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Why cartoonist Art Spiegelman is talking about his comic Maus after years of silence

For years, comics artist Art Spiegelman refused to give interviews about his groundbreaking work, Maus.

“I felt like I’m being chased by a giant 500-pound mouse wherever I go,” he told Ideas host Nahlah Ayed.

In the last year or two, however, he’s changed his tune. “I allowed myself to actually talk about Maus more overtly in a way that my younger self would look at sneeringly.”

Maus, released as a series from 1980 to 1991, tells the story of Spiegelman’s Polish parents surviving Auschwitz during the Holocaust, anchored in the broader narrative of Spiegelman’s troubled relationship with his father, Vladek.

Spiegelman famously portrayed the Jews as mice, Germans as cats and Poles as pigs. In 1992, he became the first — and to this day, only — comics artist to win a Pulitzer Prize for his work on Maus.

Spiegelman is blunt when asked why he’s become more willing to talk about it: “Trump.”

Throughout Maus’s narrative, Spiegelman interviews his father, a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp. The narrative flips between time periods, exploring the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe to Spiegelman’s life in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s. (Pantheon Graphic Library/Penguin Random House)

“I think we’ve come closer to revealing the ugly beast beneath the American masks than we ever have before — the fact that we have a country built on genocide and racism and severe class differences,” he said.

“It would be worth calling attention to the situations that could bring us to the brink of something as horrific as what my parents lived through.”

Comics shaped understanding of culture

Spiegelman immigrated to the U.S. with his parents in 1951 as a young child. Early on, he saw paperback collections of Mad Comics before it became Mad Magazine. They were filled with parodies of classic American characters with slightly off-kilter names like Super-Duper Man and Mickey Rodent.

“I, like my kids after me, learned about the real stuff from hearing and seeing the parody first. And I think it shaped my vision as a cartoonist,” he said.

“I found that it was becoming a codex for understanding American culture that my parents couldn’t provide.”

WATCH | Art Spiegelman recounts memories of his mother:

Pulitzer Prize winning comics artist Art Spiegelman’s mother was a prisoner in Auschwitz. He remembers a moment from his childhood where she talked about one of her experiences. 1:18

Spiegelman’s first paid gig came when he was 15, drawing cartoons that appeared on the backs of baseball cards for the Topps Chewing Gum Company. It became his regular source of income for more than 20 years. 

He would ring up the office and tell them to mail the cheque to wherever he was staying at the time, while “travelling around the country and living out of a van with a drawing table and a bed in it.”

In the 1970s, he moved to San Francisco and became involved with the counterculture underground “comix” scene. These comics strayed from the mainstream in their depiction of socially relevant topics and often contained x-rated material that didn’t conform to the Comics Code Authority, the industry regulated group that enforced rules about acceptable content. 

Spiegelman pointed to one work, Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, released in 1972, as particularly influential.

In the book, the teenage Binky serves as a stand-in for Green, as he struggles with his obsessive compulsive disorder and intrusive thoughts drenched in sexual innuendo. Binky tries to avoid looking at church steeples that become phallic on the page.

It was the first breakout hit to tell a serious story while playing with “genuinely forbidden” imagery, Spiegelman said, and opened the way for other artists in the comics counterculture, like Robert Crumb.

Comics could always be serious

Maus exploded into popularity, reaching audiences who weren’t familiar with the underground comix scene and who weren’t familiar with the medium’s explorations of personal trauma.

But Spiegelman says comics don’t need to explicitly reference real-life tragedies like the Holocaust to be “serious.” 

He pointed to Superman, the original modern comic book superhero, created by two Jewish immigrants “recapitulating their own fantasies and traumas into the world,” albeit in the pop-culture wrappings of the time.

“Superman is an immigrant from another planet who is basically an Americanized ubermensch with all the American values that we pretend to hold dear, like fighting for truth, justice and — God help us — the American way,” Spiegelman explained.

‘Speech is under jeopardy’

Today, comics are a worldwide industry, their stories seeding ideas for multibillion-dollar entertainment franchises. It’s also proven a fruitful ground for memoirs, following in Spiegelman’s footsteps.

He has mixed feelings about this development.

You can get cancelled. I think it’s a badge of honour sometimes to be cancelled, even though it can also be a sign of great, rightful disgust.– Art Spiegelman

“I thought of [Maus] as anomalous, and now I find it’s just a genre. Like: ‘Science-fiction. Fantasy. Holocaust.’ And I’m taken aback. I’m not sure that I’m happy about it,” he said.

He noted being “annoyed” by the graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s diaries, released by Pantheon, which also publishes Maus.

“I felt like there was something unsavoury about it, even if it’s done well. ‘Oh, kids can’t read Anne Frank as a book, but as a comic they can read it.’ How condescending is that?” he said.

Reviews for Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation praised the artwork, but lamented how it only adapted a small fraction of Frank’s original writings. Lead adapter Ari Folman noted that translating the entire diary into comic book form would have required the volume to exceed 3,500 pages.

Despite the subgenre’s growth, Spiegelman says he probably wouldn’t be able to release Maus in today’s pop culture climate.

The hardcover collected edition of Spiegelman’s Maus. (Pantheon Graphic Library/Penguin Random House)

“You can get cancelled. I think it’s a badge of honour sometimes to be cancelled, even though it can also be a sign of great, rightful disgust,” he said. He cited, in particular, the recent news that some older Dr. Seuss books would no longer be published because they contained racist material. 

“I think that in general, speech is under jeopardy.”

Spiegelman said that the rise of the internet “has created that global village that [Marshall] McLuhan talked about decades ago,” that can more easily facilitate outrage and misunderstandings rather than genuine dialogue and understanding about difficult topics — and complex art that portrays them.

He voiced a particular worry that the acerbic humour of the underground comix era, which often thumbed its nose at mainstream ideas or morality, could be especially under threat.

“I feel like my problem is that I’m part of a PC [politically correct] culture because I empathize with [its] aims and share them. But I don’t want to feel that the only way to do that is to muzzle all of the thoughts where there’s no right answers,” he said.

Written by Jonathan Ore. The documentary Drawing Disaster was produced by Oliver Thompson and Naheed Mustafa.

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