Book review: Essays about Art Spiegelman’s Maus prove the graphic novel is a classic

Maus is an anthology of 22 essays samples including some translated from Hebrew, German and French. PHOTO: VIKING

Maus Now: Selected Writing

Edited by Hillary Chute

Literary criticism/Viking/Hardcover/432 pages/$37.88 with GST from Books Kinokuniya/3 stars

Art Spiegelman’s audacious graphic novel Maus broke the mould when it was first serialised in the New York magazine Raw.

Even in the 1980s, before the full story was collated and published in book form in 1986 and 1991 by Pantheon, Maus had already excited commentary from critics and academics.

The idea of a Holocaust story told in the comics medium, with Jews depicted as mice and Germans drawn as cats, boggles the imagination. Yet, as Ken Tucker’s 1985 essay in this collection proves, Spiegelman’s towering achievement was already being recognised, analysed and dissected by critics.

This anthology of 22 essays samples from more than 35 years of this thriving cottage industry and includes essays translated from Hebrew, German and French. Organised in chronological order, the essays show an evolution in the approaches to reading Maus. 

Tucker’s Cats, Mice And History: The Avant-Garde Of The Comic Strip, for example, is an early and sincere plea for the due consideration of comics as high art. He declares of Maus: “This is an epic story told in tiny pictures.” 

As an arts critic writing for The New York Times, Tucker’s piece is one of the more accessible and readable pieces in this collection, which rockets from novelist Philip Pullman’s breezily erudite essay to the stodgy academic sludge of Andreas Huyssen’s Of Mice And Mimesis: Reading Spiegelman With Adorno.

The latter instantly caused in this reader a horrific, and headache-inducing, flashback to undergraduate readings with its determined mapping of Maus to German philosopher Theodor Adorno’s theory of mimesis, the process of imitation or mimicry through which artists portray and interpret the world.  

There are engaging essays here that guide readers into deeper engagement with Maus, reflecting the trajectory of academic thinking which came to embrace the graphic novel as a legitimate medium for high art and serious storytelling in the wake of Maus.

Alan Rosen’s The Language Of Survival: English As Metaphor In Spiegelman’s Maus parses the hierarchy of languages in Holocaust representation; while artist and curator Robert Storr’s 1991 essay, written as accompaniment to an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), is a compact primer on the artist and his work. 

This information about the MoMA show, however, is missing from the book. A short line would have helped contextualise each essay, some of which are seminal pieces.

What this compilation does highlight is how resilient Maus is to multiple readings and interpretations. It withstands the critical theories academics hurl at it and resists reductive readings with the slippery ease of any great work of literature.

From the extensive quotations and a question-and-answer session with journalist David Samuels for Tablet magazine reproduced here, Spiegelman is the best spokesman for, and most intelligent parser of, his own work.

He is deeply aware of the contradictions that others have observed in the work, the comics medium versus the serious subject matter, narrative constructions of fiction versus reality, the contradictions of making a “hit” Holocaust story. 

In the end, the best way to read Maus is to simply go back to the original.

If you like this, read: Art Spiegelman’s The Complete Maus (Penguin Books, 1996, $37.43 with GST from Books Kinokuniya). This harrowing tale of Holocaust survival remains as vivid and gripping today, and is even more relevant given the rise of ethnonationalism.

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