Combining the unlikely elements of comic books and the Holocaust, Art Spiegelman's Maus is a truly unique work of art. As a medium, comics are generally associated with superheroes and wacky characters; at first glance, using a comic book format for a topic as terrible as the Holocaust might appear to be in poor taste. Yet Maus ultimately succeeds in portraying the horrors of that event and speaking to the shadows that it continues to cast on survivors and their children.
Just as Maus defies conventions in its combination of medium and subject, it also defies definition in terms of genre. When it was first published, the New York Times placed the book on the fiction bestseller list, but Spiegelman requested that it be moved to the non-fiction list. On other occasions, however, the author has called Maus a work of fiction. Indeed, the book encompasses many genres simultaneously, and remains decidedly unclassifiable. The paragraphs below explain how Maus relates to the genres to which it has variously been ascribed.
Biography: Maus consists of two primary narratives. One of these follows Vladek's experiences in the Holocaust, while the other follows Vladek's relationship with his son, Art, who is also the author of the book. Vladek's story is told directly to his son in a series of interviews, which are then translated into the comic book form by the author. In this sense, Vladek's Holocaust narrative is largely a biographical work, tracing his experiences and those of his family from pre-war Poland to Auschwitz to his eventual return home. Indeed, in 1986, Maus was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award under the category of "Biography."
Autobiography: In the same way that Vladek's Holocaust narrative can be considered a biography, the second primary narrative of the story, in which Art details his relationship with his father, can be called an autobiography. There are actually two levels of autobiography within the pages of Maus. The first takes place between 1978 and 1982 and illustrates the series of interviews during which Vladek told his son about his Holocaust experiences. The second level of autobiography takes place in 1987, one year after the publication of the first volume of Maus and five years after Vladek's death. This section details the author's feelings regarding the book's publication and his ongoing attempts to make peace with both his father and the Holocaust. Both autobiographical sections are deeply personal, relating not just events but also the complex feelings and emotions that form the basis of many of the book's themes.
History: Before and during Spiegelman's work on Maus, the author conducted extensive research into the Holocaust so that the graphic representations of his father's story could be as accurate as possible. Due to this combination of research and personal narrative, Maus provides a startlingly realistic impression of Holocaust life not just for Vladek, but also for millions of other Polish Jews, thereby elevating the story from "biography" to a form of "history."
Fiction: While Maus incorporates many aspects of non-fiction, the book also contains many elements commonly reserved for fictional works, including the frequent use of metaphor, symbolism, and allegory. In addition to these elements, Vladek's story is passed through many filters, revisions, and interpretations before it is conveyed to the reader. The nature of the story's transmission (from Vladek's experiences, to his memory, to his son, to the drawing board, to the reader) generates the very real possibility of inaccuracy and subjectivity. In Spiegelman's own words:
I'm all too aware that ultimately what I'm creating is a realistic fiction. The experiences my father actually went through [are not exactly the same as] what he's able to remember and what he's able to articulate of these experiences. Then there's what I'm able to understand of what he articulated, and what I'm able to put down on paper. And then of course there's what the reader can make of that. (Oral History Journal, Spring 1987)