Comic books in their most familiar form—tales of super-heroes and adventurers—sprang from pulp novel potboilers of the 1930s and ‘40s. They were often lurid, licentious, shocking. In fact, by the 1950s, as America focused on the Red Scare and those dirty Commies tunneling like termites under our American way of life, ‘seditious’ comic books grew so popular among impressionable young people that authorities passed laws banning comics… and even burned them.
So, between the end of WWII and the rise of TV, comics came to represent what rock ‘n roll and then marijuana would later on … the collapse of Western morality, the bitter end of civilization. David Hadju tells all this brilliantly in his book, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America.
If only critics of the comic book had taken the crystal ball down off the top shelves of their liquor cabinets and had a look ahead into the 1980s.
They’d have foreseen a remarkable serial running for more than 10 years in a sort of post-hippy-era magazine called Raw. A cartoonist named Art Spiegelman published the comic strip, which went where nothing else had ever really gone in the medium. Spiegelman, in line drawings and short text blocks, set out to tell the story of the Holocaust, and to go even deeper—into his relationship with a cranky, emotionally damaged Jewish father who had lost fortune, family and friends to the Nazis.
Maus, the collected serials, appeared in graphic novel form—a comic book all grown up—in 1986 (Volume 1: My Father Bleeds History) and 1991 (Volume II: And Here My Troubles Began). It is a most remarkable work. Who could predict that a simple comic-book form could illuminate the most complex and disastrous event of the 20th Century?
Maus stirred controversy. Spiegelman drew Jews as rats in the comic, Nazis as cats, the Poles pigs, the French frogs. Some readers deplored the stereotypes, and a few accused Spiegelman of self-loathing and ethnic betrayal. Supporters, though, pointed out how deftly the technique satirized stereotypes, at the same time clarifying and making accessible the most horrific story humankind has ever known.
I’ll leave it to you to decide on the merits of Spiegelman’s work. But know this: Maus splashed like a huge stone into the river of comic art, and forever divided the stream. The old kind of comic book, with all its merits and flaws, today flows by on one side. On the other rushes a new kind of comic art, a whitewater of writer-artists telling stories in a refreshed medium.
The Holocaust is a thing so terrible that America briefly became exhausted by its sheer horror, its imponderable scale. Our nation seemed to want to stop thinking about it entirely during the 1970s, focusing instead on shiny disco balls and Quaaludes.
But Maus, just the next decade, presented the tragedy in such a fresh format that it revived the interest and the study of the event for a great many people. The Holocaust finally had a medium that could be acceptable, even compelling, to middle and high students, who latched onto its drawings and inhaled its lessons.
Of all the fine things a reader can say about Maus, that might be the finest. Here’s a work of the most unusual kind—a kind of comic book for the ages—telling a complex story that seems (ironically) best told in the simplest medium. The comic/cartoon form makes it comprehensible, digestible and sensitizing to the greatest number of people.
For this achievement, Maus is a triumph.
Charles McNair is Paste’s books editor. His novel Land o’ Goshen was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.