My most formidable years were spent watching The Simpsons, reading Archie comics and playing video games. Some of the most valuable lessons I was taught (in addition to those I learned from my family) came from Lisa Simpson–vegetarianism, non-violence, and doing what’s right. And as I got older, I gained inspiration from testimonial literature, a popular genre in Central American literature where one came to tell the truth to preserve history. In my family, no one ever talks about the Civil War in El Salvador, even though we lost family and it was the cause of my parents immigrating to the US. Some things are never easy to talk about. The Holocaust is certainly one of those things. But sometimes, cartoons can be the window to understanding, experiencing, and re-living history. For me, Art Spiegelman‘s Maus marries these concepts.
Depicting Jews as mice, Germans as cats and Poles as pigs, Spiegelman captures the story of his father’s survival through this terrible period in human history, and living to tell it. Along with Spiegelman, the reader is part of the frustrating and painful process of dealing with his father’s mortality and the task of telling his story right. It took Spiegelman 13 years to finish the graphic novel, and the arduous process of piecing a family story together is front and center as well.
Vladek drawn as a mouse ironically humanizes him and the story that so few lived to tell–the ghettos, the separation of a family, expecting to die every day, and the ability to fight to live for another day. Spiegelman knows his father’s death is imminent so he must capture every moment before time runs out. And it’s not without its quirks. Like many of us who come from families who have survived the worst (the Holocaust not withstanding), we grapple with the challenge of being part of a difficult story without, in many cases, living it. We find ourselves telling our parents or grandparents to “let it go.” My mother is constantly worried about me disappearing, just like my uncle Jorge three decades ago in El Salvador, for being activist. In Maus, you witness Spiegelman’s frustration his father’s inability to not live in survival mode. I found myself laughing, crying and laughing some more as I flipped through every page the first time I read it. What makes Maus so special, is not only its ability to re-tell history in another medium, but to find the humor and creativity in pain. As a Catholic, I could relate to this.
I had the privilege of catching Art Spiegelman’s retrospective, entitled “Co-mix,” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris this summer. The day before my birthday no less. The exhibition featured his early works as a underground cartoon artist, his days at the New Yorker, and countless sketches and drafts of his work developing Maus. Seeing with my very own eyes his sketches connected me to the novel in a whole different way. The responsibility and obligation we may have as survivors of our family’s journey can be overwhelming. I could also see myself chainsmoking, rubbing my temples repeatedly into the wee hours of the night struggling to put pen to paper. Maus is as real as it gets.