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‘Maus Now: Selected Writing’ (review)

Edited by Hillary Chute
Published by Pantheon 

 

In 1986 Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus was published and became a deeply loved and agonized-over book almost immediately.

It did not shy away from the gruesomeness of the Holocaust, nor did it attempt to soften the horror and insanity of the genocide.

Using animals to depict Jews, Germans, and Poles, it never attempted to make these animals “cutesy,” instead relying on the anthropomorphism to lean into the tragedy and cruelty.

The blunt style of Spiegelman’s line drawing and deep black ink coloring conveyed the stark reality of Jewish history in the rising tide of Hitler’s war, and left you feeling as cold as the bodies of the mice that were hung as examples.

What Maus did for my generation (who still had family members suffering the permanent trauma of those concentration camps sitting at our collective tables) was bring together multiple genres (comics, history, and biography) and show just how powerful they could be when intertwined, and why the medium of comics is a perfect venue for telling stories that are incredibly heartbreaking and horrifying.

In Maus Now, editor Hillary Chute knows just how important Spiegelman’s two-part tale (Maus II was published in 1991) has become over the nearly 40 years of publication (although, it should be noted that Maus actually began in the pages of Raw Magazine and serialized from 1980-1991) and has gathered together various essays on Maus from prominent authors and scholars who have been gutted, inspired, awed, overwhelmed and amazed by these books.

In Ken Tucker’s essay Cats, Mice and History: The Avant-Garde of the Comic Strip (from 1985) Tucker delves into Spiegelman’s Raw Magazine comic strip and includes conversations with the artist and his own take on how the use of mice as Jews parallels how Hitler deemed all Jews as vermin.

Thomas Doherty’s Art Spiegelman’s Maus: Graphic Art and the Holocaust (originally published in 1996 but updated for the book) examines the difficulty in labeling Maus as just a “graphic novel” (especially for the Pulitzer Prize committee) and the significance of Spiegelman’s use of simple lines, cross hatching and stark use of negative space against the Nazi aesthetic of “perfection” and in Terence Des Pres’ Holocaust Laughter? (1988) De Pres takes an intensely intricate look into humor used in the most deplorable of situations and how the use of a comic to tell a tale as deeply despairing and disturbing as the Holocaust marries anguish and absurdity, bringing an almost illogical symmetry to the events of the Nazi regime.

These few essays are just a small example of the absolutely wonderful and engaging work that makes up Maus Now, combining literary criticism, philosophy, history, media studies, and social constructs of why Maus still impacts its readers even four decades later. The approach creates a highly in-depth work that celebrates the pioneering graphic novel-cum-biography of family.

With the current re-rising of alt-right extremism and antisemitism occurring almost daily around the world, and Maus being banned by a school board in Tennessee just this year, it is even more imperative that the importance of Art Spiegelman’s innovative work be available to the public and looked at through the lens of the literary rather than as simply a “comic”. To be quite blunt, the general public can be (and has been) dismissive of a lot of graphic novels that use the medium to tell important stories in unusual and artistic ways (like: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan and even the graphic novel version of The Diary of Anne Frank adapted by Ari Folman, which has also come under fire in the last year) due to simple ignorance of the use of comics as an artistic interpretation of a story.

Chute’s book disseminates Maus in a way that makes it clear that it is more than just a simple “comic” for the layperson: it imparts a sense of importance to it, gives it legitimacy and makes it far more difficult for a school board made up of uneducated people to simply dismiss it as comic strip in book form filled with “inappropriate language and nudity”- which is what the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee did.

If you have read Maus multiple times throughout the years and are looking for a good companion to it, Maus Now should not be missed. It is an insightful and impactful collection of essays dedicated to one of the most important stories of our time – one that may be more necessary now than ever before.

 

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