcase of tin sardines under his bed.

Now while some survivors never forget the fear and the hunger of the hard years and bring these with them throughout their lives, some other survivors do manage the transition to peacetime and let their anxiety go. But would it be fair to expect all survivors to respond to their trauma in only one way, and that is, to “move on”? I’m of the opinion that some experiences are just so horrifying that we can’t ever move on from them completely, struggle as we might. And you know what, it’s okay. Let’s honor the struggle. But let’s also accept that sometimes we can’t return to normalcy. Perhaps we can arrive at a “new normal,” but the past and how it used to be, that is gone. As survivors of the survivors, perhaps the burden of understanding is on our shoulders, and I think this is in some respects what Art Spiegelman is attempting to do in Maus. It is bittersweet when I think about it, that Vladek, though it might not be what his son wanted, has been able to provide Art Spiegelman with a great legacy – a story, albeit a sad story – though certainly the younger Spiegelman has made it his own and has merited the critical acclaim it has received with his hold on the craft of comics.
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This was originally posted in The Nightly Dump.

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