Book of a lifetime: Maus by Art Spiegelman

 

I'm not ashamed to admit it; I do read prose books. However, being a writer and artist of graphic novels, I find myself obliged to choose one in order to champion the form in general.

It's Art Spiegelman's Maus. Dealing with the harrowing wartime experiences of his father, Vladek, a Polish Jew and survivor of Auschwitz, and Spiegelman's troubled relationship with him, it's biography, autobiography and historical memoir, told in the comics medium.

Not wanting to trivialise Vladek's story by employing an overtly dramatic style, Spiegelman presents it in a straightforward cartoon way, with Jews represented as mice (the rodent metaphor taken straight from Hitler's own propaganda) and Nazis as cats. As with Hergé's ligne claire depictions of Tintin, the simple mouse masks make it easy for readers to empathise with the protagonists. Along with the eloquent visual storytelling, they make the book easily accessible to non-comics readers. The cartoon style and anthropomorphic characters allow the reader to approach otherwise horrific situations in a direct way, without the use of realistically explicit images and melodrama, while still retaining the power of the experience.

The style is deceptively simple. Spiegelman experimented with different approaches and each page underwent multiple stages as he strove for clarity and fluidity. He tells the story dispassionately and honestly without any knowing winks to comics-literate readers. Nor is he trying to tell a "worthy" story, but simply documenting his father's wartime experiences and depicting how he elicited this information. The present-day sequences give us an unsentimental portrait of this survivor of the death camp. Spiegelman doesn't glamorise his father as some kind of hero. Vladek comes across as irritating, manipulative, exasperating, and even bigoted.

One wouldn't expect humour, but it's there, often wry and situational. It's a rich, well-rounded book. The first comic book to win a Pulitzer Prize, Maus paved the way in English-speaking countries for the recognition of the comics medium as a legitimate art form and for graphic novels that deal with "serious" issues. It's fashionable to say that articles promoting the graphic novel as an art are redundant because this is now a truth universally acknowledged. It's not. There's still a tremendous amount of prejudice against the comics medium that's in dire need of redress. Never read a GN? Why not try Maus?

Bryan Talbot is author of 'Grandville Bête Noire' (Cape) and co-author, with Mary M Talbot, of 'Dotter of Her Father's Eyes' (Cape), shortlisted for the Costa biography award

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