Friday, May 13, 2005

And Here My Troubles Began

In the past few weeks I've had the pleasure of reading a series of different graphic novels, from Tristan's personal collection. This included the classic definitive Batman comic "The Dark Knight Returns", "Sin City" (soon to be a motion picture starring Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis and the very dishy Clive Owen), the drama-filled "Watchmen" (about a group of costumed crimefighters contemplating their obsolescence, quite a period piece), and the whimsical yet literary "Moonshadow" (dreamy watercolors and witty, thought-provoking dialogue). I love comics and graphic novels, but I'm not a collector or such a rabid fan that I know all the names of the writers and artists and be able to compare them like fine wines. I simply like what I like, and what stirred my heart was reading Art Spiegelman's "Maus".

The "Maus: A Survivor's Tale" series is made up of two volumes, "My Father Bleeds History" and "And Here My Troubles Began". The latter volume won a special Pulitzer Prize, and with good reason. There's a story within a story: Art Spiegelman struggles to tell the story of how his father Vladek and his mother Anja survived Auschwitz, while coming to terms with his ragged relationship with the obsessive-compulsive Vladek in Rego Park, New York. All the Jews are portrayed as mice, and the Nazis as cats, and other nationalities as other animals. Think of the food chain. The frightening aptness of these representations, in black and white, only heighten the drama of the story. The dialogue is also worth mentioning. I guess I've watched too many tv dramas/comedies portraying cantankerous yet affectionate, aged Jewish fathers, but while reading "Maus" I can distinctly visualize Walter Matthau, talking like Einstein.

Spiegelman's artwork is so honest and raw, you can see where the ink is so agitatedly applied to the page. I found myself strongly affected by two particular scenes: the one where Vladek organizes a belt and shoes for a friend in Auschwitz, and the one where Art and Vladek argue about matches in the Catskills. In these scenes we see Vladek the survivor, and the older Vladek who never quite gets out of survival mode.

Witness the virtuoso play of irritation, stubbornness, impatience, and somehow, affection in the following exchange. In a perverse sort of way, it's funny and painful at the same time:

Vladek: -- ARTIE! WHAT DO YOU DO?!!

Art: Huh? I'm just lighting my cigarette…

Vladek: Better you shouldn't smoke: For YOU it's terrible, and for ME, with my shortness of breath, it's also no good to be NEAR… But if ANYWAY you're smoking, please don't use from me my WOODEN matches. I don't have left so many, and already to make COFFEE you used one. Only to light the OVEN I use them. These wood matches I have to BUY! The paper matches I can have FREE from the lobby of the Pines Hotel.

Art: JEEZ! I'll buy you a whole BOX of wooden matches!

Vladek: It isn't necessary. At home our oven is automatic, and here I'm staying only 15 more days. And I have still 50 matches left. How many matches can I use?…

Art: What a MISER! I can't take any more. I'm going out for air!

Vladek (to Francoise): Always Artie is NERVOUS -- so like his mother -- she also was nervous.

Art (outside on the patio): Bah.

To those looking for a different kind of read, I highly recommend both volumes of "Maus". Reading both volumes is a MUST, otherwise the experience is incomplete. "Maus" is a very human, intimate and yet heroic work that treats the history of tragedy and the triumph of survival in a very different way, becoming powerful literature beyond "plain comics", that bears reading again and again.