Monday, June 21, 2021

Believe Care Invest, Comics Memoir Week: Maus

  • This book has a very similar structure to “March”: Begin with an emblematic incident from the hero’s youth (In Rego Park, New York, in 1958, young Art Speigelman skins his knee and goes to his holocaust survivor dad Vladek for sympathy but gets none) then we jump forward to a modern day framing sequence (In the late 70s, Art visits his dad for the first time in years to get out of him details of his life for a holocaust comic about mice) then jump further back into a harrowing past (Vladek tells of dating a poor girl in the 30s, then leaving her for a rich girl)
Neither Art nor his father are very easy to identify with. Art is an unsuccessful underground comic book creator, which isn’t any reader’s favorite profession. He hasn’t visited his father in two years, until he decides to come pump him for comic book material. He smokes constantly and gets annoyed when they get annoyed that he’s ashing on their stuff. Vladek is not a great dad in the 1958 sequence, unkind to his new wife in the modern day framing sequence, and a bit caddish and mercenary is his flashbacks. So the book has some hurdles to overcome with BCI.

Let’s do Art and Vladek separately. Here are some reasons we believe in Art:
  • In 1958, Art has an object unique to the time: Skates that attached to your shoes.
  • We get just a brief mention of Art’s French-American wife Francoise, but we can tell that such a wife makes him unique in Rego Park.
  • He has a signature piece of clothing: The vest he always wears.
There are lots of reasons to care about Art.
  • In 1958, he’s abandoned by his friends: “I-I fell, and my friends skated away w-without me.” His father responds, “Friends? You’re friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week…then you could see what it is, friends!” We instantly get that it would suck to have to beg sympathy from someone who compares your suffering relative to the holocaust.
  • In the present, Art’s mother has committed suicide.
  • His father doesn’t respect his job: “Better you should spend your time to make drawings what will bring you some money”
  • His father is exasperating, telling him great stories and then insisting they not be in the book. We’re glad Art breaks his promise to leave them out.
As for Investing in Art, the quality of the comic itself is the ultimate testament to his skills. His goal of commemorating the holocaust is noble, and he does push to get it against resistance. Neither Art nor Vladek can suspect that this comic will make Art one of the first comics artists ever to become rich and famous. His stepmother correctly points out, “It’s an important book. People who don’t usually read such stories will be interested.”

Okay, let’s look at why we Believe in Vladek:
  • He has very distinctive syntax: “It’s a shame Francoise also didn’t come.” “I don’t want you should write this in your book.”
  • In the flashbacks, he’s got a nicely mundane job buying and selling textiles.
  • He knew his current wife back in Poland before he met his first wife, which is a nicely complicated situation.
And of course, there are many reasons to care, even before we get to his time in the concentration camps:
  • His wife has committed suicide, an ironic death for a holocaust survivor.
  • He doesn’t get along with his new wife.
  • He has a unique complaint “A WIRE hanger you give him! I haven’t seen Artie in almost two years—We have plenty WOODEN hangers.” Shades of Joan Crawford!
  • In the flashback, he finds his girlfriend more attractive than the richer girl he actually wants to marry, which is a caddish problem, but we still sympathize.
So why do we Invest in Vladek?
  • Crucially, he rides an exercise bike while he tells his son of his past. We love exercise and bikes!
  • When we get the flashback, he’s a great lover, “I had a lot of girls what I didn’t even know that would run after me. People always told me I looked just like Rudolph Valentino.”
  • Always a good superpower: When the hero understands a second language and then others use it around them, not knowing they understand it: “The next morning we all met together. My cousin and Anja spoke sometimes in English.” The cousin asks, “How you like him?” Anya replies, “He’s a handsome boy and seems very nice.” Vladek explains to Art: “They couldn’t know I understood.”
Speigelman is acutely aware of the ironies of this story. He overcomes the urge to present his late, longsuffering father as saintly, and instead presents him flaws and all. He worries aloud to his stepmother that unflattering aspects of his portrait will seem to some to confirm some of the racist caricatures that triggered the holocaust in the first place. But ultimately, he has to trust himself. The more three-dimensional the story is, the more powerful it will be, and the more it will impact every reader.

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