In Maus, Art Spiegelman produces what can be seen as a reaction to the Holocaust and its complicated aftermath, in a unique way. It is a graphic representation of the various horrors of the Holocaust and he chooses to make his characters anthropomorphic. One may argue that in an individual story that is as hard hitting as Vladek’s, the use of the same animal caricature like heads to denote various races serves to trivialize the story.
However, Spiegelman’s use of anthropomorphic characters serves a number of important purposes that, it may be argued, justify his technique and counterbalance the negative viewpoints that can be expressed against it. It must be kept in mind that Spiegelman is not simply dealing with the Holocaust in an academic, somewhat detached and objective manner. He is dealing with the very personal reality of the Holocaust survival story of his father and mother and simultaneously his own often ambivalent feelings about them.
Everything about his life, it may be argued, has in some way been essentially touched by the Holocaust because his parents both went through it. Thus, Spiegelman is bound to feel very strongly about the subject matter involved. In the “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” we see that these strong feelings are portrayed in a very hard hitting and disturbing manner. This is something that Spiegelman has worked on earlier to express his feelings about his mother’s death, and one gets the feeling that this technique has not been particularly successful as far as Spiegelman is concerned.
In using the animal faces, he is removing the starkness of the horror, and provides both himself and the readers with a space to explore the story without getting too emotionally disturbed. For people who have not survived the Holocaust, it is difficult to imagine the kind of horrors that were inflicted upon people in the concentration camps, so Spiegelman has made the story telling possible by creating a detachment and a humor to a very dark and tragic incident. There are also several other important reasons why Spiegelman’s technique is justified.
In giving the Jews mice heads, he is making a sarcastic statement about the treatment of the Jews as vermin by the Nazis. It also refers to the resilience of mice as a whole, which can be seen as a veiled compliment to the community for surviving the Holocaust. It can be argued that instead of enforcing racial stereotypes, Spiegelman actually satirizes them and ultimately influences the readers to question them. In deliberately playing up racial stereotypes, for example in the portrayal of the French as frogs, he is actually pointing out the futility and hollowness of these stereotypes.
In making his protagonists look all the same, Spiegelman is communicating to the audience that although this particular survivor’s story is of Vladek’s, there are many more similar stories of Holocaust victims and survivors that have never been told. Thus, even as he highlights Vladek and Anja’s individual plight, he also pays homage to the millions whose stories he cannot possibly tell individually. Hence, while it is a personal memoir, it becomes at the same time removed from its subject and manages to encompass the enormity of the Holocaust.