Should reading Maus feel cozy? On the 35th anniversary of the original publication of the graphic novel by Art Spiegelman

cropped-IMG_0531_editedblack-2_edited-11.jpgA friend who has been reading my posts and knows of my desire to reach a wider-audience suggested that I consider the Maus books by Art Spiegelman. I did, and told my friend that they were fun. I think my friend was a little put off, as though a comic book about the Holocaust could be fun. I think my reaction, while not well put, reflects something real going on in Maus, but first a little background on this Holocaust comic.

Maus is a graphic novel drawn and written by Art Spiegelman, the son of Holocaust survivors. Spiegelman first presented Maus in serial form in Raw, an adult comic book, from 1980-1991. Spiegelman had all along intended to write a graphic novel, and in 1986, after an enthusiastic review by The New York Times, the serialized installments were published by Pantheon. In 1992, Maus became the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. By the way, Spiegelman objected when the New York Times located his book under the category of fiction on its best-seller list. The Times responded by listing the second volume as non-fiction. The Library of Congress considers the book non-fiction.

Maus is not so much the story of the Holocaust as it is the story of Artie’s attempt to come to terms with his difficult father, who along with his mother survived Auschwitz. It has the outward form of a fable, in which the Jews are mice, the Germans cats, the Poles pigs, and the Americans dogs. Unlike the traditional fable there is no moral of the story. Except perhaps that “suffering doesn’t make you better, it just makes you suffer,” as Art puts it about his father’s racism (Meta, p. 36). But while there is no moral to the story, there is a meaning. It resides in Artie’s use of the Holocaust as a way to meet his father. Vladek was so overwhelmed by the Holocaust that there could be no other ground on which to meet him.

(Note: Artie is a character in Maus. Art is the artist who created Maus, including the character of Artie, whose history resembles but is not identical to his own. Vladek is Artie’s father. When I quote Art, it is from interviews he has given. When I quote Artie, it is from the Maus books.)

Is it fun to read Maus?

I’ve spent hundreds of hours viewing survivor testimony, and it’s not fun. One reason reading Maus felt like fun is that it’s harder to take seriously the suffering of a mouse, even if Spiegelman’s pictures of mice dying in agony are compelling. But the main reason has to do with what Art says about his relationship with his father. Talking about the Holocaust with Vladek, says Art, was strangely cozy.

For both him and me there was a certain kind of familial coziness on some level of having something to talk about other than our disappointment with each other. (Meta, 24)

The hardest part of the book, says Art, was to show that the Holocaust wasn’t just one thing they talked about; it was virtually the only topic on which they could have a conversation. Of course, one must ask the question: if reading about Vladek’s suffering in Auschwitz produces a cozy feeling in the reader, is there something wrong about the book, the reader, or both? Should there not be a comic book variant of Theodor Adorno’s famous quote about the obscenity of writing lyric poetry after Auschwitz? Should we not declare that reading about the Holocaust should never be fun or cozy.

My answer is no. Reading Maus is not reading about the Holocaust. Maus is about the relationship between Artie and Vladek under the spell of the Holocaust. It’s about how much they care about each other, and how impossible it is for both to express it. As readers we share in this struggle, in the end more successful than not, and so find a certain pleasure, something like the coziness Art felt.

“The Holocaust gave us a site on which to have a relationship,” says Art (Meta, 24)

The biggest problem Artie struggles with is whether the Holocaust made Vladek what he is, or was he that way already. “Maybe Auschwitz made him like that,” says François, Artie’s wife. Maybe, responds Artie, but lots of people up here in the Catskills are survivors, and “if they’re whacked up it’s in a different way from Vladek.” (Maus, p. 182)

Second generation survivors

Though many children of survivors use the term “second generation survivor” neither Art nor Artie does. If he did, the term would take on a brutal meaning: Art survived his parents, who drove him crazy. His mother committed suicide when Art was 20, shortly after Art was released from a mental institution.

Maus opens with a cartoon of Artie as boy, complaining to his dad that his friends left him after his roller skate broke. Busy sawing a board, Vladek looks up and says “Friends? Your Friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week, THEN you could see what it is, friends!” (Maus, pp. 5-6)

This is a typical second generation survivor story. It’s obviously too much, overwhelming. And Art says so. As a kid he wanted to be normal, even as his earliest memories are of being surrounded by adults who survived the “war,” as it was called. The kids he played with were all children of survivors. “Don’t get me wrong,” Artie says to Françoise. “I wasn’t obsessed with this stuff . . . it’s just that sometimes I’d fantasize Zykon B coming out of our shower instead of water.” (Maus, p. 176). This is a common fantasy among children of survivors. Artie shared this fantasy; or maybe Art just read about it.

As an adult, Artie wants to know. The question is what does he want to know: about his father, or about the Holocaust? For Artie they are one.

I mean, I can’t even make any sense out of my relationship with my father. How am I supposed to make any sense out of Auschwitz? . . . of the Holocaust? (Maus, p. 174)

For Artie, to know his father’s experience is to understand the Holocaust. To understand the Holocaust is to know his father.

I know this is insane. But I somehow wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents so I could really know what they lived through! I guess it’s some kind of guilt about having had an easier life than they did,” (Maus, p. 176).

Consider the possibility that it’s not really guilt at all, even if this is an emotion popularly attributed to the children of survivors. Taken in the context of Maus as a whole, what Artie wants is not to assuage his guilt, but to know his father. And how could he know better than to have been through the defining experience of Vladek’s life, so that finally they might speak the same language.


We survive by forming relationships, and adapting to the minds of others. Relationships are the remedy for fear—of loss, of annihilation, of psychic emptiness—and offer us the deepest expression of our humanity. (Slade, p. 41)

Humans are creatures of attachment, and important as it is, physical attachment isn’t enough. We are secure to the degree that we can experience the world in a way similar to that of our parent, and so be of one mind. Good parents adapt to the child’s world, so that the child need not deny his own experience in order to exist. Parents who are overwhelmed by trauma have trouble doing this. And so the child must try to adapt to the mind of the parent, generally at the cost of his or her individuality.

Creativity is the way in which Art is able to inhabit Vladek’s point of view, as he puts it, without sacrificing himself to it (Meta, p. 35). Creativity is that realm in which we enter into the other while becoming ourselves. Creativity is not passive adaptation, but the invention of the interperson, another who is both more and less than the original other, product of an imagination constrained but not crushed by the reality of the other. Creativity is the active creation of a relationship we want or need. It works unless the other is completely unavailable. Vladek was available.


And so I declare myself innocent of insensitivity to the suffering wrought by the Holocaust. There is something pleasant about reading Maus, and it stems from our being allowed to enter a world that is not Auschwitz, but its legacy, the damage done to one man and his son, made bearable by the distance of irony and fable, as well as the thwarted love between father and son. Is it really a greater distance than a historical study of the Holocaust? Doesn’t it really allow us to get closer? The Holocaust overwhelms us with the horror of mass murder on an industrial scale, obliterating the individual. The suffering of a survivor and his son told by mice gives us the safety of distance, allowing us to come a little closer. For in the end, it is only the suffering of individuals that counts, whether we count them by the millions, or one by one.


Arietta Slade, “The Place of Fear in Attachment Theory and Psychoanalysis: The Fifteenth John Bowlby Memorial Lecture” (39-58), in The John Bowlby Memorial Conference Monograph Series, ed. Judy Yellin and Orit Badouk-Epstein (Karnac Books, 2013).

Art Spiegelman, The Complete Maus. (Pantheon, 2011) Cited as Maus.

Art Spiegelman, Metamaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic (Pantheon, 2011) Cited as Meta. [The book is built around a series of taped conversations between Spiegelman and Hillary Chute]


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