Maus is the Magnum Opus of Art Spiegelman, a pioneer of the underground comics movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The work is a memoir of Spiegelman's parents, Holocaust survivors, and is interspersed throughout with images of Spiegelman and the strained relationship he has with his father in the present day. The interviews Spiegelman conducted with his father during this time make up the bulk of the book.The work has all the basic underpinnings of a Holocaust memoir, portrayed in the comic book style. If you had seen it before, you would have recognized it: As a Mature Animal Story, World War II-era nationalities and people are all portrayed as Petting Zoo People.Maus is in two parts, both released to heavy critical acclaim: "Part I (My Father Bleeds History)" in 1986 and "Part II (And Here My Troubles Began)" in 1991. It is probably the best argument currently in existence that comic books could be a legitimate art form, and was treated as such when it was first released. In 1992, it received a special Pulitzer prize as an acknowledgment of all this.Anyone who thinks comics don't get respect simply must read this. This is the kind of thing you would read for your literature class, if it weren't a comic book — and, indeed, some literature classes have started using it anyway. So has the German government's BPB or Federal Agency for Civic Education.
Jews are mice no matter what nation they hail from. This is a reference to Nazi propaganda that equated Jews with mice and vermin. It also emphasizes their vulnerability to oppression.
Germans are cats, who prey on mice.
Americans are dogs, who are friendly and helpful and can drive away cats. This of course references the Americans who helped the Jews at the end of the war. Different races of Americans are given different breeds of dogs.
Poles are pigs. Speigelman is ambivalent to the Poles, many of whom oppressed the Jews, but some also helped those in need. Pigs were intended to be a neutral animal, one not associated with the mouse-cat-dog hierarchy. Even still, many Poles found the association highly offensive.
French are frogs, referencing the national stereotype. Spiegelman is also ambivalent to the French. While they were enemies of the Nazis, he notes that France had its own history of antisemitism.
Swedes are reindeer, referencing their alpine nation.
British are fish, referencing the fact that they come from across the ocean.
Gypsies are gypsy moths for obvious reasons.
Instances where this system becomes complicated are dealt with in a variety of ways:
Art wonders how he'll portray a French woman who converted to Judaism. He suggests that he portray her as a French frog until her wedding, when she magically transforms into a beautiful mouse. She's less than enthusiastic, so she's portrayed from a mouse from the beginning.
A Jew who married a German has hybrid mouse and cat children: mice with tabby stripes.
A man among Jews who claims to be German is seen as a cat to Vladek and a mouse to the Germans.
Spiegelman reprints, in its entirety, Prisoner on a Hell Planet - a comic he drew in college and appeared in his famed comix magazine Raw - on the subject of his mother's death, about which he felt considerable angst at the time (not to mention uncontrollable blind hostility). Everyone is depicted as human, although the author draws himself wearing his father's concentration-camp uniform.
There's another one - though not as drastic - in the chapter where Art draws himself in the present and goes to talk with his psychiatrist. Everyone has a human body but is wearing animal masks. Later we see the psychatrist's mantle, with a picture of a cat on it. In recognition of our mental gear-shift, there's a note saying "Framed photo of pet cat - really!"
A more shocking one when Anja is presented of a photo of Vladek for the first time since exiting the camps, proving he's alive. When the photo is shown to the reader, it's the actual (human) Vladek (who was right: he was pretty handsome). The photo was taken at a place that had gotten hold of some concentration camp uniforms, and offered souvenir photos from the person's time in the camps. The fact that the only photo of Vladek from the camps is a staged facsimile also ties in with Art's repeatedly expressed difficulties in trying to represent the Holocaust.
Ass in a Lion Skin: The mice wear pig masks to pass among the general population of pigs. When Vladek mentions that Anja had difficultly disguising herself as a Pole, we see her mouse tail sticking out from under her coat.
Better to Die than Be Killed: In fear of having the children be forced into the gas chambers, Anja's sister Tosha poisoned herself, Anja's son Richieu, and her own daughter and niece.
Vladek's cousin and Anja talk about him in front of him in English, not knowing that he studied English before he dropped out of school. He calls Anja out on it later.
Vladek and his cousin have a debate in Yiddish over whether or not to trust a pair of Polish smugglers and how to make sure they're trustworthy by having the cousin go ahead and send a letter with an all-clear. The smugglers turn out to know Yiddish and be German collaborators to boot, which leads to the plan being foiled and Vladek ending up in Auschwitz as a result.
Book Worm: Lolek Spiegelman. He scolded for reading over dinner and when he couldn't search for enough food, he fills his sack with books (much to the displeasure of the starving family).
Bowdlerization: In one reprinting, a member of the Jewish Police had his hat replaced with a fedora after someone threatened to sue for libel.
Breaking the Fourth Wall: At the end of a long monologue to Francoise, Art admits that the whole conversation never happened the way he's shown it — "See, in real life, you would never have let me talk this long without interrupting."
Cats Are Mean: Perfectly fits in with the mice-as-Jews and cats-as-Nazis system.
Deliberate Values Dissonance: Despite having been a victim of what was probably the worst case of institutionalized racism in the history of mankind, Vladek has a few old-fashioned ideas about race and class.
The Determinator: Vladek is committed to surviving the war through all hardships and is occasionally called upon to inspire his wife to continue struggling.
Deus ex Machina: Arguably, one of the more disturbing elements of the Holocaust that the book depicts is how often Vladek managed to survive by sheer luck.
Dirty Communists: Anja and her friends from her student days, before she got married to Vladek. Also, Yidl, the chief tinman: he's unpleasant to Vladek personally for being rich, but isn't remarkably immoral. Nonetheless, Vladek says he's always shunned reds.
Dreaming of Things to Come: Vladek, the father of Art Spiegelman, was forced to work in a prisoner of war camp before World War II. While he was there he dreamed his dead grandfather told him he would be free on the Jewish holiday "parshas truma". As it turned out, months later, he was indeed allowed to leave the camp on that very day!
The first thing Vladek does when Art first visits his home is to yell at Mala for using a wire coathanger to hang up Art's coat rather than a nice wooden one. This establishes Vladek's merciless complaining, his rocky second marriage, and his meticulous attention to detail.
In his story, Vladek begins with his courtship of Anja. During his first visit to her house, he sneaks away to inspect her housekeeping skills and go through her medicine cabinet to ensure that she's worth pursuing. This shows Vladek's rather callous practicality and attention to detail that would serve him well through his trials.
Everybody's Dead, Dave: Lolek was the only member of the Spiegelman clan besides Anja and Vladek to come out of Auschwitz alive, and he was notably consulted by Art in the making of Maus.
Food As Bribe: Vladek's cautious and stingy nature helps him to always save food to use as bribes, which saves his life multiple times.
For the Evulz: Some Nazis are cruel simply because it amuses them. One example is "the shooter," who kills one Jew a day, selected at random.
Fortune Teller: Anja visits a Roma fortuneteller with a Crystal Ball who tells her an accurate account of her future. This is probably an invention of Vladek's.
In Chapter 4 of Part I, while Anja's family is having a conversation with Vladek during dinner, little Richieu makes a mess by spilling the food on the table, angering his mother Anja, who scolds him and cleans the table with a napkin while he cries, and she has to hug him. Awww...
In the same panels, their nephew Lolek (who is about 10 or 11 at the time) is reading a book at the table; his grandmother snatches it away from him, and he pouts indignantly over his dinner.
At one point, Vladek and Anja are hiding in a cellar, and Anja panics when a (non-anthropomorphic) rat runs over her hand. Vladek tries to comfort her by telling her it was just a mouse. Later, Art (drawing himself as a man in a mouse-mask) says that his shrink's apartment is overrun with stray dogs and cats, and muses "Can I mention this, or does it completely louse up my metaphor?"
And shortly after that, and shortly after hearing his father talk about gas chambers for a whole day, making sure to notice that Zyklon-B is an insecticide, Art himself sprays a bunch of mosquitoes without thinking twice about it.
And while visiting the shrink's apartment, there's a panel with a picture of a cat, and there's a box saying, "Framed picture of a pet cat—really!"
Gold Digger: Implied with Vladek, who leaves his pretty girlfriend Lucia Greenberg for the less attractive Anja Zylberberg, who comes from a wealthy family and can do wonders for his career. He does, however, insist that he fell in love with her through her beautiful correspondence.
Goomba Stomp: The prisoner who claimed he was German was dispatched by a guard jumping on his neck.
Jerkass: Vladek, a crotchety, manipulative, stingy and racist old man.
Hypocrite: Vladek is occasionally shown to be this way. He accuses Mala of being a Gold Digger, but it's implied that he originally pursued Anja because she was from a wealthy family. Art also points out that Vladek's racism toward black people is the same thing Nazis did to the Jews.
Informed Attractiveness: Vladek mentions several times how handsome he was in his youth. A picture late in the second book confirms that he was a good-looking man. Vladek also notes that Lucia was more attractive than his eventual wife Anja, but he preferred her for her personality (and her money also probably helped).
Jump Scare: Art's psychiatrist says Auschwitz was like this, only all the time.
Karmic Death: Vladek sees or finds out that several people who betrayed him to the Nazis were themselves killed by Nazis.
The Masochism Tango: Vladek and Mala. They fight all the time, and Vladek constantly complains about her to Art. However, when she eventually leaves Vladek, he feels even worse; Francoise comments that it was probably their fighting that kept Vladek going. Seeing his declining health, Mala eventually returns to him, because she feels sorry for him.
Misery Builds Character: Vladek states several times that, although his time in the concentration camps was horrific beyond measure, he learned several skills that would serve him well later in his life.
Nice Mice: The persecuted Jews are depicted as mice.
Not So Different: Francois is horrified by Vladek's hatred of African-Americans when she picks up a black hitchhiker. After they drop him off, she and Vladek argue about it and she accuses him of being no different than the Nazis. Art gets them to Agree to Disagree.
Petting Zoo People: Aside from a re-published comic from real-life and a chapter from part two where everyone just wears animal masks, this is how the characters are represented.
Pro Bono Barter: Vladek is truly the master of this trope, to the point where he could be the poster boy. It may also explain why he's so stingy compared to other people who went through the Holocaust: it's this skill that allowed him to survive.
Punch Clock Villain: Several of the guards at Auschwitz. A few of them reward Vladek for favors, but have no qualms about murdering the others.
Shameful Shrinking: In the opening of Maus II, Art Spiegelman is shown shrinking smaller and small as reporters torment him with questions about Maus I. At the end he is a small crying child. A helpful talk with therapist about coming to terms with his guilt lets him get bigger again, but then listening to recordings of his father's speech causes him to shrink back into a child.
After the war is over, Vladek hears that racist Poles are still killing Jews who return to their homeland. Vladek can only note the tragedy of surviving the Holocaust only to be killed immediately afterward.
Anja's suicide many years after the Holocaust may also count, depending on what exactly triggered it.
Stop Being Stereotypical: Art Spiegelman's character laments that his father has all of the hallmarks of a nasty, miserly old Jew and fits the stereotype very well. When challenged about it, his father says he's tight-fisted only because of the Holocaust, but Mala points out later that other Holocaust survivors weren't the same way.
Supporting Protagonist: Art himself may count, given that the book follows him but it is actually telling Vladek's story.
Too Much Alike: Art mentions this off-hand to his fiance, as he once had a girlfriend who was also Jewish and middle-class, but because they were so similar it was weird to get erotic with the girl.
Two Lines, No Waiting: The narratives jumps between three timelines: Vladek's Holocaust survival, Art interviewing his father, and Art creating Maus.
The Unfavourite: It's implied that Vladek's first family, Anja and Richieu, will always be closer to his heart than his later son and second wife. Art says that he had a sibling rivalry with his late brother, who died at a young age years ago. He worries that all of his faults are being compared to his parents' idealized memory of Richieu. The penultimate panel of the book has the tired and sick Vladek call Art "Richieu."
Unreliable Narrator: In the end, the tired, sick and depressed Vladek says that he and Anja lived happily ever after. However, we know that Anja suffered from mental problems and killed herself about twenty years later.
"Well Done, Son" Guy: A very realistic, unsentimental version. The final lines shows how difficult and painful this can be in life.
Who Would Want to Watch Us?: Invoked when Vladek tells Art not to tell the story of Lucia Greenberg because it would add nothing to the overall story of survival and Art promises that he will not... right at the end of the chapter that features it.
Women Are Delicate: Anja is emotionally fragile. It falls to Vladek to give her a reason to continue living. Even still, she commits suicide years afterwards.
Yandere: Lucia Greenberg, Vladek's ex from before he met Anja, is a minor example - the worst she does is attempt to sabotage his new relationship with Anja by telling her disgusting rumors, but fails. When Vladek leaves her, she leaps to his feet and begs him not to go. This may be a case of Alternative Character Interpretation, and this is how Vladek perceived her many years later.