Reading Maus Badly

mausIIn the comments to my last post, Bill said he hoped that my choice for a comic book or graphic novel for a course on “pulp fiction” would not be “some terribly respectable ‘graphic novel’ along the lines of MausFun Home, or Persepolis” — not that there’s anything wrong with these on their own terms, obviously — quite the opposite! — but that they wouldn’t really represent “the genuine pulp article.” In response, I mentioned that I have just recently read Maus ... which reminded me that I never wrote anything about it here.

Actually, it wasn’t that recent: I read it at the end of the summer, so several weeks ago now. Usually I blog about books more or less as soon as I finish with them: the time lag here is a sign of trouble. And the trouble was, I didn’t know what to say about Maus. Not that I always know exactly what I’m going to say about a book when I sit down to blog about it — but I do usually have some sense of direction, some sense of how to engage with it. I finished Maus, however, with the nagging sense that I’d read it wrong. You see, I read it like a novel: an illustrated novel, because obviously there are pictures, but still, like a novel, with my primary attention on the words.

You see my problem, I’m sure. Maus is neither a novel nor an illustrated novel: it is a graphic novel, which is another term (a sometimes contested one) for a comic book, which is, in turn, helpfully defined at the Internet Public Library as “sequential visual art, usually with text.” But I don’t know how to read “sequential visual art”: I don’t know what to notice, what to track across the sequence, how to interpret what I’m seeing. I looked at all the pictures in Maus, of course, but I didn’t scrutinize them: to me, they seemed secondary — they were only drawings of the story.

I’m not saying I didn’t notice that the Jews in the book were mice, the Nazis cats, and the Poles pigs — or that I didn’t think as I went along about the general style of Spiegelman’s drawings, which reminded me of  folk art with their rough-hewn quality, or of naïve art, with a deceptive simplicity that somehow enhances the horror of the telling by its childlike air. How can something so cute be so terrible? That’s as far as I could go, though: otherwise, I just read on to find out what happened to the people whose fates and relationships unfolded across the novel with such pain and urgency. (Of course, the pictures rapidly stopped meaning cats and mice to me, no matter what the drawings showed).

watchmenMaus isn’t the first graphic novel I’ve read. Several years ago a thoughtful student gave me a copy of Watchmen, and I worked my way through it with even less success than I had with Maus. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in it, but in that case, I couldn’t even hang on to the characters or story. (In retrospect, to be fair, that might at least partly be because I read most of it on my one and only trip to Australia, including on long trans-Pacific flights while under the calming influence of Ativan.) Then too, I was aware that I wasn’t paying close enough attention to things besides the words on the page, which is, after all, what I’ve spent years focusing on pretty exclusively.

There are definitely things I understood about Maus, including the ingenuity of recasting its population as animals in such a potent metaphorical way. Lawrence Weschler puts it well in his essay “The Son’s Tale”:

There have been hundreds of Holocaust memoirs — horribly, we’ve become inured to the horror. People being gassed in showers and shoveled into ovens — it’s a story we’ve already heard. But mice? The Mickey Mice of our childhood reveries? Having the story thus retold, with animals as principals, freshly recaptures its terrible immediacy, its palpable urgency.*

And of course Spiegelman himself, quoted in the same essay, is eloquent about his reasoning:

Almost as soon as [the idea] hit me, I began to recognize the obvious historical antecedents — how Nazis had spoken of Jews as ‘vermin,’ for example, and plotted their ‘extermination.’ And before that back to Kafka, whose story ‘Joseph the Singer, or the Mouse Folk’ was one of my favorites from back when I was a teenager and has always struck me as a dark parable and prophecy about the situation of the Jews and Jewishness.

He goes on to explain that he also wanted to subvert the metaphor: “I wanted it to become problematic, to have it confound and implicate the reader.” In a way, though, what both writers are dealing in here is something familiarly textual. Once you get how the metaphor works, you can “unpack” it in the same way you would if nobody ever drew a picture.

mauscoverIn general I’m not that well educated about the visual arts, not trained to notice and appreciate them in any expert, or even well-informed, way. Once we watched a Great Courses series on the history of Western art, and that helped a bit. What is the comic book equivalent? Is there a primer of some kind on what to see when you’re looking at graphic novels? Or is it just a question of slowing down and really looking, not taking the lines on the page for granted, the same way I’m always telling my students not to take the words on the page for granted?

Or, and of course this is a real possibility, am I overthinking the whole thing? I was caught up in Maus: I read it with rapt attention, with interest, and occasionally with tears, after all. By some measure, that has to count as a good reading.

*As a side note, I am very grateful for the recommendation of Weschler’s essay, both because it is fascinating and because the same collection (Vermeer in Bosnia) includes Weschler’s  ‘Balkan Triptych,’ which I hadn’t read before either and which is stunning.

Update: Well, this is certainly timely!