Imagine a linear story. Now imagine cartoonist Gabrielle Bell studying…
It’s so 2012, or maybe even 1994, to be reading Art Spiegelman’s The Complete Maus, and to scratch your head and think: “How is it possible that this has not been made into a movie?”
Why no animated mice and cats, an occasional frog, and flashback sequences in shades of grey. It’s so ripe for moving pictures. It’s got love. It’s got the Holocaust. It’s got complicated relationships and the featured character’s mortality stopwatch is ticking pretty loudly. Not to mention it’s a big prize-winning piece of literature beloved by both people who like pictures with their words and people who are willing to make this single exception about reading a comic book.
One of the beautiful things, in a bushel of beautiful things about this graphic memoir slash graphic journalistic exercise slash graphic biography, is this story’s transparency. As you read you will see why this isn’t a movie and why there aren’t Art Spiegelman-style vests for sale. The artist’s concerns about the book and about his relationship with his father are as much a part of the story as Vladek Spiegelman’s story of surviving the Holocaust. There are times Art Spiegelman, the creator, is shown as Art Spiegelman the character, voicing that he is uncomfortable in writing his father with his traits that match Jewish stereotypes. When the first part of the series draws critical attention, Spiegelman rants in the second book about how the success of the first is distracting him from working on the followup.
Spiegelman doesn’t have a close relationship with his father Vladek when he sits down with him and finally commits to making this comic book about what happened to him during World War II. Art’s mother has committed suicide more than a decade earlier, his father has had two heart attacks and is still struggling health-wise. He’s remarried to a longtime friend and fellow Holocaust survivor, in what seems like one of the most painfully antagonistic relationships two people have ever had without one poisoning the other’s coffee.
Vladek Spiegelman is the star of the story, both in his retelling of meeting the future Mrs. Spiegelman, building his career with the help of a wealthy father-in-law, and then suddenly becoming one of the hunted, forced out of his home by the Germans, then forced into hiding, then separated from his wife and sent to concentration camps where he makes his way with a mix of luck and a resourcefulness with valuable handiwork skills, bartering, and negotiations.
Art Spiegelman inserts himself into the story and writes about the writing process, including these trying moments with his father. Vladek streams off topic to complain that his second wife is trying to take all of his money, he calls his son early in the morning for help with immediate chores, and he dishes out guilt trips when Art and his wife can’t stay and visit longer. And the greatest offense of all: Vladek burned Art’s mother’s carefully maintained diaries, chronicles that Art is dying to see. He writes about not being able to write and worries about making this story as honest as it can be.
Vladek Spiegelman tells him that someday maybe he will be as famous as that other guy who makes comics. . . Walt Disney.
This is all so good, so haunting and horrifying and hard. Vladek Spiegelman describes the place where the Jews were corralled and stripped, seemingly for a shower but really for a mass gassing, and the way the dead bodies were piled with the weakest on the bottom and corpses with broken fingers from trying to crawl out of the locked chamber. People disappeared, then were expelled through smoke stacks. It’s all very chilling.
It’s also the story of being the son of a survivor. Art’s older brother, then about six years old, died during the war after he had been sent away to live with relatives for his protection. Art feels sibling rivalry toward a photograph that hangs in his parent’s bedroom, the brother that would have become a doctor and married well. And it’s the story of being a survivor in a world that morphs into a place where one doesn’t have to collect debris from the street to use on home repair projects, glue a broken plate back together or ration wooden matches.
I haven’t read “MetaMaus,” which is a multi-media story behind the story that includes photographs and commentary and drafts. In a New York Times story about Spiegelman, he is described as a person who doesn’t want to make “Holokitch” and then the feature story goes on to say that his wife said to him: “Next to making ‘Maus,’ your greatest achievement may have been not turning it into a movie.”