Book review: Essays about Art Spiegelman’s Maus prove the graphic novel is a classic

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Edited by Hillary Chute

Literary criticism/Viking/Hardcover/432 pages/$37.88 with GST from Books Kinokuniya/3 stars

Art Spiegelman’s audacious graphic novel Maus broke the mould when it was first serialised in the New York magazine Raw.

Even in the 1980s, before the full story was collated and published in book form in 1986 and 1991 by Pantheon, Maus had already excited commentary from critics and academics.

The idea of a Holocaust story told in the comics medium, with Jews depicted as mice and Germans drawn as cats, boggles the imagination. Yet, as Ken Tucker’s 1985 essay in this collection proves, Spiegelman’s towering achievement was already being recognised, analysed and dissected by critics.

This anthology of 22 essays samples from more than 35 years of this thriving cottage industry and includes essays translated from Hebrew, German and French. Organised in chronological order, the essays show an evolution in the approaches to reading Maus. 

Tucker’s Cats, Mice And History: The Avant-Garde Of The Comic Strip, for example, is an early and sincere plea for the due consideration of comics as high art. He declares of Maus: “This is an epic story told in tiny pictures.” 

As an arts critic writing for The New York Times, Tucker’s piece is one of the more accessible and readable pieces in this collection, which rockets from novelist Philip Pullman’s breezily erudite essay to the stodgy academic sludge of Andreas Huyssen’s Of Mice And Mimesis: Reading Spiegelman With Adorno.

The latter instantly caused in this reader a horrific, and headache-inducing, flashback to undergraduate readings with its determined mapping of Maus to German philosopher Theodor Adorno’s theory of mimesis, the process of imitation or mimi...

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