Wednesday, March 28, 2012

BAB Book Review: MetaMaus

Doug: Two weeks ago I reviewed Mail Order Mysteries; today we're looking at another holiday gift I received late last year -- Art Spiegelman's 25th Anniversary retrospective on all-things-Maus.

As I've remarked before, the Holocaust is one of the passions of my teaching. I've been using Maus in my classroom for over 15 years. That graphic novel has literally been life-changing for me as a professional, and as a human being. Believe it or not, Maus was my entry point to the Holocaust. When I was in high school, we did not have a world history course. I attended a small liberal arts college in central Illinois, and although I feel I got a decent breadth of study in world history and U.S. history (as a history education major), there was virtually no mention of the Holocaust. Truth -- a few years ago, not believing that my professors had ducked the topic, I opened my textbook for "2oth Century Europe"; there were no more than three paragraphs on the genocide, well tucked within the chapter on World War II.

I vividly recall the day my fiance' and I were walking around one of the bookstores at her university; it must have been the fall of 1986. There on the shelf was this odd looking book with two mice framed by a swastika. Picking it up, I was amazed to see that it was a black & white comic! Browsing it briefly, I knew I wanted it so bought it right away. About two days later I sat down and read "My Father Bleeds History" in one marathon. It was absolutely like nothing I'd ever seen. It was so personal, so painful, so suspenseful... I didn't know at the time that I actually knew of Art Spiegelman's work -- who among us didn't know Wacky Packages or the Garbage Pail Kids? But the world of underground comics? Not for me. I knew R. Crumb and I knew I preferred the relative safety of Marvel and DC.

I'd only recently begun my teaching career when the second volume, "And Here My Troubles Began", was released. I gobbled that one up as soon as it was released, and was just amazed at the details of the Spiegelmans' time in Auschwitz. As the years of my teaching career passed, I knew I wanted my world history students to go deeper on this subject. In Illinois (as in many other states) the Holocaust is a mandated subject throughout public schooling. It really wasn't difficult to convince our department chair to let me and a few other interested colleagues begin incorporating Maus into our curriculum.

In 2000 a co-worker and I attended a one-day seminar in Chicago entitled "Teaching the Holocaust". It was delivered by the education department of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I was floored. I hadn't been doing anything wrong over the years, but I'd been so incomplete! The methodologies, the anecdotes, the resources provided -- I was simply blown away. We were at Spertus College on Michigan Avenue -- a beautiful setting overlooking Grant Park and Buckingham Fountain. While there I noticed that they offered a distance-learning master's degree program. I signed up within weeks, and completed my Master of Science in Jewish Studies (I am Protestant, by the way -- people always ask when they hear about my degree...) with a concentration in Holocaust education in 2005.

But where this has really changed me professionally is in my involvement with the USHMM. In 2001 I applied for and was awarded a Museum Teacher Fellowship, which has forever changed how I teach. A few years later I was "promoted" to the Regional Education Corps. For the past five years I've gone around the country teaching teachers how to teach about the Holocaust. I've been to Chicago several times, to Des Moines, Indianapolis, Green Bay, Park City, and Washington, DC. In 2008 I was chosen to be in the inaugural group of teachers to go on a study tour of Poland, complements of the Polish Embassy. In October of that year we spent eight days in Warsaw and Krakow, with the culmination of the tour being a day spent at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Words cannot describe... Later, I served on the Educator Advisory Board for the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center (Skokie, IL), and was invited to its grand opening where Elie Wiesel and former President Clinton were among the speakers.

So, about this book. Should you own it, read it, skip it altogether? I'm sure you've already figured out where I'm coming from on it -- I love it. But why should you? Well, first off, if you haven't read Maus I think you should. If you enjoy any aspect of the humanities, from history to psychology, from sociology to biography, then Maus is for you. I am always reluctant to read outside of the superhero books; I'd be kicking myself if I'd never given Maus a try. MetaMaus is indeed a comprehensive retrospective on Spiegelman's masterpiece. Let me let him tell you about the premise of the book, from page 6:

"MetaMaus is built around a series of taped conversations with Hillary Chute. (She is currently Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of English at the university of Chicago and was previously a Junior Fellow in Literature in the Society of Fellows at Harvard University.)

In 2006, after reading her lucid takes on my work and that of others I gave her free access to my rat's nest of files, archives, artwork, notebooks, journals, books, and dirty laundry. She soon became my chief enabler and associate editor in a project I kept resisting. (It was hard to revisit Maus, the book that both "made" me and has haunted me ever since; hard to revisit the ghosts of my family, the death-stench of history, and my own past.) Her relentless enthusiasm, diligence, and intelligence allowed this project to happen." --a.s.
I've probably read Maus a dozen times -- I don't completely read it every year I teach it, but I generally read several pages at a time to refresh my memory for class discussions. That being said, when Spiegelman and Chute discuss certain vignettes and how and why Spiegelman chose his way of presenting the scene, I'm pretty in tune with them. So for me, or for any multiple reader or student of Maus, this book is simply fascinating. For you who might have read it once or just know of it, this is a window into the complete creative process. Maus was originally conceived as a three-page story; it was expanded to a 300-page graphic novel! Spiegelman takes us through his research, his struggles with panel lay-outs, the evolution of metaphor, struggles with how to accurately convey his father's broken English, etc. Along the way we are treated to seemingly endless examples of drafts for pages and even for specific panels.

But it goes beyond the creation of Maus and into the world of corporate big business -- of international translations, pressures for film and animation rights, and museum shows. One of the comments I found very interesting was Spiegelman's declaration that the original publication of Maus as a graphic novel of 6 1/2" x 9" is the only size at which he wants the art to be exhibited. He talks of being very unhappy one time when he entered an exhibit to see single panels from Maus blown up to poster size. He remarks that to do that is to lose all context of the page and what has come before and what is yet to be revealed. Later in the book he tells that working in the small, confined size limited him -- disciplined him -- to tell the story creatively yet not ornately. Spiegelman often calls himself a poor draftsman, an inferior artist, yet as we hear him soliloquize on his burdens of creativity, on the countless drafts and rejections of even specific figures within a given panel, we cannot but marvel at his brilliance in telling this story in the exact manner in which he wanted it told.

The table of contents goes like this:

  1. Introduction (8)
  2. Why the Holocaust (10)
  3. Family Album (83)
  4. The Early Maus (105)
  5. Why Mice? (110)
  6. Why Comics? (164)
  7. Family Tree (224)
  8. Vladek's Transcript (237)
  9. Memories of Anja (278)
  10. Chronology (290)
  11. Index (295)
The real prize in the book... I shouldn't have said that. The book is a prize in itself. Start again -- One of the most amazing elements of the book is the inclusion of a DVD-ROM that includes the complete Maus in a searchable digital format, complete with page and panel drafts, links to notes on research, and maps and photos where appropriate. There are several books on the Holocaust that were on Anja's bookshelf that are included, as well as the complete audio interviews between Art and Vladek that form the backbone of the book. Several essays and reviews about Maus round out the contents of the disc.

At an MSRP of $35.00 for the hardcover edition, this would be welcome in your comic book library, or on the bookshelf in your family room, den, or study.


Redartz said...

This looks to be a fascinating book; thanks for recommending it Doug!

Maus is an amazing work. Others have written about it much better than I can, but it's praise certainly bears repeating. Maus is the first thing I tell others about when discussing the potential of the comic as art. Perhaps it does the medium a disservice to hang the heavy label of ART upon it, but works such as Speigelman's truly rank with the notables of film and novel. Perhaps no other medium could express Vladek's story as powerfully, as personally, as did this graphic novel. I would recommend it to anyone. After reading it for the first time (can't count how many times I've re-read it), I was moved both profoundly and permanently.

Inkstained Wretch said...

I must confess I've never actually read Maus all the way through. It's daunting: both the subject matter and the impression that it is not really entertainment but the comic equivalent of a high-fiber meal. You know, good for you ...

It is not that I have any particular problem with the subject matter, just that I prefer to use my spare time for things more upbeat. I'm a journalist by profession and thus sometimes spend a lot of time focusing on the grimmer aspects of human nature. I don't feel a need to do that when I'm not working too.

I'm perfectly willing to accept that I may be wrong in thinking the book is a hard slog though.

Case in point: The advertisements for the film film Hotel Rawanda gave off a similiar vibe to me, but I saw it anyway. I can honestly say that in addition to being an important record of that crisis it is also as gripping as any Hitchcock suspense thriller. In fact I think the filmmaker would have done better selling the film in that manner. (More people would have seen it and therefore learned about Rawanda.)

So tell me, Doug: What is the actual experience of reading the book like? Am I misjudging its importance as dreariness?

Doug said...

In my opinion, Maus is like reading a personal chronological history of the downward spiral of events that led up to and through the Final Solution. But where I find it most gripping is in the fact that it is a memoir, so there are "characters" who we get to know, get attached to, and whose fate(s) we find out. Really, one could argue that it is a memoir, a biography, and an autobiography all at the same time.

Additionally, the story is told in three layers: there are the ongoing conversations between Art and his father Vladek as they discuss their current (albeit the 1970's) situations and Art's questioning of his father's memories, there are the historical narratives told from Vladek's point of view, and then at the beginning of the second volume there is Art struggling to deal with the success of the first volume (1986) and how to make sense of and accurately depict the time his parents spent in Auschwitz (which is the major portion of volume II) -- this soliloquy takes place after Vladek's death.

When I first read this, as I said, I devoured it; same whenever I read the second volume. Is it dark at times, even depressing -- are there moments when you may just need to put the book down for a minute or two of reflection? Sure. But I'll agree with Redartz in saying that the comic format is a very able means to bring this story to the masses. I agree with those who say that Maus is a 20th Century masterpiece.


Edo Bosnar said...

Thanks for the review and recommendation, Doug. I have seen this in a local bookstore, but the price-tag is pretty hefty, so I don't know if or when I'll ever get around to buying it. Until then, I'll just enjoy the original Maus.
And yes, I heartily second Doug's recommendation of Maus: it is really that good. Since I'm also a history major with particular interest in nationalism, fascism and their rather unpleasant by-products, I've done a lot of reading on genocide and the Holocaust (and in this regard I understand Inkstained's point about needing a change of pace for leisure time activities), and I have to Maus is probably the best literary or artistic treatment of the subject. For some reason the combination of biography, memoir, history, etc. using the "funny animal" format is so effective in conveying the horror of the Holocaust and its aftermath.

Garett said...

I haven't read Maus, but I'll give it a try after this enthusiastic review. I'm more drawn in by art in comics, so I gravitated towards Yossel by Joe Kubert. Doug or others, have you read this? I think it's excellent, and I'd like to hear other opinions, and how it compares to Maus.

Doug said...

Garrett, I've wanted to read Kubert's book. Can you give us a few details on it? I'd love for you to convince me to buy it.

I'm sure my very early review of Magneto: Testament will eventually be on the "Link Within" at the bottom of this post. I'd recommend that book as well. Magneto as we know him plays only about a one-panel part in the story -- his powers, that is. The rest of the graphic novel is a very good Holocaust historical fiction story. However, the end notes show how thoroughly-researched the book was, and that carries a lot of weight with me.


Garett said...

First off, the art in Yossel in gorgeous, dark pencil drawings on grey paper with occasional additions of white. The art's impressed people I know who are not into comics, fine artists.

In the intro, Kubert talks about how his mother was pregnant with him when his family emigrated to the US from Poland in 1926. The story is What If: what if his parents had stayed in Poland, and he had been a kid there during WW2, instead of in NY drawing Hawkman? It's set in the Warsaw ghetto, and Kubert "incorporated information my parents received from survivors and relatives during and after the war", amongst other research.

Here's a sample page I found on a site called Teacher Stevenson, so this book must be good to teach! : )

Kubert's Tarzan is great, but this is Kubert with mature storytelling ability, and the art is sketchy but filled with Kubert's experience, so that it's better than a cleanly inked version would be, more raw and real. He did a later graphic novel in this style set in Vietnam, but I think Yossel's better for art and story. Now go read it so I can hear what you think! ; )

Doug said...

Garett -

I looked the Kubert book up on Amazon. In reading the buyer comments, I did notice a major error cited by one user: He states that Kubert sets the story in the Warsaw Ghetto and then in Auschwitz. That is a quite unlikely chain of events, as Jews deported from Warsaw were murdered at the Treblinka killing center. But asidefrom that, and of course Kubert's book is historical fiction, the reviews are otherwise glowing.


david_b said...

Maus was one of the true artistic triumphs of the '80s. I visited a few vemichtungslager/todeslager camps like Auschwitz, Lodz and even work camps like Dachau on tours around Europe when I was stationed there in the '80s.

Touching the actual ovens used, seeing the family suitcases, cut hair, even dolls left behind glass displays leaves one with a sense of bewilderment, to the point of surreal, to say the least. The stench of death never, never left the grass and trees at Auschwitz.

Having said that, Maus looks like a stirring journal of events and relationships leading up the 'solution', a great teaching tool and rememberance, Doug.

Like Inkstained, I typically preferred upbeat pursuits in my comics.

Doug said...

David, when I was at Auschwitz I and saw the bolt of burlap woven from human hair, I cried.

When the Soviets began to go through the storage facilities at Auschwitz I and II, they found seven tons of human hair. Think about that. You ever cleaned up after a haircut? It weighs nothing. Seven tons...


david_b said...

Doug, not really sure your point on the hair, but glad to know you've been been to the actual sites like some of us have. We've probably seen a lot of the same stuff. I know you've mentioned regular trips to the DC memorial, it's quite stirring as well.

Doug said...

Let me clarify for the benefit of all readers -- my previous comment made too many assumptions.

At Auschwitz I (read: One), the second floor of many of the barracks now house museums. In one barrack, there is a large display of shoes, in another suitcases. The hair reference I made in my previous comment is to the display where there is a large glass-enclosed bank (maybe 40 feet long?) with mounds of human hair. Adjacent to that display, in the same room, is a smaller glass-enclosed case that contains a bolt of burlap fabric. As I approached that display and the light caught the cloth just right, I could see that the frayed edge of the fabric was clearly fibers of human hair. Upon standing directly in front of it, I was overwhelmed with emotion.

In regard to my other comment about the Soviets -- when the Red Army began to inspect the storage facilities at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, they found bales and bales of human hair -- roughly seven tons worth. Incredible.


david_b said...

Yes, apologies Doug, I realised your point after I reviewed your comment again. Sounds like you visited many of the outdoor barracks that the prisoners stayed, away from the exhibit buildings like I had.

I don't know if you ever traveled to Moscow to see their museums regarding the Holocaust, but they also had similar displays. It was still the USSR when I went, but it on par with the DC exhibit.

Fred W. Hill said...

I first read about the Holocaust when I was about 8 or so while browsing through a large American Heritage book about WWII, filled with photographs. One of the most haunting, to me, was that of a crowd of Jews, including a young terrified boy with his hands raised being herded somewhere by rifle-toting Nazis. It just baffled me how people could be so cruel to one another. Then, in 1988, I worked with a young skinhead (I wasn't familiar with skinheads and had no idea that his Doc Marten boots, pilot pants and white t-shirt with suspenders was a uniform! He espoused the belief that the Holocaust never happened but Jews deserved to be exterminated anyhow. Ugh, I didn't know how to adequately respond to such twisted assertions.
Anyhow, I read Maus shortly after the first volume was released. I actually did venture into the underground comics but I don't recall ever seeing an issue of Raw, where Maus made it's debut. Spiegelman's masterpiece went beyond relating the horrors his parents went through and how they survived. He also described his strained relationship with his father -- the elder Spiegelman was as much a hero as anyone who can survive such terrible circumstances with his sanity intact. Art's mother, however, survived Auschwicz but the anguish finally got to her. Then there was the memory of Art's older brother, who died during the war, before Art was born and who Art can never meausure up to in the eyes of his parents.
Sounds like you're doing a great job on teaching your students, Doug. A book like Maus, much like Anne Frank's diary, helps to humanize the victims, bringing to life individual stories of those who died as well as the survivors.

Doug said...

No, David, never been to Moscow. That's interesting what you say about their exhibits, especially given that it was the Soviet era. Don't they refer to WWII as the patriotic war or some such thing? I was also under the impression that the Holocaust wasn't addressed in the USSR or the Soviet bloc until after 1990 or thereabouts. Here's why I would think that (and this will be another book recommendation to those interested in such things):

When I was in Warsaw, a prominent secondary educator (he's received commendations from the president of Poland -- pretty big wheel, I guess) told us the following story. As Poland was occupied during WWII, their culture was destroyed by the Nazi invaders. Even before the War ended they were occupied by the Soviets. So for the Poles, there was no talk of Polish literature, no talk of Polish history or heroes -- for 45 years.

When the Soviet bloc crumbled in and around 1990, the Poles were now free to discuss their past. The stories they told were of victimization at the hands of the Germans and the Russians, that they were occupied, and that they were rescuers in regard to the Jews. That was pretty much the party line, so to speak.

In 2001 Jan Gross released a little book called Neighbors, where he reconstructed in great detail one day in the summer of 1941 when the Gentile population of the village of Jedwabne rose up and killed the Jewish population of the same village -- all but 7 people. In effect, 1200 people killed 1200 other people. This literally knocked the nation of Poland on her backside -- all of a sudden, the Poles were not rescuers, but collaborators with the Nazis.

So it's 2008 and I'm at a table with my American colleagues meeting with Polish teachers. One of the Polish men said he lived several kilometers from Jedwabne. I asked him if he took students there on a field trip; he said, with some alarm, "Oh no! It's much too soon to take students to Jedwabne." Seven years and the wounds from Gross's book were still fresh.


Doug said...

Fred, that's nice of you to say. I hope, on a daily basis, that I live up to that. It's an obligation, to make kids want to learn, to think...

Standardized tests be damned. It's a place of learning, not a factory.


Garett said...

Moving documentary, Night and Fog:
1955 French film, 30 min, with footage from that time as well as Nazi footage from the camps during the war.

It's in 3 parts, best to view larger to read subtitles. In part 3 we see the hair Doug spoke about.

david_b said...

Thanks for sharing more, Doug.

When I mentioned the museum in Moscow, you have to realize there were 'state-run' and basically 'state-allowed' places of commerce and museums. Sure, there were guards everywhere monitoring, the exhibit was still pretty amazing. Not being able to read Russian, I could only make out dates and such. I even picked up 5 copies of McCartney's CCCP 'official bootleg' at a record shop down the street while I was there. Funny as it was, I was soon to leave Germany, so I had to choose whether to visit Northern Africa or the Soviet Union; I decided on a 10 day trip (over New Years 1992...) to the Soviet nation.

Anyhow, at that juncture, there wasn't much the Gorbachev-led government could do regarding these museums, since it was all unravelling anyways. He left power when I was in Red Square on Christmas Day '91. When I flew in, it was the USSR, when I left, it was Russia.

My mom was sure freaked when I called her Christmas Day from Moscow's only McDonalds, actually the largest McDonalds at that time, seeing her generation grew up more towards the beginning of the Cold War. Here I was employed by the US Army to help end it.

As for East Germany, I was AMAZED at Treptower Park, I actually stumbled onto it by accident while visiting Berlin, just after the Wall fell. That park was HUGE, especially the 'Soviet Cenotaph' monument. I spent a far amount of time in both Poland and Czechoslovakia as well, running my first marathon in Prague (man, it was hot..), but I digress.

Related Posts with Thumbnails