Maus: Covers of the original two volume version. Artist: Art Spiegelman.


Original medium: Comic book
Published in: Raw
First Appeared: 1972
Creator: Art Spiegelman
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The Wall Street Journal called Maus "The most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust". The Washington Post called it …

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… "A quiet triumph, moving and simple". The New York Times called it "one of the most powerful and original memoirs to come along in recent years". The 1992 Pulitzer Prize Committee called it a winner. Maus is probably the most highly-praised comic book in English language history.

Maus is based on a series of interviews cartoonist Art Spiegelman (In the Shadow of No Towers) made with his father, Vladek Spiegelman, a survivor of Auschwitz, during the 1970s and '80s. They tell a story that was heard over and over during the second half of the 20th century, by practically everyone living on this planet — but they tell it from the point of view of one who saw it, and was radically changed by it. Maus isn't the story of a phenomenon of history — it's the story of a single man who witnessed unspeakable horror and felt unspeakable fear.

Adapting the interviews into graphic novel form, Art Spiegelman drew the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats. This use of metaphor (if you're a literary critic — funny animal schtick if you're not) has been criticized as a trivialization of the subject matter. Even if that's true, maybe the subject needs trivialization, just so the reader can wrap his mind around it. Nothing in the average person's experience can prepare him for images of human beings behaving that way. As Newsweek put it, "the very artificiality of its surface makes it possible to imagine the reality beneath."

The first printed glimmerings of Maus appeared as a three-page piece in an underground comic book called Funny Aminals, which came out in 1972 from Apex Novelties. It was edited by Terry Zwigoff, who is best known today as the producer of a film documentary on the life and work of R. Crumb. Crumb was the major contributor to Funny Aminals, including the cover, which didn't mention the Spiegelman item. Others who made larger contributions than Spiegelman's to Funny Aminals include Shary Flenniken (Trots & Bonnie), Jay Lynch (Nard 'n' Pat) and Bill Griffith (Zippy the Pinhead).

A very minor piece, but it grew. In 1978, Spiegelman began the series of interviews that led to the completed work. In 1980, he and his wife, Françoise Mouly, founded Raw magazine, as an outlet for comix work that didn't fit comfortably even in regular underground comic books. Starting with its first issue, Raw carried a 10-page insert, serializing Vladek Spiegelman's story. By 1986, six installments had appeared. Spiegelman revised and expanded them, and Pantheon Press (El Borbah) published them in book form, as Maus: A Survivor's Tale.

It was greeted by a storm of critical acclaim. Associated Press called it "simple and powerful". The Boston Globe called it "a brutally moving work of art". Jules Feiffer called it "a remarkable work, awesome in its conception and execution … at one and the same time a novel, a documentary, a memoir, and a comic book". The only comparable comics are Keiji Nakazawa's eyewitness accounts of the destruction of Hiroshima.

Meanwhile, Spiegelman continued to produce a new installment in each issue of Raw. A 1990 Guggenheim fellowship enabled him to devote his full time to completing the work. Pantheon published Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began in 1991.

The creators of Doonesbury and Bloom County had already won Pulitzer Prizes for their work — to say nothing of dozens of political cartoonists. But Maus was the first graphic novel to be so honored — in fact, the first cartoon work outside of newspapers. Also, each volume was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle prize in biography. Its less prominent honors are too numerous to be named.

Pantheon Press keeps Maus in print, in a one-volume edition. In addition, The Voyager Company has issued a multimedia version on CD-ROM, containing the complete work, along with many preliminary sketches, sound clips from the recorded interviews, relevant historical documents, and a video of the cartoonist talking about the work.

Most graphic novels come and go, but it's a safe bet Maus will be read and studied for generations.


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Text ©2002-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Art Spiegelman.