Complete Maus Paperback – 2003
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Maus: A Survivor`s Tale
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Although Maus is written in comic strip format, Spiegelman does everything he can to subvert our assumptions about the medium. There are few, if any, character `thought bubbles;' there is little emphasis on humour and witty exchanges. This is a serious book about a serious subject: the holocaust. As Spiegelman himself notes in the book (I am paraphrasing here), "how can a comic strip, a medium historically dismissed as nothing more than `the funnies,' capture the horror and pathos of the attempted extermination of an entire race of people?" The great achievement of the book is that not only does it meet this lofty challenge, I honestly can't think of another medium that could have better captured the spirit of those times. Spiegelman's skilful use of illustration adds a layer of irony to the story, and demonstrates the pathos that underscored the rise of Nazi Germany. Particularly interesting is that people of differing backgrounds appear as animals. There is the obvious binary where Germans are depicted as cats and Jews as mice (the text quotes a disturbing German Nazi-era editorial equating Jews with the flea-ridden mouse). Among others, Poles appear as pigs, the French as frogs (problematic, to say the least, although Spiegelman tries to justify this by pointing out instances of French hostility towards Jews), and Americans as dogs. The reasons why certain animals symbolize certain countries or ethnicities is not explained, neither whether ethnicity and nationhood are essentially the same construct. There are some great images where Jews wear masks of other animals to disguise their true identities.
I can't recommend this enough. I have had friends and family uninterested with the graphic novel genre read Maus, and they have universally loved it. The book treats the Holocaust in a novel and startlingly original way. The narrative is quite a coup for the comix genre, as Maus powerfully demonstrates that graphic novels need not have Captain American or Charlie Brown to be read and enjoyed.
Maus tells the tale of an artist who decides to write a comic book based on his Father's recount of the Holocaust, which, in fact, is what the author is doing based on his own Father's experiences. The book spans about 4 decades from the mid-thirties to the seventies, covering the pre-WWII period to the time when the author is actually exploring the past with his Father and writing this book. There are two stories intertwined marvelously in this book: a first-hand survivor's experience of life before, during, and after the Holocaust, and that of a relationship between an ageing Father and young-to-middle aged son who have a serious disconnect.
The two stories could actually have been written independently, but it is their excellent juxtaposition which is one of the clear highlights of the book, for it has a multiplier affect on the poignancy of both the Father's and the Son's situations. Each of the stories themselves is well crafted, managing to weave together a bunch of incidents across points in time to create a very smoothly flowing narrative. I was particularly impressed by the telling of the Father-Son relationship, for it manages to pick and show very small events which we know can cumulatively build up to create tremendous long-term frustration, but are almost never able to remember, or recount effectively, or demonstrate the impact of, either to ourselves or to others. Art picks his moments beautifully, and even though the setting is completely different, I felt that I could completely empathize with him (as I am sure my Parents would be able to with his Father!)
The recount of the Holocaust had less of an impact on me, possibly because I was familiar enough with the nature of the incidents, if not a particular man's plight. The exploration of the atrocities was done in a very straight-forward, linear, and almost journalistic fashion (which is somewhat understandable given Art's leanings.) Consequently, while it was still somewhat horrific to revisit these heinous crime scenes, the impact was diminished as there was nothing different in the story. As a contrast, think of the film "Life is Beautiful", and you'll understand how a difference in the storyline or presentation style can significantly enhance the poignancy and impact even when lesser time is spent on the war crimes themselves.
The artwork in the book is average, although it does have it moments of brilliance. The most impactful choice of course is that of portraying people from different nationalities in different and appropriate animal forms e.g. Jews as mice and Germans as cats.
Overall, I would definitely recommend reading the book, but with a lowered set of expectations than one would normally develop upon reading the reams of extreme praise that have been showered upon this book. Keep that in mind, and I am quite confident you will find the book a very worthwhile reading experience.
Of course, it's not a comic book in the traditional sense, although it's written and illustrated in that format. The first volume of Art Spiegelman's "Maus: A Survivor's Tale" was one of the works that helped popularize the term "graphic novel" in the 1980s, dignifying what had been considered a rather cheap and childish form of entertainment as a medium of genuine literary potential. Then again, "Maus" isn't exactly a novel, either, since it's a basically faithful retelling of the history of Spiegelman's own parents, Polish Jews who came to America after surviving Auschwitz. Cartoonist Jules Feiffer found it hard to put into words what, exactly, his fellow artist had done: his review of "Maus" describes it as "at one and the same time a novel, a documentary, a memoir, and a comic book." When it came to his opinion, however, he didn't have to struggle at all: "Brilliant, just brilliant."
To any reader with even the slightest acquaintance with Holocaust literature, the story of Vladek and Anja Spiegelman will be all too familiar: a happy home life marred by the looming specter of war, a struggle to survive as homes and businesses are confiscated, individual acts of betrayal and heroism, the weeks in hiding, the eventual deportation, separations and reunions, liberation at last. (These aren't spoilers, by the way - Spiegelman sets out for us pretty clearly from the beginning how his parents' story is going to unfold.) Somehow, though, it all feels painfully new, freshly intimate. Spiegelman's decision to depict characters of different races and nationalities as different species of animal (technically human bodies with animal heads and tails, rather than anthropomorphized animals), as uncomfortable as it seems at first, lends an air of abstraction to the work that underscores the absurdity and enormity of the familiar facts of history.
"Maus" is a story of survival, and of determination and resourcefulness, and of the sheer tenacity of human life. It's also a love story - perhaps a small handful of love stories - and the story of a father and son. Spiegelman sets the family history into a deceptively simple frame meta-story, in which he sits down with the now-elderly Vladek to record his recollections with the intention of making them into a comic book. "Maus" appears almost to write itself before the reader's eyes: we are invited to share in the author's thought processes, to weigh the consequences of his artistic choices, to consider with him the appropriateness of writing - or reading - a Holocaust story for, on some level at least, entertainment purposes. Spiegelman shares some poignant insights into the experiences of children of survivors, a generation spared the material horrors but living forever in their shadow. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment, however, is the character of Vladek himself: a cantankerous, miserly old man whom we come to regard with affection, even as we cringe along with his son at some of his more outrageous antics.
"Maus" is a haunting book that tugs on every heartstring, but without the slightest hint of melodrama or sentimental trickery: its emotion is hard-won and well-earned. Don't let the unconventional format deter you - this is a book well worth reading.
O.K. Maybe Maus isn't the best place to start. But for those of us who are curious as to how it really was, without any sugar coating, and without having our noses rubbed in it, it is very good. We do not have to SMELL or TASTE the camps; we do not have to see rotting corpses, mice do not have very expressive faces. It is the story of a survivor--through no fault, he stresses, of his own!--told in American speech, frequently organized in Yiddish word order, frequently punctuated by Spiegelman's own speech, and that of his wife. We learn, from a very personal story, of everything that happened to Art's father, without having to be afraid of turning the page. It is very honest. He does indeed "bleed history." And sometimes the blood is funny as well.
There is never any question of "Well, why didn't they get out, while they could?" You do what your country tells you to do, and by the time you realize you are a prisoner of war (Art's father was briefly in the Polish army), and that this involves being treated like a non-human, it's too late.
Vladek is very good at "organizing" things--eggs, chocolate, seeing his wife, finding hiding places--but had he once been caught by the wrong people, at the wrong time, with thre wrong things in his hands or speaking to the wrong people about the wrong things, there would be no Art Spiegelman.
"I was friendly to everyone--the prisoners, the Kapos, the Nazis--if you want to stay alive, it's good to be friendly."
A man, who was one of the first Allies to see Belsen-Belsen, nobody knowing what to expect, says that there were piles and piles of corpses, and on top of them, sometimes under them, were a few semi-living human beings. The first thing many of these tried to do, he says, stifling a sob, was to free their hands, and raise two fingers, "they tried to do the victory thing, you know," he says, wiping tears from his eyes. "Sorry," he says. This man is apologizing for crying at the memory of his first sight of Belsen-Belsen.
But somehow, it is very important that Spiegelman does not cry. A good graphic book should not cry, It should report. This one does.
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