OK, I was winging it. As I’d occasionally done across 35 years as a college professor, I was pretending to have read an assigned text, though usually one I’d have encountered or studied in the past. This case, a few months post-retirement, was a bit more egregious, since I was purporting to speak publicly. The audience at the Mount  Vernon, Ohio, public library was hardly bigger than the panel itself. Not a surprise really, given the picture-perfect October Saturday. But I suspected it was the topic of our discussion — the banning of books in classrooms and libraries — that winnowed the audience to a few avid souls.

Free copies of the book chosen as a leaping-off point for discussion had been distributed in recent weeks around the county. Yes, I’d read “Maus” before, though a very long time ago. Yet for some reason, I hadn’t been able to bring myself to open its pages. So at the library I performed a kind of misdemeanor fraud, with the crisp new paperback lying unopened before me all the while. I surely waxed eloquent, offering to the conversation a maxim by Wole Soyinka that I’d chanced upon only a day earlier: “Books and all forms of writing have always been objects of terror to those who seek to suppress truth.”

On climbing up the stairs from the basement meeting room an hour or so later, still carrying the uncracked copy of Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir, and then turning on my car radio, a flood of wrenching news shoved its way through Saturday distractions. At the same moment we’d been discussing a 30-year-old comic-inspired book detailing cats (Nazis) glorying in the extermination of mice (Jews), Hamas fighters attacked southern Israel and killed approximately 1,200 people, in what President Biden called the “deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.” Later that afternoon I opened “Maus” again after all. ...

One simple and almost immediate takeaway: It is a disturbing, powerful, almost overwhelming portrait, or shattered mirror of micro-portraits in cartoon-like strips, of hate and fear and desperation. Perhaps that explained my reluctance to plunge in. Had I been shying away, consciously or not, from re-encountering such deep discomfort? Now there’d be no avoiding it.

The book opens with a simple epigraph contributed by Adolf Hitler: “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.”

I hadn’t remembered that lovely item. And in truth, I was quickly discovering how faulty my memory had been about this book. Yes, those cats and mice established themselves pretty quickly, and OK, now I recalled that Poles would be appearing as pigs. But the opening two-page prologue sets up a narrative situation that is far more complicated: Spiegelman is remembering roller skating through the Rego Park neighborhood of New York when he was 10 or 11. His skate catches and he tumbles, not really hurt but abandoned by his friends. He limps home and discovers his father, bent over a sawhorse, “fixing something” in the driveway. Artie tells him what happened, still sniffling not so much because of the minor injury but because his friends snickered and went on without him.

“FRIENDS?” his father says in a close-up. “Your Friends?...” (And already we can see what is possible with a drawing that can’t be reproduced with the mere type I’m offering here: the cynical anger reflected in hand-lettered dialogue. And in the next frame from a greater distance showing us both boy and father: “IF YOU LOCK THEM TOGETHER IN A ROOM WITH NO FOOD FOR A WEEK….” Next frame, more distanced still: “…THEN you could see what it is, FRIENDS!...”

We get little Artie with his fluent American English in contrast to an angry father whose lyrical yet seething Yiddish inflections both establish his character and mark him out as so different from his son, as well as from the surrounding neighborhood. Although this scene opens the book, we never return to it or any immediate outcome. The central narrative begins with Artie grown and married, now paying a rare and somewhat guilty visit to his elderly father still in Rego Park, “because we weren’t that close.” Yet the short prologue clearly figures in the artist’s memory as a significant moment of awakening that comes to frame all the rest.

“Maus” had begun to appear in 1973 and was then serialized through the 1980s in much shorter fragments in the magazines “Raw” and “Short Order Comix.” They belonged to the world of underground comix, frequented by then better-known artists such as R. Crumb. Not that that was my world, though I knew of it from a slight distance. As a boy, I’d been a devotee of “Superman,” “Green Lantern” and the rest, but gradually drifted toward more conventional forms of storytelling.

While I was reading comics in the late ’50s and early ’60s, there was very little public mention of the Holocaust or the Shoah. It’s not that the world didn’t know what had happened. My family and other Jewish families surely did. But there simply wasn’t a lot of discussion. Perhaps the tragedy was too raw and recent. Perhaps my parents and their friends all feared that confronting those events represented a kind of emotional and cultural black hole that might suck us all into despair. Perhaps the secular world, despite the many GIs returning who’d seen firsthand, didn’t want to know. After all, these were the days in America of looking to the future, of the moon shot and the Mustang.

My parents, both raised as Orthodox Jews, had turned to a pared-down version of the faith and its stories for their children. We learned merely the sound of Hebrew letters and a handful of prayers, nothing of substance. Did we learn about the Shoah in our Sunday school held on Saturdays? After all these decades I can’t even recall, but I suspect the impulse would have been the same: the sound of words but not the inner breath to make it all real.

When Pantheon first published “Maus” as two self-contained volumes in 1991, however, it rocked what I knew of the literary world. I recall buying first one and then the second when it appeared later, though I would have sworn this was before I returned to Kenyon in 1988. (As I grow older I’m ever more aware of the vagaries of memory.) Here the volumes reside, however, tucked snugly on the shelf in my study. And it’s the first, “My Father Bleeds History,” that I’m consulting now. (I’ve given away the paperback copy to a friend who expressed interest.)

I do remember the excitement, even furor, when “Maus” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, the first graphic book so honored. It’s stunning to look back and recognize how that sudden recognition seems to have thrown open the doors of respectability to a genre growing out of the childish or smutty domain of comic books. Go into a bookstore today and you’ll notice without even noticing how graphic books sit side by side with novels and memoirs and nonfiction, not to mention entire racks devoted to that genre. No secreting it away in a back room anymore. 

So it’s as a long-neglected old friend, like so many others in my study, that I revisit “Maus” on October 7. It’s deeply unsettling, this searing portrait of Jews being slaughtered just because they’re Jews. Yet “Maus,” I now grasp, is not just another “Holocaust story.” It’s also an oral history, Spiegelman recording the mixed narratives his father recounted, not just about living in hiding in Poland, being arrested and sent to Auschwitz, and the struggles to survive, but about their family, those who perished and those few who survived.

Just as important, it seems to me now as both a father and, long ago, a son, that “Maus” paints a picture of the long, painful struggle between Vladek Spiegelman, survivor, wounded widower, translated to a new country and a new language, and his son Art, an American and, yes, an artist. Because this ultimately is Art’s story — he’s both artist and narrator. (As I recited to my students over many years, when you’ve got a first-person narrator it’s always his or her story, even when it seems not to be.) “Maus” is ultimately the story of Art Spiegelman’s struggle to come to terms with both his father and his father’s testimony, and what this has meant for the relationship between them.

Spiegelman’s efforts are played out in his medium: the cartoon images stir our emotions with an immediacy and a potency that may escape us as we try initially to make sense of all that’s going on, the what-happened and when and to whom. This may seem mysterious, even counterintuitive, since there’s nothing “realistic” about the drawings — they offer deliberate caricatures, whether of the cats in Nazi uniforms brutalizing the terrified mice, (and what’s particularly hilarious and awful, the mice wearing pig masks to try and blend in with Poles), or Vladek and his new wife, Mala, also a survivor, squabbling in the narrative present of the 1960s. And yet seeing the visual choreography of terrified humans — because we never doubt that’s who they are — hiding and starving in an attic or being shot in the snow or, decades later, still haunted by the past while trying to inhabit a new world, wrings our hearts.

Did I grasp all of this 30 years ago when I first encountered the book? I suspect that I was so caught up in the simple forward thrust of the narrative, especially the fear and anger and loathing that led up to Vladek’s capture and the struggle for survival in Auschwitz, that I didn’t have the strength to stand back with any kind of critical perspective. So I’m grateful for the chance to reacquaint myself with “Maus,” to delve more deeply and appreciate more broadly, even though the catalyst has been a horror re-enacted in our own time.

David H. Lynn ’76 taught English and creative writing at Kenyon for 35 years and was editor of the Kenyon Review from 1994-2020.

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