Less than two days into Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Maus, we have come to several interesting conclusions:

  • the book is revolutionary in form
  • it is a perfect blend of high art and accessibility
  • it has drawn the most fascinating reactions from different New Yorkers on the subway

Whether you live in New York or not, everyone has an image in their mind of the crowded New York City subways where it’s very easy to scan the faces / appearances of hundreds of people within seconds, taking everything in, assigning people into the different categorical schemas in your mind (hot / not, doctor / artist, Wall Street / Occupying Wall Street, Brooklyn Hipster / LES Hipster, etc). If you’re reading a book, this gives you an added layer of character or complexity. Every now and then books comes along that invite people to speak with you, either because they’re such well known books, or because the stranger speaking with you has already read the book, assumes others have asked you about it, and considers it acceptable to speak with you about the book, even though you’re on a crowded Subway where people don’t typically speak to each other unless it is a matter of life or death or an open seat.

Books like this — we like to think of them as “badge books” — are usually megasellers like THE KITE RUNNER or THE HELP or DA VINCI CODE. However, literary books can attain badge status; carrying around INFINITE JEST is definitely like wearing a badge; MOBY-DICK can assume badge status; Lord knows FREEDOM prompted some conversations a few months back, and now, in a rather unexpected way, MAUS has become the Literary Man’s latest badge book.

Here’s the cover, in case you’re unfamiliar with the text, so that you can put yourself in the shoes of the random New Yorkers who have been commenting on the book so far this week:

Twenty-five years ago, it was possibly more recognizable than it is today as it was commercially and artistically successful; Pantheon advertised it, people were seen reading it, and it was generally an item of discussion when it came out in 1986. Or perhaps it’s more recognizable today because it has become considered a classic and is regularly taught in universities. High school aged students willingly offer their praises, speaking out on the subway, “I loved that book,” or “Isn’t that book insanely good?” Or more directly: “What do you think so far?” Or this morning on the sleepy, grumpy A Train: “You’re going to love that book. Just wait.” It’s kind of awesome being a part of this unknown community of readers; you just never know who’s a reader and who isn’t. There are two or three adults who have commented, as well, but it’s the high school or college aged kids who seem the most excited to see a random, anonymous adult (aka the Literary Man) reading a graphic novel on the Subway.

Now, on the other hand, there are the people who simply stare. It’s very interesting how MAUS really catches the eye. The cover, specifically, seems to magnetically tug on the eye of everyone person on the train. Some people look at the book and then look at the reader, as if wondering: “What kind of person is reading a book about Nazis and mice??” Or: “What in the hell is a Maus anyway?” quickly followed by: “oh, duh, maus must be mouse in German.” Some people look visibly disgusted or angry, as if the book is something like a cartoon version of Mein Kampf. It’s got to be something more than just the color arrangement that catches the eye; it’s most likely the swastika, which is featured prominently on the cover, which hooks the eye, and then engages the viewer to spend a little more time studying the images, the author’s name, et cetera. It’s brilliantly rendered, and perfectly appropriate for its mesmerizing subject matter (counting down the minutes till the evening’s subway ride to continue the story of young Artie in Poland; it’s literally a page-turner).

Thoughts on other symbols that might be equally provocative? The Christian cross is pretty widely recognized and controversial. The Communist sickle and hammer is pretty universal, too. Any others out there?? The slender harvest moon of Islam (and the South Carolina flag?)? Take note, future book designers, you better come up with an eye-gripping anchor, cause every morning a reader gets on the train, you can be sure everyone’s watching.