Maus takes the form of two parallel stories. In the present, Art Spiegelman is trying to learn about his father Vladek’s experience during the Holocaust. In the past, we see his father’s story come alive. The artwork depicts Jews as mice, Nazis as cats, Americans as dogs, and other nationalities as other animals.
What makes this story a masterpiece is how honest it is. It acknowledges that Vladek’s memory of the past isn’t perfect and we’re shown who Vladek is, warts and all. Art bemoans the fact that Vladek is such a stereotypical Jew. He goes to great lengths to save money, doing things like returning half-empty cereal boxes to the grocery store for a refund. We see how difficult it is for Art to deal with Vladek’s various eccentricities, including his racism against black people. Art also depicts himself promising Vladek that he won’t include a certain part of the story, but he does include it. So Art gives us an honest depiction of himself as well.
Vladek survives the holocaust while so many of the people around him don’t partly through blind luck, but also by making himself useful. While in the ghetto, he’s always looking for work. He makes business deals, he pays bribes, he learns crafts like tin-smithing and shoe repair, and he teaches English to a guard, all to stay alive. He also admits that he didn’t share everything he had with his fellow Jews, since being too generous would mean keeping less for himself. We also learn that it sometimes pays to trust others, but sometimes others will betray you.
It took me a long time to get this book (the decision by a Tennessee school board to ban it earlier this year led to it becoming a best seller and it was on back order for months), but it was well worth the wait.
Thinking the worst was over, I let my guard down by the time I got to the last page, so the final sentence really came as a gut punch. Without a doubt, this is the greatest comic book ever written and it absolutely should not be banned. We must remember the past, warts and all. To forget is unforgiveable.