“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello, and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week we’ll look at the corollary of Sturgeon’s Law: the ten percent of everything that is not crud. We’ve looked at television and film here in “The Ten Percent” before and we’ll continue to do so, but today we’re going to examine an art form that often gets dismissed because it blends two forms of art – words and pictures. While people generally have no trouble accepting that “all words” can mean superior literature or that “all pictures” can mean astonishing visual art, combining the two is often met with snorts of derision – after all, it’s only (sniff!) a comic book. In keeping with Sturgeon’s Law, many comics aren’t especially memorable and some are fit merely for lining the hamster cage but yes – the Ten Percent is hard at work in the comics world as well.
The Holocaust is generally considered by historians to have run from 1933 with the first national German anti-Semitic campaign until the end of World War II in 1945. Beginning with the rise of Hitler to national prominence in the 1930s, the rights of Jews were severely restricted and, eventually a series of large-scale camps were constructed to which Jews were transported, in many cases to their immediate death. Germans, by the way, may have perfected large-scale murder, but they did not invent the concentration camp. While civilizations have used forced relocation since antiquity to move out their enemies and clear territory, the British created the first series of concentration camps during the Second Boer War (1899 – 1902). These camps were primarily used to house noncombatants, usually women and children, often in appalling conditions. The Nazi party took these lessons to the next level, creating some camps that were ostensibly “work camps” (such as Dachau and Belsen, which had high rates of death through overwork and malnutrition) but others that were more properly called “death camps,” such as Chelmno and Treblinka, which were simply intended to be extermination facilities.
Auschwitz, located in Nazi-occupied Poland, began as a location to house political prisoners, but the camp was radically transformed into a major hub of the “Final Solution.” The camp was huge, encompassing three actual camps and roughly 45 satellite locations nearby. Its curving iron gates mocked new arrivals with the words “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes [you] free”); gates that had been created by imprisoned metalworkers.
Soviet troops entered the camp complex on Jan. 27, 1945. Knowing that it was only a matter of time before all the camps were overrun, Himmler had ordered all camp records to be destroyed and all prisoners to be evacuated, specifically mandating that no living prisoner was to be left behind to fall into enemy hands. But it takes time to organize a forced march, and those too sick or weak to be herded out of this Hell on earth were left behind and served as eloquent testimony to the battle-hardened soldiers who arrived in the camp, completely unprepared for what they found.
Art Spiegelman is the son of two Auschwitz survivors and Maus is his attempt to come to terms with his parents’ past. His mother, Anja, committed suicide when Spiegelman was 20 and afterward, his father Vladek destroyed all of her Auschwitz journals, despite Anja telling him that she hoped that one day, when Art is grown, that he would be interested in knowing about this. This act of destruction further deepens the rift between father and son, although before Vladek’s death in 1982, the two Spiegelmans were able to come to some sort of understanding.
Maus is nothing short of extraordinary. The book leaps back and forth in time, showing Spiegelman interviewing his father, then showing his father’s experiences leading up to war, mixed in with illustrating his father’s life with his grown son. It was one of the first comic books (or “graphic novels,” if you prefer to use Will Eisner’s term) to receive widespread attention from the mainstream press and a great deal of focus from academic circles. In 1992, Maus became the first graphic novel to receive a Pulitzer Prize.
The style of Maus is minimalist. Done in simple black and white, the viewer has nowhere to avert his eyes to distract him from the horrible events being spilled out on the pages. Spiegelman had an older brother, a petted and well-loved brother named Richieu. Following his birth, the high-strung Anja had a post-partum breakdown and recovered in a distant sanitarium. Later, in 1943, the extended family splits up and Richieu is left with an aunt. When the roundups of Jews become more frequent, the aunt poisons herself and the children to spare them their fate in a concentration camp. Anja would never truly recover from that.
More than one critic has commented that because the Holocaust is such a large, horrific, unimaginable event that nevertheless happened, that perhaps the comics medium – in which Spiegelman uses animals to represent citizens of different countries; a technique that was not without a backlash – is the only way to depict an experience that goes beyond all human reason.
Maus deals directly with racial prejudice (the Jews are mice, the Germans are cats, and the Poles are pigs. When a Jew tries to “pass,” he does so by tying a pig mask over his face), with Spiegleman’s struggle to deal with what Marianne Hirsch calls “memories that are not his own.” The experience of growing up with someone else’s formative memories rather than with their own can create deep divides within a child. Hirsch sees Maus as an attempt, in part, to recreate Anja’s memory, given her suicide and Vladek’s subsequent destruction of her diaries. Maus also, of course, deals with guilt as Spiegelman wrestles with guilt over living up to Richieu’s memory, his complicated relationship with Vladek, and even the success of Maus itself.
Consider this: at the beginning of 1942, roughly 80% of all Jews in Europe remained alive and Jewish culture, while under attack, was still prevalent in many European capitals. How quickly that changed – between March 1942 and February 1943, 80% of European Jews had been murdered in the Holocaust. Such statistics make it clear that no one book can tell the entire story of the Holocaust. However, Maus, with its deceptively simple lines and heartbreaking honesty, is a very fine place to begin.
Truly, Art Spiegelman’s Maus belongs in the Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.