I was skeptical when I found a graphic novel at the school I teach for. I’ve never been able to read one. Unlike every other graphic novel I’ve tried, I could actually read and get into Maus by Art Spiegelman. It’s not that I have anything against graphic novels. I just usually can’t get past the hokey (intentionally corny? Good corny?) dialogue.
Not so with Maus. I opened the book and found myself reading an illustrated oral history of a holocaust survivor, complete with symbolism and metaphor so rich it was striking. Beyond the anthropomorphization of the characters I realized it wasn’t just about the holocaust. Sure, it’s about that. But the author is a character in the book who goes by a closely related childhood pseudonym, Artie, to convey that it’s more about him as a child, reconnecting with something that has, in all likelihood, stolen his childhood. How else could someone suffer Artie’s father, Vladek, who seems obsessed with possessions and is crazy enough to throw away perfectly good jackets–which probably remind him of the Nazi trench coats?
There’s so much to unpack it’s a classroom teacher’s dream. The symbolism, historicization of the text on two levels as it’s a frame story, plus teaching about PTSD and its silent cousin, transgenerational trauma, something which exists in far too many peoples that most likely don’t even realize it. For instance, Japaneses Americans? Check. Native Americans? Check. African Americans? You bet.
It’s nearly impossible to talk to someone about their childhood without understanding, at least a little bit, their parents. Double that for writers.
I paired Maus with one of the best movies ever made: Life is Beautiful. At its heart, it’s about a father who shields his son from the horrors of the holocaust by convincing him that it’s all just a game, a brilliant trick that subtly shows the carnage of life in a concentration camp and heroically insulates insulates the viewer time. No one has ever made the subject funnier or more poignant. Which begged the question for my students, what’s the responsibility of an author when dealing with an historical event in which 6 million people were murdered? Is it appropriate to turn them into cartoons in thinly veiled metaphor? To create an almost satire-like tone of incredulity that makes it easy to laugh even as people are sent to the ovens?
The answer, of course, is a resounding yes. Both “texts” succeed by using anthropomorphization, tone and irony, and symbolism/metaphor, to get people to look at something they’d rather not think of. It’s similar to how, when walking the streets of Boston, someone can stroll through the Holocaust Remembrance Memorial, gentle wisps of steam rising around them, and not even realize what they had passed through until the sign hits them. And then it hits them.
So if it’s only for our benefit, why does Artie in Maus keep dragging his father back into the past and rubbing his pointed nose in it, forcing a confession from him so that he can turn it into the graphic novel the reader holds in their hands? For the same reason that at the end of book one, Artie calls his father a murderer for destroying his mother’s journals. Artie was trying desperately to connect with his father only to vicariously know a mother that was lost too soon. When Vladek burned her journals, she was lost to him forever.
Authors seek immortality, but not always on their own behalf.
They want things to live on.
People will do anything to forget the tragic, the horrific, and macabre; we’ll lie to our children and hope and pray that they come through unscarred and able to find beauty in a world in which true horror and genocide have taken place on six of seven continents at unfathomable scales.
Don’t believe we like to forget?
I didn’t, either. That’s why, at the end of the discussion, I asked my students what day it was. They answered with the usual: Thursday, Valentine’s Day, Today, etc.
I shook my head. It’s Parkland, I said. One year ago today.
People like to forget.
Authors and artists like Spiegelman, Benigni and Braschi help us look when we’d rather look away, to remember when it’s convenient to forget, and to connect with each other when it’s easier to demonize the opposition.
Our children will have to help each other deal with the trauma we’ve inflicted on them, as parents, as a generation.
We’re in this together. Don’t forget.