Paul Reads the Classics: Maus: A Survivor’s Tale

At the time of this writing, the experience of reading Maus: A Survivor’s Tale is still fresh in my mind. I read the first volume last night and finished the second just this morning. As a result, this column is well past its deadline, but my opinions are still, even now, percolating. In time, the devices of the narrative and my feelings about them, so cacophonous today, will diminish. They shall be archived in a section of my memory dedicated to those books I have liked. Frozen there, in a state half forgotten. We freeze dry our memories for later consumption because the weight of our experiences, our every inkling, revelation, and regret is impossible to bear. Such are the limits of human cognition that we constantly seek to simplify our lives, our pasts, even at the expense of diluting all that touches us.     

We lose the past simply because we must if we’re ever to carry on. It’s a maddening process that staves off madness. We’re fragile little biological computers with a hunger for knowledge bigger than our ability to process and retain. Our efforts to reclaim all that came before is history. It is a compromise. At best, history is a collage of our life and times, cobbled together from many sources and colored by experience, priority, prejudice. But it is the best we have.   

Art Spiegelman constructed Maus over a period of 13 years. He chronicles the story of his father Vladek, a fading survivor of the Nazi Holocaust. There are many narratives of these events, and I was fool enough to believe that Maus was simply a fable of that plight, an Animal Farm of the ghettos and death camps. But when I am forced to file this story away, the touchstone will not be fable or holocaust or even biography. It shall be stored under history. The first volume of Maus is subtitled My Father Bleeds History. This image consumed me. 

Maus is comprised of a parallel narrative, not simply the tale of a Jewish Pole artfully navigating the dangerous reality of hate and unimaginable horror. It is the story of a young man struggling to understand all the aspects of his parent he was never present to witness. It is a treatise on the survival of both humanity and history. It is a meta-textual discourse on the ethical questions apparent to anyone who has ever yearned to chronicle history. Is it absurd, distilling a person, an event, an atrocity into two-dimensional elements of fiction? Is it cruel? Is it caricature? What is the true value of honesty in recording that which has happened? What is the cost?

Spiegelman does not endeavor to answer such questions, perhaps because there is no answer. Not a universal one at the least. The weight of his struggle can be felt, especially in the second volume, which includes some 4th wall breaking scenarios to help inform the reader of all that has transpired since the previous volume and all that continues to bother him about the project. Spiegelman, dons a mouse mask, stepping into the animal architecture he’s already designed, and labors over a drafting table, itself perched atop a pile of corpses. He visits a mouse-masked shrink and vents his frustrations and insecurities about representing Auschwitz, both graphically and dramatically. He questions his depiction of his father. Is portraying Vladek’s weaknesses — his miserly ways, his racism, his passivity towards oppression — a form of character assassination unbefitting of a father and son relationship? 

The questions of artistic integrity and ethics are all there. Our only answer is the finished product, a more or less complete record of his father’s trials during the war years and the only resolution he’d ever arrive at in the story of father and son. Maybe the only resolution it ever could have reached. The past, the events and truths from which we are denied access, is as alien and inexplicable to us as the future. And there is an urgency to hold onto it, to unearth it before the dust piles too high. Perhaps because we feel it defines us or because we can discern our lack of it. We bleed history. And even healing is a compromise.

In the final panel of volume I, Spiegelman turns his back on his father, enraged at the news that Vladek has burned Anja’s diaries. “Murderer…” he mutters. It is a shocking moment, and depending on your perspective on these characters it is either a monstrous overreaction or a painful, albeit relatable moment of weakness on young Art Spiegelman’s part. His mother is gone, and even if he has moved on, old wounds reopen when he learns of the existence and loss of these diaries all in a short period of time. To Spiegelman, history is lifeblood. History, reclaimed and documented, is immortality. Or at least new life. Just as we reach back to understand more about ourselves, we also create art to reveal ourselves to the world. To live in the memory of others. Art is a touchstone. Art is preservation. 

We don’t want to forget because we don’t want to be forgotten. 

I loved my experience reading Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, and jaded as the thought may be, I ache for that love’s eventual demise. I return it reluctantly to its shelf knowing that one day I will reach for it again. In order to reclaim a kinship I already had and am destined to forget all over again. Art, like people, has at times been reduced to numbers. Quantity is easier to recall than quality because quality is unable to be measured. In a way, it’s insubstantial. It can only be felt. Like the best of things, it is fleeting. And maybe it’s the drive to restore that memory which makes all other greatness possible. We dig for the past and stumble upon something we never could have expected.   


Paul Montgomery feels he’s forgetting something. Contact him at You can also follow him on Twitter.



  1. As much as I love Maus I can’t help but think how much more effective it would have been, for me at least, had everyone been drawn as people rather than animals.  The horrific things in the book would have had even more of an impact than they already do.  It’s certainly not a story that had to be told with animals…

  2. I think this captures the emotional impact of the book very well. It also reminds me that I have probably not read it in 12 years or more; I really need to dust this book off and have another go at it.

    You never fail to impress, sir.

  3. @ultimatehoratio – Well I think it all has to do with that watering down of information.  Just as human being compartmentalize memories, we tend to put people into categories.  The whole idea of genocide is that race and creed denote a division of the human species.  Speagelman has said that the animal characters are meant to look sort of silly.  The opening of volume two shows a ridiculous conversation between Art and his French wife about how she should be portrayed in the book.  As a mouse like him or as a frog like other French characters.  It’s silly.  And it’s no different than our own desire to categorize the people in our lives.  On another note, I also found the image of mice (Jews) disguised as pigs (Poles) to be really effective.  It’s a creepy sort of iconography that shows the subtext of what actually happened.  It’s graphically powerful.  It’s an extended metaphor that I think retained its consistency, and made for some really bold images.  The metaphor may seem unnecessary, but I think it certainly adds something.  

  4. @Paul – Yeah there are times when it serves the story well but also times it blunts the impact of certain scenes.  Imagine what kind of emotional impact that scene where they’re smashing toddlers against the wall would have had if they had been human children.  Even so, that scene chills me to this day, even though I haven’t picked this book up in at least 10 years.  I probably wouldn’t have even wanted to to have that scene done with human characters because it would have haunted me even more.

  5. The animal metaphor is absolutely necessary to the themes of the book. I’d argue it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without that additional layer.

    They only exist as animals in the visuals. In all the text, they are human.

    It is important to note that the animals themselves are not conscious of their animalism, which adds a level of irony.

    There is a ton of Holocaust literature that will provide you with the horrors of the Nazis.

    By portraying them as animals, Maus forces us to engage in the very human process (and Nazi perfected) of dehumanizing people in order to disengage from the struggle of others. Taken to the extreme, it allows us to indulge in violence towards humans without feeling the same levels of guilt.

    In volume one, Maus leads with a quote from Hitler that sets up the animal metaphor throughout the book. 

  6. @ultimatehoratio – The problem there is that they’re just drawings anyway.  For me, the renderings of mice were no different than Spiegelman’s drawings of people.  A drawing is just a symbol of something greater.  We’re already doing the translation in our head.  We don’t mind that it’s in black and white.  Why should it matter if they’re drawn like anthropomorphized animals?  It’s not so different than a cartoon of a man anyway. These drawings are crude but I didn’t mind because the story was so engrossing.  The words made these characters real to me.  This book made a major impact on me, and I can’t say that human figures would have made that stronger.  That wasn’t a mouse to me.  It was Vladek.  

    I might even suggest that crude renderings of human beings might have been a distraction.  In terms of art I just needed tokens to demonstrate the action.  I don’t know that it’s about depicting violence in a horrifying way.  That’s not what this particular story is about.  This is a case of choosing your battles.  For me, this was the right choice.   

  7. This is a must have book….note because it’s a graphic novel….not because it’s a history book. You need this because it is relevent on how tastefully it shows us the horrors of such a tragedy. It can be awkward to read sometimes, Spiegelman does not scare himself to show some really awful things in this book (even if it’s just mice). It’s chilling to just try and replace all of these animals with people, especially more so because of this actually happened..

    I re-read this a lot, it’s one of my all time favorite books. This is a must have for anyone who is curious about this terrible, horrible, no-good event in history….Or just to see how comics are exactely 100% not just superheroes and hot women.

  8. Since Spiegelman didn’t live through the holocaust himself, the audience is seeing Vladek Spiegelman’s experiences through the masks of both an intermediary (Art – the son) and Vladek’s own imperfect memory. Spiegelman points out on several occasions that the characters’ animal natures are little more than masks, particularly when he depicts himself at the drawing board and at the psychiatrist’s office.


    For me, the simplicity of the characters as depicted as animals relates to what Scott McCloud argues in Understanding Comics: that the simpler the features of the face the easier it is for the audience to relate to the characters. Spiegelman creates a perfect balance of simplicity and detail with his artwork, and, at least for me, these drawings of mice and other animals are more relatable than if the characters were depicted as realistic humans. But hey, your mileage may vary. Like Paul said, quality is something felt, not measured.


    I could be wrong, but if I remember correctly the image of a child being smashed against the wall is one of few images that does not use animals – for either the child or the Nazi. Neither character’s face is visible. I don’t have my copy of Maus nearby, so can anyone confirm or refute this?

  9. @androidmoser – You’re mostly correct.  The action takes place over two panels on page 108 in the paperback edition of volume I. Both the soldier and boy are in shadow and if the panels were isolated you wouldn’t be able to tell they were a cat and mouse.  The solider wears a helmet, covering up his ears. Above the torso, the child is all but a smear of black blood.  The establishing panel before shows the soldier approaching the crying boy. You can tell that the boy is a mouse.  The event itself is ambiguous only if isolated.  

  10. Maus was part of my reading last semester in American Literature.  I did my thesis paper for the class on it.  That book is awesome and is, I think, the best comic book ever created.

  11. @Paul – Oh, I thought I remembered it being a splash page, making it easier to seperate from the rest of the narrative. Still, I think it can be taken as a momentary reminder that all this did happen to real people, not just cartoon animals.

  12. Maus is such a haunting book. For me, the animal metaphor works better than if it were renditions of humans. Not only does it reinforce the idea of catagorizing people as races, not individuals (which was the Nazi plan) but, for me at least, it adds a further degree of horror to the situations.

    It plays on the age-old ‘mustn’t hurt animals’ morals of media, especially films. You can show an entire platoon of soldiers being gunned down, or prisoners being tortured, but notice how the family dog always gets away without a scratch?

    As ultimatehoratio said: "Imagine what kind of emotional impact that scene where they’re smashing toddlers against the wall would have had if they had been human children." I understand it was intended as a counter-point, but it sums it up perfectly for me. Like he said… Imagine.

    Fantastic piece as always, Paul 🙂

  13. I remember reading that one scene where Vladek and Anja are hiding in somebody’s cellar and Anja freaks out because, of all things, there’s a rat in there.  I don’t know if Spiegalman was being metaphorical there for something, but it made me chuckle.

  14. Probably the only comic that made me cry.

  15. Speaking of anthropomorphic stories, has anyone seen the animated film Watership Down?

  16. Yes.  It’s terrifying.  Legitimately scary.  

  17. I love this book. 

    …that is all.

  18. I’ve not read Maus II.  I  have trouble getting through Holocaust stories because I find them so disturbing.  I do plan on reading it, though.  I can’t believe someone hasn’t made a movie of this yet.  Maybe Persepolis will open the door.

    Speaking of stuff that makes people cry, has anyone seen the anime film "Grave of the Fireflies"? 

  19. @ultimatehoratio – I was so gonna mention Watership Down. That film, along with Jaws, was responsible for 90% of my nightmares as a kid. Just a beautiful, horrific film.

  20. @ultimatehoratio – Maus II is hard to get through, but is absolutely worth the effort.  I read these at the urging of one of my students (he actually bought me copies of both) after I mentioned that I didn’t want to read a Holocaust story. 

    I don’t think I would have gotten through these (or even read them to begin with) if it wasn’t for the masks.  I don’t know why, but the way they are drawn helps me handle to horror.

  21. I read Maus is my early twenties. I had a job in Random House where I was responsible for buying all the printing and binding of their Juvenile reprints. The great part of working in RH was the fact that all the associates who were responsible for buying printing, would put stacks and stacks of their recently printed sample books outside their door for other employees to take home. It was there that I first saw Maus. I was out of comic books for a year or two, and the book just screamed "I AM SOMETHING DIFFERENT. YOU HAVE TO READ ME!"

    I started reading this and it affected me to the point that as the days wore on, my cheerful "Hey Howyadoins." had devolved in to a grunt and a nod whenever I saw anyone I knew. It was tough. It was depressing. But I knew it was important. And it is. So much so that when my daughter is old enough, it will be required reading in our house. Under threat of grounding if that is what’s necessary.

    This is NOT A LIGHT READ. Be prepared for emotions. Let me give u an example. Years later I had a date to go see Miss Saigon with a woman who had gotten us tickets. It was a Friday show and I walked out it with a physical pain in my chest due to the sad nature of the show. It is NOT a happy ending. (Sorry for the spoiler if u haven’t seen it yet.) The very next day I had COMPLETELY forgotten that I had another date for an early movie with someone else the next day. Well she wanted to see Schindler’s List. So with the emotion of Miss Saigon still weighing heavily on me, my date and I walk in and sit down to see Spielberg’s masterpiece. (Which will also be required viewing when my daughter is old enough.)

    Needless to say, when I walked out of the theater, the sun was shining, the people on Bell Blvd in Queens were bustling around with smiles on their faces, people were bopping in their cars listening to loud music, and shoppers were going in and out of stores happily shopping, and all I wanted to do was STEP IN FRONT OF THE FIRST BUS OR TRUCK THAT WAS GOING FAST ENOUGH TO GIVE ME A PAINLESS DEATH! This is how Maus makes u feel at times. But let me say it is very important to read this. It is very important to know that if we are not careful as a society that man’s inhumanity to man, given the right circumstances, can know no bounds. It is important that we watch our governments. That we KNOW that we CAN NOT say to ourselves "There is no way that anyone can be so evil to do that to people."

    Living in Brooklyn NY, There were many shop owners that I knew that had tattoos on their arms from the concentration camps. These people were cheerful, friendly people and if u talked to them, you would have no idea of the horrors that they went through. Which brings me to my second point.And it is just as important, but it didn’t sink in to me until I thought about it much later. The human spirit is a miracle. These people had been thru some of the worst experiences that life has to offer, and they persevered. They started life over again in a new country and grew to have familys of their own.This is JUST as important to take away from stories like these. And it is this knowledge that will give you something positive to take away.

    As I was reading Maus in my office, (Instead of doing my work which was piling up.) My boss came in to give me a bit of grief for falling behind. Her name was Edith and she was about 72! She came in my office, and saw me with my feet up reading. It was then that she saw that I was reading Maus, and a smile came on her face. She didn’t say a word. she simply smiled and lifted the sleeve on her dress and showed me the tattooed numbers on her arm, and walked back out of the office.

    PS- I know that this is a looooong post but it was bit of a therapy session for me. Even if no one else reads it, it felt impotant for me to remember. Thanks Paul.

  22. @Unoob – Thanks for sharing your story, man.  In a medium where disposability and obscurity are a constant threat, it’s incredible to see how certain books have such staying power and can affect people on such a profound level.  And it is an important story.  It’s also so interesting to hear what the survivors think about this book.  It’s easy to look at this as something alien and faraway, almost unreal.  But especially at the time it was published, there were readers of this book who saw these things and experienced these things for themselves.  I wish I could have heard Edith’s thoughts about Maus and books like it.  

    Again, thanks for sharing your own experience with the book.  And glad you could meditate on it.  Sounds like it was one of those very important books in your life.  

  23. This column does a great job of capturing what it means to read, and think about, history.

    ‘Maus’ is one of those ‘always been meaning to get to it’ books for me, and you remind me that I should get on that.

    By the way, there’s a PRI: Selected Shorts podcast hosted by Spiegelman and his wife — the New Yorker art editor whose name I’m blanking on — where they tell a lot of their own life stories, talking about art comics in America in the 60s among other things, and it’s well worth listening to for anyone interested in Spiegelman.

  24. Yeah, I feel I should re-read this one, it’s been too long.

    THat and "A contract with God".  Very different, but I should just re-read it.

    Great post by the way Unoob.

  25. Thanks for the comments everyone. I usually try to bring the funny when I post, but this was a very poignant moment in my life, and Paul’s article took me right back to it. On my way to get my daughter from school today, I stopped at the local book store and bought a copy (Holy crap! Twenty Eight bucks!).

    She got in the car and I handed it to her and I said "Read it. I don’t care if u don’t start until next summer but I want you to have this book. It’s important." At first she was thinking that daddy is geeking out again with trying to get me to read comic books (Young Avengers and Runaways had previously not gotten thru to her). But after a quick look even she knew that this was different. I told her that I would be there for her if she had any questions whenever she decides to read it. It’s my hope that she will pick it to read for a book report. 

    Thanks again Paul. Once again this website continues to amaze me with the depth of content and feeling of community.

    Keep on keeping on iFanboy. You folks rule!


  26. I’m an English major and I’m about to read Maus for one of my Lit. classes. Thanks for the article Paul, it really put me in the right frame of mind to read the book.

  27. Maus was technically the first comic I read, way back in middle school when I was reading a lot of young adult literature about the Holocaust.  I’ve since read it twice more – in a college course on the Holocaust taken the fall before I became a real comic book reader, and in another college course on ethics in literature that I took the fall after I had jumped headlong into comic book reading.  It’s been a fascinating experience, because each time I got so much more out of it – youthful impressions of the story, adult perceptions of the history, and then finally comic book reader perceptions of the text as a piece of graphic art.  My copies are ten years old at this point and rather bruised and beaten, but it’s still once of my favorite pieces of Holocaust literature and graphic literature, and I have no regrets about calling it my "first comic book."

    Your column, by the way is fantastic – this is a book that undoubtedly leaves an impression on all who read it, and it was great to read your impression, as well as your excellent analysis.