by Michal Karski
Cartoonist Art Spiegelman is probably familiar with the name of Carl Barks. Barks was considered by many as the best artist who ever drew for the Walt Disney Comics and Stories series, and in particular he was the individual responsible for inventing Duckburg and for creating the character of Scrooge McDuck. The Donald Duck series of comics featured a host of characters including the irascible Donald himself, his girlfriend Daisy, his mischievous nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, the unbelievably lucky Gladstone Gander, the miserly Uncle Scrooge, the wacky inventor Gyro Gearloose (with his tiny lightbulb-headed assistant) and many others.
I came across the work of Barks in very early youth and, like many other readers, I could distinguish his artwork from that of the other illustrators working for the Disney stable. He wrote his own story lines if I remember rightly and in fact it was Barks who introduced me to the Greek myths in his Donald Duck adventures, long before I came across the Iliad and Odyssey or read any Robert Graves.
Donald’s home town Duckburg was more or less supposed to be a typical town somewhere in the USA. The residents were made up of all kinds of animals: birds like Donald of course, but also dogs, cats, non-descript mammals of various kinds and pigs, too, made an appearance. There was not, however, any attempt to identify a particular animal with any kind of human or group of humans. They were all citizens of Duckburg.
In Maus, Art Spiegelman takes a different approach. He is not the first person by any stretch of the imagination to rely on anthropomorphism - the ascribing of human traits to individual animal species. Aesop had already done so in antiquity with his fables, but Aesop’s simple tales, unlike Spiegelman’s complex, clearly autobiographical and very personal Maus, are not placed on the shelves of public libraries in the History section.
Spiegelman is perfectly entitled to his own point of view about people and nations, but whether his own very subjective viewpoint should be used as a teaching aid is another question. If his work is to be used in this way in classrooms, as a representation of life (and death) and conditions in wartime Poland, then I would suggest that the work of Carl Barks, mentioned above, deserves an equally prominent place in those same classrooms (and in the History or Sociology sections of public libraries) as an accurate representation of life in small-town America.
Unlike some Poles and Polonians, I am not necessarily saying that Maus should not be the subject of academic study. It might be studied at university level, for instance, as an example of inherited trauma but certainly not as an illustration of what really went on during the war. Although many readers find Spiegelman’s association of non-Jewish Poles with pigs extremely offensive, and I am certainly among them, nevertheless he is perfectly entitled to his opinion, if that’s how he feels about Poles.
What he is not entitled to do is to distort historical facts. For instance, in one sequence, he depicts pigs happily giving the Nazi salute and saying ‘Heil Hitler’ to each other. In which universe would this have been the norm, as Spiegelman is clearly saying? Christian and other non-Jewish Poles hated the Hitlerites as deadly enemies and the only ones who would have collaborated would have been the Volksdeutsche, Polish citizens of German ethnic origin and even then, no sane Volksdeutscher would have dared to betray his pro-Nazi sympathies to just any random Pole for fear of being exposed and subsequently executed by the Resistance as a traitor.
By rights, this sub-group of collaborators should have been drawn as a different creature altogether, but this would have complicated the cartoonist’s simplistic world view. Spiegelman makes no fine distinctions. In his world, pigs are Poles in general and Poles in general are Nazi sympathisers.
Maus is undoubtedly a heartfelt and moving story of enormous tragedy and loss and also the chronicle of one person’s attempt to reconcile his own ambiguous feelings towards his father with the knowledge of the absolute hell his parents went through. But as personal and tragic as the story of the Spiegelman family may be, it should not be taken as a serious study guide to the horrendous events of the Holocaust, coloured as it is with the cartoonist’s own prejudices and imaginings. His extremely biased and counter-factual version of history should not be imposed on very young readers, especially not as a simplified version of a subject as monumentally serious and complex as the Holocaust.
If any other cartoonist had depicted any other ethnic group as pigs, there may well have been legal action for defamation or at least for ‘hate speech’. Spiegelman himself might argue that pigs can be cute (Porky Pig, etc.) but such an argument could never be taken seriously in the context of Maus. He may even point to his drawing of a saintly pig in the concentration camp. Unfortunately, the very depiction of (Christian or otherwise non-Jewish) Poles as pigs in the first place is nothing more or less than – in the words of the editors of The Norton Anthology of American Literature* – “a calculated insult”.
Perhaps it’s not so much Art Spiegelman himself who deserves opprobrium, but the US educational system which has hyped his comic book out of all proportion and uses it as a shortcut and a substitute for the difficult process of expecting young students to deal with words and ideas rather than to absorb information simply through pictures. Spiegelman is certainly a cartoonist, but a Holocaust scholar? Well…let me put some questions to Mr Spiegelman.
Do you know anyone in the world who would take it as a compliment to be called a pig, Mr S? A generation has grown up in the shadow of Maus. Thanks in part to your cartoon, Poles are routinely labelled as ‘anti-Semitic’. The librarian who lent me your book told me he had read it and was very moved by it. I wonder if he thought, as he was checking out the book on my library ticket, that I was one of those beastly pigs since my surname is clearly Polish. Why should that have crossed my mind? I resent even having to consider anything like that.
Any regrets at all, Art? There’s always scope for a “Maus Three: The Part Where Art Admits He Was Not Always Smart”.
* quoted in “The Problems with Spiegelman’s MAUS: Why MAUS Should Not Be Taught in High Schools or Elementary Schools” – Canadian Polish Congress, June 2015 found here