Commentary Magazine

Maus II, by Art Spiegelman

Inhuman Comedy

Maus II: A Survivors Tale. And How My Troubles Began.
by Art Spiegelman.
Pantheon. 136 pp. $18.00.

Whether or not Art Spiegel-man was aware of it when he chose to portray Jews as mice in his much-lauded comic-strip series about the Holocaust, he was preceded by Franz Kafka, whose “Josephine the Singer, Or the Mouse Folk” tells of a rodent people that lead “a precarious existence amid the tumult of a hostile world” and are “inured . . . to suffering, not sparing of themselves, swift in decision, well acquainted with death, timorous only to the eye in the atmosphere of reckless daring which they constantly breathe.” Whom Kafka had in mind when creating Josephine is a good question (most likely himself as a writer, although I once met an old woman in Jerusalem who had tutored him in Hebrew when she was young and claimed that Josephine was a portrait of her), but his “Mouse Folk” was clearly modeled on the Jews.

Nor, for that matter, was this an entirely original image of Kafka’s. If by no one or nothing else, it was given him by the German language, in which the noun Mauschel means a “kike,” and the verb mauscheln, to speak (and why not to sing?) with a Jewish accent. These two words, to be sure, derive from the Hebrew name Moshe, which in the German-Jewish pronunciation sounds like “Maushe,” but German-speakers can hardly avoid associating them with Maus and its diminutive Mäuschen. Theodor Herzl actually wrote a short essay called Mauschel in which, far from denying that the anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jew had a basis in reality, he identified it with Jewish opponents of Zionism and railed against them:

“Where the Jew feels pain or pride, Mauschel‘s face shows only miserable fright or a mocking grin. In hard times, the Jew stands tall, but Mauschel cringes even more ignominiously,” and so on. Kafka was fourteen at the time and may even have seen or heard of the piece.

It can be argued, no doubt, that in choosing to make his Jews mice (his Germans are cats, his Poles pigs, and his Americans dogs) Spiegelman, no less than Kafka, was seeking to invest certain qualities that have been blamed in part for the fate of European Jewry—passivity, timidity, a sense of resigned fatalism, etc.—with a quiet and life-accepting heroism. Perhaps. Bravely resourceful mice, after all, predate him even in the cartoon world, as in the old Tom-and-Jerry movie shorts. Certainly, one can share Herzl’s feelings about Mauschels, who are by no means an extinct species, while taking in stride Spielgelman’s choice of the mouse as a Jewish totem. I would be more offended by his imagery if I were a Pole.

But what is the point of such imagery? Is there really much to be gained in our understanding of how human beings behaved in the Holocaust by imagining them as various kinds of mammals? I rather think there is more to be lost. True, if I were a high-school teacher faced with the horrendous task of teaching the Holocaust to a class of indifferent American teenagers, I might at first glance consider Maus to be a godsend. It is easy to get through. It is intelligently written and drawn, and the dialogue between its two main characters, the cartoonist Art Spiegelman and his elderly father Vladek, who reminisces about his experiences in Poland and Auschwitz during World War II, is credibly done with a fine ear for Vladek’s immigrant English. It is historically accurate in its facts while managing, through its focus on Vladek and his family, to tell the story of the Holocaust in a coherently compact manner. (Maus I takes the reader from the start of World War II to Vladek’s and his wife’s arrest by the Nazis; Maus II follows them through Auschwitz to their liberation by the American army at the end of the war.) It encourages, by shuttling back and forth between Vladek’s memories and his troubled relationship with his American-born son, who loves, pities, and rages against him, an identification with the author that can involve teenagers with the subject and make them care about it. And finally, it makes sense. Why did the Germans murder the Jews, who did not fight back, while third parties like the Poles let it happen? For the same reason that cats kill mice, who do not attack cats, while pigs do not care about either: because that’s the way it is, boys and girls, and next week we will be studying the Marshall Plan and the beginning of the cold war.

But that is not the way it is and not the way it was, and it is here that our history teacher, if at all conscientious, might have second thoughts. The Holocaust was a crime committed by humans against humans, not—as Nazi theory held—by one biological species against another. And while the German campaign of annihilation against the Jews and the reactions of the various peoples caught up in it had to do with many factors, historical, political, sociological, and ideological, instinctual behavior, except insofar as we all have instincts of aggression and survival, was not one of them. Because it implicitly invokes such behavior as the explanation for what happened to the exclusion of any other, Maus is a textbook that must be used with care and only in conjunction with supplementary material.



“But wait a minute! Who ever said that Art Spiegelman produced Maus as a juvenile textbook?” No one. But it will be used as one, particularly for children whose reading skills are undeveloped, and if it has any particular value, this is where it lies. As literature, even as Holocaust literature, it would simply be lost in the crowd: there are hundreds, probably thousands, of fictional works and autobiographical documents that deal with stories like Vladek’s far more powerfully and profoundly, and one is doing Maus no favors by comparing it with them.

“But that’s precisely the point! Maus is not a novel or a story, nor is it to be compared with one. It is a comic strip, possibly the first to have attained the level of a genuine art form!” Permit me my doubts. In fact, the curious thing about Maus is that, although its illustrations supposedly release it from the exclusive domination of language and fuse the verbal with the visual, the book’s text is far more suggestive than its drawings, and does the yeoman’s share of the work.

This is not because Art Spiegel-man cannot draw well, but rather because, as seen through human eyes, animal faces are extremely hard to individuate, so that Spiegelman’s mouse-Jews, pig-Poles, etc. all tend to look as alike as Donald Duck’s nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and have an extremely limited range of facial expression. Significantly, the most movingly illustrated pages in Maus occur in a scene in the first volume—a flashback in which the author recalls his psychiatric hospitalization and the suicide of his mother in New York—where the animal faces are dropped in favor of human ones. To draw people as animals, Maus makes one realize, is doubly dehumanizing, once by virtue of the symbolism and once by virtue of graphic limitations.

And yet even this flashback fails to convince me that comics, no matter how sophisticated, have the slightest potential to vie with either literature or art as a serious medium of expression. Language may indeed be tyrannically word-bound, but the visual arts are no less tyrannically space-bound, and yoking two tyrannies together in such a way that there is a minimum of room for maneuver within either is a poor strategy for overcoming them. All that happens in the comic strip is that one ends up more bound and chained than ever. The division into small boxes limits all utterances to the shortest and pithiest statements, ruling out nearly all verbal subtlety or complexity, while the need to fill each box with a drawing has a similar effect on the illustrations. Those who like to remind us that a picture is worth a thousand words tend to forget that a thousand words can be said in less time than it takes to draw most pictures, and that an artist who has to turn out a spatially cramped and crudely reproduced graphic accompaniment to every ten or twenty words of a story can hardly produce high-level work.



Lavachbara ganav ela chora ganav, “it is not the mouse who is the thief but the mousehole,” says an old talmudic maxim, and it would be unfair to blame this particular mouse for the slumming pop-culture critics who have made more of it than it is or pretends to be. “A serious form of pictorial literature . . . an original and authentic form to draw us closer to [the Holocaust’s] bleak heart,” declares Lawrence L. Langer, for example, in a front-page review of Maus in the New York Times Book Review. Such talk should not be held against Spiegelman, though. He has not gotten to the heart of anything, nor can he with the tools of his trade, but it is his trade and he deserves respect for taking it as seriously as he does.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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