Art Spiegelman's Father Vladek and Vladek's Words in Maus -- Volume I: My Father Bleeds History (and does not crave cheese)
The Jews, both Polish and German, are mice, the Nazis take the guise of cats, and the gentile Poles play a subsidiary role in the Holocaust narrative of Maus as pigs. In Art Spiegelman's graphic novel depicting his generations' reaction to the World War II suffering of Jews and other persecuted groups, animals take on human characteristics and personas, and humans take on animal guises even while they retain their human qualities of speech and reflective thought. Such is the verbal and visual logic of the world of Maus. This is done from the onset of the narrative, so the pretext of animals behaving like humans, located in a human world, is not jarring once the reader has accepted it, although the iconography of Jew as mouse remains most striking visual aspects of Art Spiegelman's seminal 1996 graphic novel entitled Maus.
With powerful texts and illustrations, the book tells the story of the author's father Vladek during the Holocaust as a Jew. But although many Holocaust narratives fortunately survive and all such narratives are unique and powerful in their own particular fashions, Maus' status as a pictorial or graphic novel is especially memorable for the reader's and viewer's consciousness, because it forces the reader of Maus to identify with the image of a despised animal as well as a persecuted 'race,' particularly in the form of Vladek who, as the subtitle of the first volume notes, does indeed bleed history and memory the mouse -- or man would prefer to forget.
Today -- hopefully -- most readers of Holocaust narratives by survivors would side with the European Jews of the 1930's and 1940's and not their Nazi captors (or cat-tors) and persecutors. But, by making the Jews of Maus into sympathetic mice, the reader is forced to identify with how the Jews were portrayed in Europe at the time, as vermin.
The guise of Jews as mice, alas, is an old one in European cultural prejudice -- Jews in anti-Semitic European and particularly Teutonic folklore and Christian apocrypha were accused of being bloodthirsty, spreading disease, and infecting communities much like plagues of mice. The Nazis often used vermin as a visual analogy between Jews and mice in their propaganda. "The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human," Adolf Hitler said, a quote featured, significantly before the illustrated text of Spiegelman's fully introduces the historical and cultural significances of the mouse and human pairing in the German imagination. (10)
Thus, the simplicity of the animal pictures used to define the narrative underlines the simplicity of the ways the Nazis saw Jews during the period. The contradictions between the human like behavior of the mice and the inhuman way they are treated underlines the contradictions of Nazi ideology -- how can a race be both inhuman yet still a race? The demonizing of Jews into vermin or mice might ideologically 'solve' this problem, but such an animal like demonizing physically transforms the Nazis into predatory-like cats because it requires such a cruelty and a hardening of the heart.
Thus Spiegelman, brilliantly, turns the pictorial and cultural analogy of the Jew as vermin on its head, for mice are also the persecuted, most vulnerable members of a society, on a hierarchy of dog-eat-dog, dog-eat-cat, and cat-eat-mouse. The persecuted Jewish mice scurry into mouse "holes," as soldiers scurry into foxholes, for protection from cats. (97) And the cats, assuming the status of humans try to snare these mice in "traps." (111)
But merely because the Jews take on the status of animals, linguistically and pictorially does not mean that they are 'the enemy.' From the beginning, the reader is asked to identify with the author's protagonist father, a very ordinary mouse man named Vladek. And even the holes and traps used to catch the Jewish mice also linguistically refer to the common snares used to shield and catch human soldiers, in real-time war parlance -- soldiers took shelter in trenches or foxholes, and tripped on booby traps of mines or barbed wires. This military resonance further stresses in the reader's and viewer's consciousness that the divide between human and animal is not as comfortable as one might wish to think, and the Nazis might like to suggest.
And the Nazis, of course, are carnivorous animals, cats, unlike the hungry mice -- as Nazi cat officers are used to keep the Jewish mice in control, in concentration camps. This is possible although the cats by nature are selfish creatures, their bloodthirsty and selfish qualities can and are easily used by others, used by humans to catch prey -- and so were the Nazi officer's not so hidden personal cruelties and animosities against the Jews used at the service of a repressive regime.
"My Father Bleeds History," says the narrator at the beginning of Maus, the words superimposed above a beautiful picture of the author's mouse-father and mouse-mother waltzing like a shot from a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie musical of the 1930's. "The Sheik" refers to a popular romantic film of the 1920's and thus grounds the father in a historical reality beyond concentration camps, but in a personal and popular history of family and popular romance -- and also shows the multidimensional aspect to the starkly drawn mice and Spiegelman's father in particular. (11)
Thus, despite the presence of the image of the mouse, and the asexual connotations of mice, other than in a purely reproductive capacity of 'spreading like vermin,' clearly this particular mouse protagonist in the guise of Spiegelman's character has a decidedly un-mouse like side or a character that transcends stereotyped images of mice. Spiegelman's father-mouse has a power that charismatic essence beyond that of the tropes ascribed to him later by Nazi culture as a Jew. The "Sheik" is not a stereotypical mouse with women -- although a mouse in the eyes of the gentile world as a Jew, he spurns aligning himself too quickly with one mouse woman, as the illustration of "The Sheik" mouse shows, as a prostrate female mouse throws herself at the sexy, callous male mouse "Sheik's" feet. (12) Vladek will show a similarly cavalier attitude towards Artie's mother and his suicidal wife, later in the narrative, as well as the stepmother, Marta, whom the reader meets soon after.
Yet, brilliantly, despite this rakish quality of Maus' father Spiegelman the mousebreaker of hearts, and the dual historical resonance of mouse victim and vermin, the author also is able to make use of the childlike and storybook quaintness of having mice as protagonists, along the lines of a bedtime story. "Poppa," Spiegelman calls his father, and initially the two of them together seem like 'A Mouse and his Child,' a story tale or nursery rhyme rather than two men trapped in a larger history neither of them can fully comprehend, on an emotional, theological, or literary level of narrative. This whimsy deflates some of the womanizing of "The Sheik" as the framed device of the comic book reminds the reader and the gazer that this takes place in an old man's memory, and might make him seem more successful with women than one might initially suspect.
The bespectacled mouse, the cozy dialogue of the 'frame' as Artie the author-mouse's coat is taken from his mouse shoulders is accompanied by an ominous subtext, that Marta is a stepmother and survivor, not the author Artie's true mother. (13) This also highlights the postmodern texture of the book, whereby the author is a character -- "Artie," is first seen asking to write a book about his father's past experiences, depicting the relationship before the book occurs, yet creating distance between the author himself and his protagonist-self in the pictorial narrative by the use of animal representations of his father and his own authorial 'self' in the sketched world of the comic book. Artie the aspiring writer and comic book mouse artist and Vladek Artie's father, stand in temporal contrast as well as in complement to the status of these characters in the reality of life and of Holocaust history.
One of the most interesting aspects of Maus, however, as a comic book novel, is that it is also quite funny, another common expectation of the 'boxed' narrative of the adventure style comic book strip. The sight of the mouse father upon an exercise bike for his heart is humorous, as are the careful illustration of the father shoemaker's designing of a boot in Auschwitz. The humor is not simply ironic; it is visual in its satire on a much more elemental, visual level, as well as the verbal level of irony.
It is through this humor that the characters are able to live on, despite the pressures of history. Only through humor and the distancing art of the pictorial narrative can one speak of the unspeakable, can one speak of horror. The mouse…