Art Spiegelman's Maus is the most unlikely of creations: a comic book about the Holocaust. Yet when the first volume of Maus was published in 1987, it met with enormous critical and commercial success, and to this day it is widely considered to be among the best and most powerful of a long list of Holocaust-inspired works. When the second volume was published in 1991, the completed work was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for Letters, an almost unprecedented honor for a medium usually reserved for super heroes and the Sunday comics (though to be fair, the creators of Doonesbury and Bloom County, popular Sunday comics, have also won Pulitzers for their work).
In Maus, the different races and nationalities within the story are portrayed as different kinds of animals. Jews, for example, are portrayed as mice, while the Germans are depicted as cats. A precursor to Maus was first published in an underground comic magazine called Funny Animals in 1972. The piece was only three pages long, but many of the same elements were there, including the focus on his father, Vladek Spiegelman, and the decision to portray Jews as mice. The artwork was, however, more overtly comical and cartoonish. Spiegelman continued to work on his creation, and in 1980, when he co-founded the underground comic magazine Raw, he began publishing Maus as a serial graphic novel, which appeared in six installments between 1981 and 1986. These installments were colleted and published as Maus I: My Father Bleeds History in 1987. The publication of Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began, followed a similar route, appearing as a serial in Raw before being published in full in 1992.
Maus consists of two primary narratives of equal importance. The first major narrative is directed by Art's father, Vladek Spiegelman, who offers the story of his experiences in the Holocaust, as told to his son through a series of interviews. This narrative begins in pre-war Poland and tracks his life over a period of approximately ten years, from his marriage to his wife, Anja, in 1937, through his experiences in Auschwitz, and to his eventual immigration to Sweden after the war. The second major narrative focuses on Art's complex and conflicted relationship with his father between 1978 and 1982, while he interviews the old man about his Holocaust experiences.
In addition to these primary narratives, there are also two "minor" narratives that appear only briefly within the story. The first of these is a short comic that Art Spiegelman originally published in 1972, which details the story of Art's mother's suicide in 1968. The comic is eventually discovered by Vladek and reprinted in full in the middle of the first volume of Maus. The second minor narrative occurs at the beginning of the second chapter of Maus II and takes place in 1987, shortly after the publication of Maus I. It is a deeply personal and self-reflective narrative revealing the conflicting emotions of the author with regards to his father and the publication of Maus.
Though Maus is a comic book, its impact and complexity are far greater than most works of this medium. The story explores the nature of guilt, and the narrative serves as a meditation on the effects of a major historical event - in this case the traumatic events of the Holocaust - on the lives of people who were born after it ended. With its complex themes and structure and unconventional medium of a graphic novel, Maus almost defies description. Equal parts fiction, biography, autobiography, and history, it is in many ways a book that rises above genre to become something completely unique, and it is an amazing and lasting story that is destined to become a classic.