Seems we’re getting sentimental this week, kiddos. As I read our illustrious HBIC’s column this week, I couldn’t help but join in the fun. No, seriously. She’s holding me at gunpoint. Help! Ahem. I mean… that is to say… What comic have I had in my collection the longest? Much as I’d love to tell you it was the aforementioned X-Men Adventures book that ignited my original passion for pulp. Or perhaps the sentimental favorite pair of Malibu books that I still maintain are more than mere homage. But no. Most of my original set of comics were lost to a flood long ago. But not my graphic novels.
The comic — nay, the graphic novel— that has remained in my possession the longest is Art Spiegelman’s Maus.
And it’s time for a true confession. Well, a pair of them, if I must. First? I didn’t buy my copy. I stole it. That is to say, I borrowed it from the Hebrew School library, and refrained from ever returning it. No late fees or fines ever were sent home. So, there it stayed in my desk drawer for the better part of two and a half decades. And my second confession? It’s been so long since I’ve read it, I honestly remember nothing about the book.
Despite my larceny and lame memory, there are a multitude of reasons it remains one of my most cherished tomes.
Let me take you back to one of my first memories of Hebrew School. The schooling itself was thrust upon me — much as it was to nearly all my peers back then — by conservative parents mired in the social pressures of a tight-knit suburban Jewish community. So here I was, in a Sunday school surrounded by even more new kids I didn’t know (having only recently started first or second grade amidst a litany of new faces), being lectured on spirituality, history, and a literal alphabet I was unfamiliar with. I wasn’t scared mind you, just overwhelmed. Up to that point, my Jewish Identity was a handful of memories of spending hours in a synagogue in an uncomfortable suit to sit, and stand, and sit again, while a drone of off-key adults read and sang in an unfamiliar language — a few days out of the year. And amidst this newfound responsibility to learn about my heritage, came a visit to the synagogue’s library.
Maus stood out against the grain. Among a collection of young adult books detailing anything from the traditions of our forefathers, to illustrated recounting of bible stories, Spiegelman’s harsh and monochromatic work beckoned to me. It said “I am more mature than the drivel beside me. I am not a myth. I am recounting of our worst times!” and being the fledgling brown-noser that I was? I gladly checked it out, when I denoted our teacher rushing to suggest I find something a little lighter to read.
And thus, I took home Maus. As I’d told my parents: I recalled my mom always telling me about my Grandma Mickey, and how she and her family escaped to America amidst the Holocaust — but lost much of their family to the Nazi’s. As such, I wanted to learn more, as my grandmother was not one to discuss her past (and I wasn’t much for asking about it). In addition, I loved that it was a comic, but based on flipping through it in the temple, it was dense. My parents seemed pleased. My teacher seemed pleased. And so, I sat down to read it.
Spiegelman’s style in the book is both stunning, and stunting to absorb as one’s first comic (and by all accounts? This absolutely WAS my first comic). I barely could make it past the framing device set up in the book before it was due back to the library. Each page offered me an unending cacophony of details and line-art I wanted to explore. The cartooning itself was minimal — simple even — with complex details being crammed into every single panel on every single page. It simply was too much for me to undertake at the time. So… I held on to it.
Later, during my angsty years in high school, I’d unearthed it from the drawer I’d lost it in. I carefully removed the stickers denoting its place on the library shelf and removed the check-out card and holder as well. As I became enamored with comics — thanks in part to my best friendship with a die-hard comic fan — and moreso alternative comics (where the artwork wasn’t super heroic because I myself could never draw in that style), I finally made my way through the first volume. As I recall, the book left me hungry to explore my own art and style more. It would take me all the way until senior year of college to ever work in a manner similar to Spiegelman. I explored my Jewish heritage in a woodblock print that took me the entire school year to complete. Maus remained buried in its original drawer until I’d had a house of my own, and now it sits amidst my lone bookcase of graphic novels; it’s spine dust covered, save only for the bald spot where the adhesive that held its Dewey decimal number was once affixed.
I plan on giving it to my oldest son when he starts Hebrew school.