Wow. It’s hard to believe that 2011 marked the 25th anniversary of former Raw editor Art Spiegelman’s classic comix narrative Maus. It’s enough to make a guy start feeling kind of old! But if any so-called “graphic novel” (and in the case of Maus that’s a term that actually applies) deserved a big to-do to celebrate the quarter-century mark, this one does.
For those of you with short attention spans, or who either weren’t there or were too young at the time to remember now, Maus was one of the works, along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, that the mainstream media chose to focus on in the mid-80s as proof that the comics medium had finally “grown up.” But whereas Dark Knight and Watchmen were both revisionist takes on the superhero genre that comics are, for better or worse, still pretty much synonymous with, Maus represented a broadening of the medium’s focus to include stories and issues from the “real world” as well, and whereas Miller, Moore, and Gibbons all emerged from the “mainstream” comics industry, writer-artist Spiegelman emerged from the so-called “underground” milieu of the 1960s and 70s, and so brought to his work an entirely different sensibility than the creators he was being “bundled up” (so to speak) with. In practical terms, for those of you who might be unfamiliar with the differences between so-called “mainstream” and so-called “alternative” comics/comix, is that he never cared much for guys in tights and capes fighting crime, and while he was far from the first, or only, cartoonist to eschew the costumed adventurer as the primary focus of his sequential narratives (Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, Greg Irons, Jay Lynch, Kim Deitch, Spain, S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton, and frankly too many others to list were both forebears and contemporaries of Spiegelman), his was the first non-mainstream work that the wider world really paid any attention to , coming as it did at at ime when, again, the mainstream was thought (falsely, as it turns out, since the only lesson the “Big Two” publishers seems to have taken from the critical acclaim and commercial success of Dark Knight and Watchmen was that audiences wanted their heroes “grittier,” “darker,” and “more realistic”) to be finally maturing.
Sure, Maus still employs another tried-and-true trapping of comics tradition — namely the “funny animal” genre (not that there’s anything funny about these animals) — as its central narrative conceit, but this is definitely a harrowing portrayal of unfabricated and unvarnished all-too-human complexity, focusing as it does on the grim realities of the Holocaust (with mice standing in for the Jews and cats for the Germans) and the effects of that dark period on those who survived the ordeal. Based on the recorded conversations Spiegelman had with his own Holocaust-survivor father before his passing, it’s a harrowing, deeply personal, emotionally resonant work that will engross you from its first page to its last and haunt you long afterwards. Critics of far more established pedigree than I have called it “the most affecting portrayal of the Holocaust ever rendered in any medium” and “a masterwork,” and you know what? They’re absolutely right.As far as the art goes, it’s simply stunning. Elegant in its simplicity, it’s brooding, atmospheric, and yes, heavy, but it needs to be in order to accurately represent this subject matter with candor and sincerity. Spiegelman’s drawings have a raw (if you’ll forgive the pun) and unsophisticated look to them that belies the almost-agonizing complexity to their construction that sometimes can’t be appreciated on first glance. In short, these are images that need to be studied to be fully appreciated, but if you do take the time to do that you’ll be richly rewarded for your efforts, as the pictures on display here are every bit as emotionally affecting as the words that accompany them.
Now back to the whole anniversary thing. Pantheon books, in late 2011, finally released a collected hardback edition of the complete Maus (it had been released in two separate, smaller editions — both in hardcover and paperback — previously), complete with a new cover, and also published an absolutely exhaustive (again hardcover) companion volume, titled MetaMaus, that runs nearly 300 pages and collects nearly what one would imagine to be almost every scrap of detail relating to Maus’ creation and also features extensive interviews with Spiegleman, his wife, and his children, elaborating on not only how and why Maus came to be, but how it has affected their lives, as well. It’s a compelling and genuinely illuminating volume showcasing the efforts that went into the creation of a work that, let’s face it, deserved a lot more than a new introduction and/or afterword to mark its silver anniversary. Also included with companion volume is a DVD that features a digitized reference copy of Maus in its entirety linked to various and sundry complementary archival material such as pages from Spiegelman’s sketchbooks and private notebooks, historical documents, and even excepts of the audio interviews with his late father that provided the genesis for the entire project in the first place. The two books retail (full price) at $35.00 apiece and are more than worth every penny.In closing I’d just like to wish Art Spiegelman and Maus a very happy happy 25th anniversary. As relevant, thought-provoking, significant and, yes, poignant today as it ever was, this remains an unequaled work in the field of graphic historical (and personal) narrative. Pick it up for yourself and find out why it’s required reading in so many college courses , not just on comics but on history, these days.