Images can reveal more than what words convey. Art Spiegelman achieved this through his graphic novels Maus I and Maus II. The symbolism behind each cartoon is reflective of the intensity in emotion in which both Art and his father, Vladek, regarded the subject of the Holocaust. As a second-generation text, the graphic novels offer insight into the struggles of both the survivors and the aftermath of their survival. As the narrative advances, it becomes evident that what Vladek lived through cannot be left in the past.
Rather, his experiences become central to his interactions with others around him, with a particular focus on his son Art. The survival skills he adapted in the concentration camp were translated onto his every day activities once the war was over. This raises the question: is Vladek, and in a larger scale, other survivors— actually a survivor? Is his mental, emotional, and physical being stable enough to count his days as though he were actually living them? As outside observers, it is hard to judge or understand how his trauma affected his behavior, even worse to rate it on a negative/positive scale.
Thus, through the Maus graphic novels, Art Spiegelman illustrates how post-war traumas impact daily life and even those who did not live it directly.
Art Spiegelman’s Maus is distinct from the texts we have read before in the sense that it offers a visual representation of both the author’s thoughts and the source’s (his father’s) memory.
The images enhance the reader’s connection to the story and to the storyteller(s) emotions. Consider for instance how in Maus II in the images from pages 42-43, Art depicts himself shrinking in size. This reduction in size symbolizes his sense of remorse for either not honoring his father’s memory or for proving him wrong for his successes. In any case, the shrinking emphasized and highlighted the emotions he felt, something that cannot be done with just words. Aside from the visual additions, the Maus graphic novels differ from previous sources read in class as it is in essence an interaction between the survivor and the person narrating the graphic, not just the narrator substituting in for the voice of whose story is being told. This provides first-hand perception of the feelings of both individuals whose lives are so closely intertwined and how they affected each other’s growth and relationship to their surroundings.
The fact that Maus I and Maus II are second-generation graphic novels presents strengths and drawbacks. The account allows for an attempt at understanding life beyond the concentration camps. Rather than romanticizing his father and thus all survivors, Art works to humanize them in a way that is not often done. Essentially un-romanticizing Vladek, Art creates a survivor who feels anger, frustration, hopelessness, desperation, and other human emotions. For instance, Art does this when discussing Vladek’s racism in Maus II where Vladek is extremely upset and to a certain extent angered for having picked up a black male hitchhiker. Here, the reader is reminded that the survivor is not necessarily an all-knowing individual with the absolute best judgment. Having Art tell this story thus allows the reader to gain access to a perspective that works to present the survivor as a human before anything else. Accordingly, the second-generation graphic novels can also raise issues of authority and credibility: what authority does Art Spiegelman have in writing and drawing about something he personally did not experience and suffer? Nonetheless, taking Jan Gross’ opinion into account, we should begin to unpack and expose the narratives of survivors as true until proven otherwise. If not, it becomes a challenge to embrace memory as a source of information and reliance on the reality of events. We cannot simply discredit the experiences of the survivors.
Art Spiegelman’s Maus graphic novels give the audience the opportunity to grasp the relationship before, during, and after the war between the survivor and his/her surrounding and daily lifestyles. Little ticks, whether it be counting pills or ensuring that no scrap of food is left behind, underscore the long-term effects the Holocaust had on individuals such as Vladek. Through his drawings and story-telling, Art deconstructs the meanings of these acts in a way that reflects his often troublesome relationship with his father. But in writing and exploring this topic, Art is able to relate his father’s memories to why he behaves/treats him the way that he does. Art becomes cognizant of Vladek’s traumas in a way that fosters closure for all parties involved. The sudden and sporadic flashbacks/memories generate a fragmented plot that reflects the brokenness in Vladek’s and Art’s spirit that the graphic novel attempts to reshape. Vladek suffered emotional and physical trauma that makes us question his actual state of survival. However, his ability and strength to recall such hurtful memories is a healing process that enhance understanding of internal and external behavior. Turns out that as Vladek fought for survival yesterday—in the concentration camps—he was working towards survival for tomorrow, a tomorrow that has become his son’s present.