Review of Art Spiegelman’s “MetaMaus”

Spiegelman, Art.  MetaMaus: A Look inside a Modern Classic, Maus.  New York: Pantheon Books, 2011.  301 pp.  $35.00.  Hardback.  ISBN 978-0-375-42394-9.  With MetaMaus: The Complete Maus Files.  DVD.

Reader Warning: This volume is not for the faint of heart.  Confronting evil never is.

This insightful work, by the author of the original Maus, brings to light the creative processes behind the original work as well as extending its narrative to encompass a more in-depth version of the events which inspired it.  Indeed, those who have not read Maus may be at a loss at first but the excellent provision of context, excerpts, and the DVD quickly ameliorate that.  Indeed, the DVD is set up to be a companion to be experienced synchronically with the text.  The DVD thus becomes a meta-metanarrative or new layer in the story behind the story of Maus with its “Supplementary Supplements” section.  Layer piles upon layer as one searches through what is perhaps the best exposition of the “banality of evil” one finds in any attempt to describe or explain the Holocaust.

The work opens with the author, speaking through a mouse to the audience, admits his surprise at the effects Maus has had on the world at large.  He points out the three major questions asked of him over the years, “Why comics?  Why mice?  Why the Holocaust?” (9).  As he does so, the realistic spokesmouse has a partial view of Mickey Mouse in the background, itself a commentary on Walt Disney which is simultaneously blatant and highly nuanced as visual rhetoric (8).  Spiegelman begins by trying to answer “Why the Holocaust?”  He did not recall hearing that specific word until the 1970s (13).  Rather, it was a presence imbuing his home life from his earliest years as his parents referred to “the camps” or “the War,” something always capitalized in the way they said it.  When he did finally ask outright as a young man, his father “seemed to respond like it was [Spiegelman’s] birthright to know these things” (14).  Throughout, then, the difficulties of memory are central to both narrative and metanarrative.  By the time Spiegelman began his series of interviews, both his father and others were advanced in age thus suffering the lapses endemic to the elderly in addition to having to cope with the emotional trauma of recalling such horrific stories (28 – 29).  The subject matter of Maus embodies Spiegelman’s own struggle, which he refers to as “mein kampf” in direct allusion to Adolf Hitler’s book, as an author as much as the horrors of the Holocaust itself (75).  For him, the attempt was “to tell the story without falling into the two pits on either side of the project: either coming off as a cynical wisenheimer about something that had genuine enormity, or being sentimental, a form of trivialization on the other side of that road.  Finding that tone in a sense was an essential part of the task at hand” (75).  He acknowledges that the subject is difficult, even generously allowing that one possible reason for Holocaust denial is that it is “an understandable response to trying to wrap one’s brain around the scale of the crime” but that, in the end, it is almost certainly “just more of the mindless anti-Semitic venom that wiped out [his] family in the first place” (102).

In attempting to answer the question of “Why mice?” Spiegelman tells the story of a film professor friend asking his students about the early cartoon era.  Essentially, what was the difference between anthropomorphic animals and the subhuman depiction of African Americans in those early depictions (112)?  He makes a direct comparison between Steamboat Willie and Al Jolson’s work in The Jazz Singer (itself a multi-layered work with a Jewish actor portraying a WASP performer who must use blackface to guarantee employment as a musician).  However, his early efforts were “problematic” in that they threatened to resurrect the very tropes they on which they were intended to comment and parody (113).  The mouse motif suggested itself after he watched the 1940 German “documentary” The Eternal Jew with depictions of Jews “in a ghetto swarming in tight quarters, bearded caftaned creatures, and then a cut to Jews as mice – or rather rats – swarming in a sewer, with a title card that said ‘Jews are the rats’ or the ‘vermin of mankind.’  This made it clear to [Spiegelman] that this dehumanization was at the very heart of the killing project” (115).  Responding in kind, using animal depictions and specifically the mouse-cat dichotomy to demonstrate humanity, seemed the only logical recourse especially since depicting the human form has always been a taboo in Jewish art.  America is not innocent of this process, as is made evident with the inclusion here of virtually identical bat (i.e.: a flying mouse) motifs from US anti-Japanese propaganda and German anti-Semitic propaganda (116 – 117).  With this, cats and mice became “overt masks” for the people they represented and as such had to be drawn not to scale but of roughly equal size demonstrating the opposing extremes of victim and victimizer that are possible within the human spectrum (118).  Similarly, Poles are represented as pigs on farms intended to be meat because the Nazi plan for the “Thousand Year Reich” was to work the Slavic populations to death under slogans like “Arbeit Macht Frei [Work Makes You Free]” (122).

Much of the MetaMaus narrative is built from conversations between Spiegelman and interviewer Hillary Chute about the original work, Maus, which in turn largely came from the experiences his father, Vladek, had in concentration camps.  This volume adds to that work to look at experiences of racism in general, and anti-Semitism specifically, in a broader Western cultural narrative, including, sadly, the United States.  The extant horrors experienced by the Spiegelman family, and by extension all the victims of the Holocaust, are starkly portrayed in an extended family tree which first shows a large and prosperous clan with 85 entries but, when the page is turned, shows that only 13 survived the war (228 – 231).  Such reports are not uncommon, and the “Maus Chronology” shows the gradually accelerating tempo of destruction in Europe.  Perhaps the most telling section is the “Searching for Memories of Anja” chapter, as Spiegelman tries to excavate his mother’s story from those who knew her in the camps.

Reaction has been mixed, ranging from popular protests in Poland to a reporter at the 1987 Frankfurt Book Fair where Spiegelman “was aggressively barked at by a reporter: ‘Don’t you think that a comic book about Auschwitz is in bad taste?’” to which he replied, “‘No, I thought Auschwitz was in bad taste’” (155).  Indeed, the German version was problematic, ranging from translation to the cover art.  Spiegelman insisted on the same artwork for all editions worldwide, which included a swastika, which is illegal to depict in Germany.  Somehow, his agent got permission and it was used.  However, it produced an unintended juxtaposition for the work because “a few years later [he] saw a documentary about skinheads in Germany and one of them had a Maus bookstore poster in his bedroom – it was the only swastika he could get” (159).  It is infinitely, if darkly, amusing to see Neo-Nazis adopt the pragmatics of Jewish representational art in order to depict their own beliefs and group membership.

In all, MetaMaus, like Maus before it, is an emotional roller coaster ranging from the heights of ironic amusement to the far depths of the human soul which can only be illuminated by non-human tales.  Art Spiegelman’s words in person are often as stark as his images and narrative when in authorial mode.  His is a story of beauty in the darkness and the tiny grain of hope whence all futures spring.

– Prof. J. Holder Bennett, Collin College