Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Jew living in Queens, New York, survived the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps during World War II. In his early 70s, Vladek is frugal and set in his ways, which often puts him at odds with his 30-year-old son, Artie, and his second wife, Mala. Vladek's personality was partially shaped by his experiences during World War II. A former prisoner of war and a survivor of the Holocaust, Vladek was a quick study with a strong work ethic, which made him valuable to his superiors, who in turn protected him from the gas chambers. Unlike the millions of others who died at the hands of the Nazis, Vladek survived the war and reunited with his wife, Anja, but the figurative scars of his experience are still visible, as is his deep sense of loss after Anja's death.
Artie Spiegelman is the son of two Polish Jews, Vladek and Anja Spiegelman, both of whom survived the Holocaust. As a child, he was closer to his mother than his father, with whom he never really got along. Like his mother, Artie suffers from mental health issues and spent a month in a mental hospital when he was 20. Anja died not long after. In his 30s, Artie seems perpetually annoyed with and worried about his aging father. As Artie interviews Vladek about his experiences during the war and the Holocaust, he gains a better understanding of how his father's past affects his present. Artie may not always like Vladek, and the men often are exasperated with each other, but with the help of his wife, Artie learns to accept his father for who he is.
Born in 1912 to a wealthy family, Anja Spiegelman is known for her intelligence, her kindness, and her bouts of anxiety and depression. Though she is frail and, in Vladek's opinion, entirely too altruistic, Anja survives the Holocaust by relying on the close friendships she established with other women in Auschwitz. After the war and a brief stint in Sweden, Anja and Vladek move to the United States to be closer to her only living relative, her brother Herman. Herman's death in 1962 is very difficult for Anja, and she ends up taking her own life in 1968.
Mala Spiegelman was a longtime family friend before she became Vladek's second wife following Anja's death. As a Holocaust survivor who is friends with a large group of other survivors, she doesn't believe Vladek's more unappealing personality traits are only an effect of the war. Her marriage to Vladek is an unhappy one—they are always fighting about money, with which Vladek is notoriously stingy, and Mala feels she will never be able to live up to the idealized image of Anja Vladek still clings to.
Françoise Mouly is Artie's French wife who converted to Judaism shortly after and she and Artie married. She is patient with Vladek's quirks and demands until near the end of the book, when his racism surfaces on a routine trip home from the grocery store. She can't understand how someone who experienced the racism of eastern Europe before and during World War II can be so prejudiced against minorities in the United States.