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Maus vs Yossel:

Battle Of The Books

With the exhibition Superheroes & Schlemiels: Jewish Memory In Comic Strip Art  currently showing at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam until 8 June, 2008, I thought it would be a good time to compare two leading books dealing with the subject of the Holocaust.

For many people who had not looked at comics since their childhood, or would give the strips in their morning paper only a cursory glance, Art Spiegelman’s Maus in 1986 came as something of a revelation. Here was the unflinching family history of Spiegelman’s father Vladek, a Polish Jew and survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, combined with the present-day life of the author in New York, approaching 40, as he is crafting the book in an effort to rebuild his relationship with his father and to understand himself. Maus not only gives a first hand account of the Second World War but is also a bold attempt to address with honesty the pain of today’s children of the survivors.

Any reservations that someone unfamiliar with comics may have are soon swept away by the intelligence and intensity with which Spiegelman makes his modest, urgent black lines on paper engage the reader. His pages seem so unaffected and direct; it is almost as if you are holding the one surviving manuscript of his hand-drawn originals. He intentionally took great pains to simplify his drawings, so they would blend with his texts and form a seamless narrative whole, cartooning as handwriting. This interweaving of the verbal and visual enables comics to approximate "a mental language", as Spiegelman put it, that he believes comes closer to real human thought than either words or pictures alone.

Some people may have misgivings about daring to deal with the Holocaust using the strip cartoon, and especially using the central conceit of portraying Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. In this, Spiegelman is not only harking back to a tradition of cat-and-mouse antics in early animation and comics, from Felix The Cat to Tom And Jerry, but he is also well aware of the legacy of racist propaganda that employed such imagery. Film historians have noted parallels between early animated mouse movies and American caricatures of black people. The mouse metaphor becomes even more pertinent when we learn that Hitler had compared the Jews to vermin and used rat-exterminating pesticide Zyklon B in the death camps. So Spiegelman’s ‘funny animal’ convention takes on an added power, while at the same time he deliberately subverts it to expose its absurdities and lies of racial stereotyping.

Precisely because of its understatement and intimacy, the first volume of Maus gave people a fresh insight into the Nazi atrocities and their echoing after-effects. Published in 1986 after being serialised in Raw magazine, the book climbed the best-sellers lists and was widely praised. Umberto Eco hailed Spiegelman as "the greatest American writer". With help from a Guggenheim fellowship, Art was able to complete the second and final volume in 1991 and a year later it won him a special Pulitzer Prize. The two volumes are now complied into one complete collection. Anyone who has read Maus can never view comics in the same way again.

I have no idea if Maus influenced Joe Kubert to tell his own family’s history in Yossel. I also see little benefit in comparing these two works. For example, a recent BBC TV discussion programme, Battle Of The Books, pitted Maus against Thomas Keneally’s 1982 novel Schindler’s Ark, adapted into the Spielberg movie Schindler’s List. Maus actually won the audience vote but as the presenter rightly pointed out, both books are vital documents on the Holocaust for everyone to read; the same is true of Maus and Yossel.

In his solo graphic novel, Kubert takes us back to November 1926, when little Joe was a baby of only two month, and he and his parents and elder sister left their eastern Polish hometown of Yzeran behind them. Earlier that year, in the spring, the Kubert family had been refused a visa to sail to America, because Joe’s mother was still pregnant with him. They were Jewish, and he would have grown up in Poland as Yossel. That November, they tried again and managed to join a crowded boat in Southampton docks taking European emigrants across to the New World and a new life where he became one of the century’s most versatile and acclaimed comic book storytellers.

In this 120-page hardback published in 2003, Kubert has chosen raw, uninked pencil as the perfect medium to convey the harrowing immediacy of the Holocaust. Joe re-writes the course of his life from that pivotal November in 1926 when his family was allowed to leave for America and imagines how different his life would have been, if he, as Yossel, had been forced to stay and endure the horrors inflicted by Hitler. Except that this is no ‘imaginary story’. As Kubert notes, "There’s no question in my mind that what you are to read could have happened."

His alternative autobiography begins and ends on that fateful day in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Yossel’s drawing talents are his solace and his inspiration. They win him favours from the Germans, but can’t save his parents and sister from being deported to the death camps. Rather than meet the same fate, he and others left in the ghetto choose to die fighting against their Nazi persecutors.

Like Spiegelman’s Maus, Kubert’s achievement is making us feel as if we have stumbled across the real, unfinished, sketches. From them we come to know young Yossel himself, a teenager, barely a man, speaking through history to our hearts. In Joe’s words, creating this book "was very personal, a little scary, and sort of cleansing." At the age of 77, he has given life to his other self and allowed him to give us his lasting testimony.

Posted: May 4, 2008

The original version of this article appeared in 2004 in Comic Book Marketplace.


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by Art Spiegelman

Yossel: April 19, 1943
by Joe Kubert