Art Spiegelman's Maus II, a continuation of the story in Maus I, is part of a new approach to the telling of the story of the Holocaust. The form selected is the comic book format, and it has a number of powerful advantages. First, it is a fresh approach to a much-told story. Second, the use of the mouse characters interestingly humanizes and personalizes the tragedy much more than might a dry narrative. Third, the choice of a comic format serves the particular understanding of a visual society and a generation more attuned to the image than to the word. Fifth, the format may actually be a more palatable means of addressing such difficult subject matter for some people. Sixth, Spiegelman accomplishes all of this in an ironic fashion, utilizing the methods of the comic book to tell a very un-comic story.
While the main characters may be mice, this fact enhances rather than diminishes the humanity of the tale. The mice in Maus II are more human than many human beings because they embody all of the ideals that humans prize. This fact is heightened by the fact that these characters are portrayed as mice, for the characteristics we see in these characters are not the characteristics of mice and are therefore visualized in sharper relief, standing as human concerns transferred to the world of the mice. The reader is then forced to face issues of what it means to be human and to what lengths humans go to retain that humanness.
One reason Spiegelman has chosen mice as his characters is found in the quotation at the beginning of the book, a quotation from a German newspaper article in the 1930s:
Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed... The dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal... Away with Jewish brutalization of the people! (3).
The Germans equated the Jews with vermin, and Spiegelman turns this on its head by accepting the animal while rejecting the filth and inhumanness attributed to it by the German newspaper. By making this smallest and most inoffensive of creatures into his heroes, he emphasizes the brutality of their overlords and the complete falsity of all the evils those overlords ascribed to them. Spiegelman is thus saying that the same thing happened to the Jews, that they were as inoffensive and innocent as the mice and that the Germans were lying when they made claims about all the terrible things the Jews were supposed to have done and were supposed to represent. One can carry the animal metaphors here too far, for the use of the animal characters is most important as it allows Spiegelman to stand back from the reality of the human Holocaust.
In this case, the story of Spiegelman's own family is projected into the world of mice by the artist/author as he tells his own and his father's stories through this particular medium and with these particular characters. Vladek is the father, and it is his story that motivates for the son to try to tell a personal story of the Holocaust in the form of a comic book. The son uses this particular mode of expression, a mode he uses to make a living, in order to tell the story of his family. The story began in Maus I, in which the father resists having his story told, saying it is in the past and should be left there. The son, however, cannot divorce the present from the past and mixes them in the way he tells the story. He continues this in Maus II, personalizing the story from the first as he depicts himself as a mouse trying to decide how to draw his family and friends. The family relationships in Maus also say much about what it means to be human and how the family has a role in maintaining that sense of humanity. At the same time, family tensions show generational differences, differences in experience, and differences in the view of how personal that experience may be.
Maus I was in color, while Maus II is in black and white. The use of black and white here. Spiegelman as a mouse is clear about his need to tell this story:
know this is insane, but I somehow wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents so I could really know what they lived through! (16).
His wife tells him that "reality is too complex for comics" (16), which may be true, but the artist reaches for a different understanding of reality and achieves it in his comic strip. The style is simplified in many respects, notably in the way the mice are depicted with minimal facial features or expressions throughout, making them more representative of everyone and less of one particular group of people. The black and white in book two may be due to the subject matter. The first book told about the mice being demonized in society and then rounded up and sent to the camps, while the second book is more in the camps and so more in the depth of the Holocaust itself. Additionally, black and white is often used in depicting memory, and here the present and the past are more directly mixed than in Maus I as Spiegelman wrestles with his conscience and his artistic needs in the present as he recreates the past.
In Maus II, the next stage in the experience of the mice in the Holocaust is their time in the concentration camp. The mice develop their own society within the larger society, with the guards as the enemies who constitute the primary threat to that society. Within this society, a number of rules are created for survival, and Art's father tells him about many of these -- do not stand near the front of the line on days when there is soup because you get only water, for instance, "But too far to the end it was also no good" (49). The mice cope by helping one another -- Mancie is told to rest behind a stack of wood by a mouse designated to guard others who says she will tell Mancie if a guard comes close (52). One again, the humanity of these characters emerges even at the worst times of their lives.
In the present, the death of Art's father adds to his burden, as does the success of Maus and the many offers that pour in because of it. The reason for Art's strained relationship with his father is because the older man has been though this harrowing experience and has been affected by it in ways his son has never been able to understand. The world of Auschwitz is far from the world of the present, and in this book the son comes to terms with the story of his father and with how that story has affected his father, his father's life, and his own life through that father. The telling of the story is therapeutic, but it is also harrowing in its own way, leaving the artist torn between enjoying his success and feeling pain at the way that success was achieved, by telling such a terrible story to a world that needs to understand. This places a great responsibility on the artist to be truthful and to convey the reality his father lived to the world, accomplished in this case through the unusual methods of the graphic novel.
The father-son relationship and the element of self-reflection are often fused, but Spiegelman emphasizes his own personal concerns even more as he depicts himself agonizing over how to draw his characters, what to do about the movie deal he has been offered, and other issues. He…