I resisted assigning Maus in my literature classes for almost a decade, not because I was afraid of the subject matter but because I was afraid students would think I was only teaching it for the subject matter, and might read it the same way. When I first started teaching, Maus was still "the" graphic novel for too many gatekeepers: the exceptional one, the one that rose above its crass peers. The Ursula K. LeGuin of comics. After my second semester of slipping a graphic novel onto the syllabus (V for Vendetta, in that case) a student asked why I didn't teach Maus instead; my silent resentment probably delayed my acceptance of inevitable by another couple of years.
But accept it I did, once I started teaching the American literature readings classes in Howard's graduate program. If I could only justify teaching one graphic novel in that sequence of courses, it was going to be Maus.
Don't ask me what I would've done if Alan Moore had been born in Northampton, Massachussetts.
I've taught Maus in a couple of grad classes now and I thought I'd gotten it down to a science, but teaching it to a room full of undergrads has opened the comic up again; I had a remarkable experience a couple of weeks ago as my opinion of Artie (the character, not the author) changed in the middle of class.
In the grad classes we had to cover Maus in a single session, most of which was devoted to Spiegelman's visual storytelling and his animal metaphors. That left just enough time to consider Spiegelman's deliberately unpleasant self-representation as Artie, discussing it as an authentication strategy that validates everything Spiegelman says by painting him in such an unflattering light that we assume it has to be honesty--but the assumption is always that Artie is a callous, self-involved jerk for most of the novel. I'm always particularly troubled by, and I take particular care to mention, the passage in "Time Flies" when Artie (or is he Art, since this is the only part of the book set after the publication of Maus I?) visits his shrink and the shrink tells him that Vladek took his survivor's guilt out on him, Artie, "the REAL survivor."
I've always thought that was an appalling statement. He is a survivor, certainly, of his mother's suicide and of all the Holocaust traumas that have been projected on him and passed down to him secondhand. But the survivor? The real survivor? Did Pavel really say that? Why did Spiegelman include that? Depicting his own selfishness might authenticate his story, but having another character--a doctor and a Holocaust survivor--validate his self-centeredness appears, at first glance, to justify his own egocentrism.
This time around, though, we had two weeks to sink into the book, and as my students defended Art/Artie it became clear that among all the other traumas Art Spiegelman has had to survive, he's also had to cope with the other characters' implicit or explicit judgments that he doesn't suffer any problems at all. This dilemma has been part of the story since the second page ("...THEN you could see what it is, friends!"), but it really goes back to "Prisoner on the Hell Planet," the wholesale inclusion of which now seems even more brilliant. In that comic, Artie only gets about two panels to mourn his mother's death before he's expected to comfort a devastated Vladek and make the funeral arrangements, and then his father's grief sucks up all the oxygen in the funeral, and when Artie finally gets a chance to cry some asshole friend of the family tells him that he's too late and he should have cried when Anja was still alive. Maus keeps reminding us that Artie wasn't allowed to express grief and sorrow and anger at his own tragedies; whatever he's endured, Vladek and Anja will always have endured more. His problems might pale in comparison to theirs, sure, but they're still his problems and he's got to live with them. And nobody but Francoise, and Pavel, will even give him credit for that.
That line about "the REAL survivor" still rankles, but the longer time for class discussion and the good efforts of my students were useful for highlighting all the reasons why the egocentric Artie of MAUS is not just a clever strategy for stressing Spiegelman's honesty but a trauma survivor who isn't even allowed to think of himself that way. I'm grateful for the chance to have taught it to a large class of attentive and engaged undergrads. I'm learning as much about these comics as they are.
Other developments were more expected. I doubt that any class dedicated to Maus has ever shied away from discussing those questionable animal metaphors and this one was no exception as the students immediately pounced on the troubling implications of representing religious and ethnic groups as animals. I did find it odd how they would speculate on the reactions of some hypothetical Jewish reader who didn't want to be compared to a mouse--a laudable attempt at identifying with someone else's point of view, I guess, but after a while I had to ask why they weren't simply talking about their own reactions. Those are usually much more fascinating than the responses of that ideal, easily-offended reader, whose only mission is to be offended easily.
I sometimes wonder if this generation of students has been trained to identify stereotypes too easily, and to the exclusion of all else, as if simply finding a stereotype settles everything about the work in question. The brilliance of Maus--one of its brilliances, anyway--lies in the way that it always unsettles us, always forces us to question its own metaphors, always forces us to look at its dramatic and creative dilemmas from a new angle.
Even if we've been teaching it for a couple of years.