What do you Call a Tennis Match Between Stevie Wonder & Helen Keller?
Originally published in Synthesis Weekly: August 2009
How long is an appropriate time to wait before making a joke about a taboo subject? The death of Michael Jackson or Farrah Fawcet, and various events around the world, jokes exist about practically anything these days. One of the most taboo subjects, yet most popular, is the Holocaust. Decades after the atrocity, people are still fascinated by this event. Countless books have been written, movies have been made, memorials erected, and speeches given, and yet our interest persists. It's certainly for the best that so many homages exist to keep this event in the forefront of our minds.
One such example is the two part graphic novel Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman. Published by Pantheon Books in 1986 (part one), and 1991 (part two), this book details the experience Spiegelman's father went through during the Holocaust as a Polish Jew. In 1992, a year after part two, (And Here My Troubles Begin), was released, Maus was awarded the Pulitzer Prize Special Award.
One of the most interesting and clever things about the way this Holocaust story was presented was the use of anthropomorphic animals. In German, “maus” is the equivalent of “mice”, which serves as a little foreshadowing. In this case, all the Nazi's were shown as cats, and the Jews as mice. It was an incredibly smart choice, as it softens the blows of what is undoubtedly a horrifying yet important tale. Through the telling of his father's life, Art Spiegelman begins to address his complicated relationship with him. His father seems to show signs of being racist towards blacks, even in spite of what he went through in the concentration camps, and the prejudice he himself has experienced. Also, in part one, although he shows very clear signs of being a kind and compassionate person, in his old age those traits seem to have been switched out for those of a crotchety old man.
I usually don't enjoy stories about the Holocaust. However, this one has the perfect balance of harsh truth mixed with the likeable characters and an engaging story. The artwork, (also done by Art Spiegelman) is very simple in black and white, but still interesting. The facial expressions are very easy to read, and surprisingly so. Each panel is small, but retains interest as the graphic novel progresses. This book is definitely worth picking up, but don't expect to be in a particularly sunny mood after you finish reading.