COVER STORY: The messiness of history, told by a Maus

Maus is recognized as one of the essential artistic and literary accomplishments of the 20th century.

“Art Spiegelman’s great contribution to the medium of comics was to prove that comics could be real art. Before him, it was a debatable notion. After Maus, it was an undeniable fact.” 

– Seth, Canadian cartoonist

That Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking comic Maus changed comics and is now recognized as one of the absolutely essential artistic and literary accomplishments of the 20th century is undeniable. Widely known today as a pair of bestselling graphic novels, the narrative originally unfolded as a series of chapters published in the highly influential magazine RAW from 1980 through 1991. (Spiegelman had founded RAWwith his spouse, François Mouly, who went on to become the arts editor of The New Yorker.) 

Pantheon Books subsequently brought the serialized RAW instalments together into two companion volumes, Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History (1986) and Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began (1992). Primarily the story of one Polish Jew’s “survival” of the Holocaust, the work is built around a series of strained conversations between father (Vladek Spiegelman) and son (Art Spiegelman). It is a relationship that echoes the fundamental struggle in a wider culture to come to terms with one of the greatest tragedies in human history, a tragedy that did not just happen (like some recurrent natural disaster), but was a methodically planned act of extermination on a grand scale.

The great strength of Maus is that it directly engages with the messiness of history, that it makes it deeply personal and does not shy away from exposing even the unflattering characteristics of the victims (Vladek’s racism for example). It is absolutely clear that history is mired in the failings of memory and personal perspective, deeply subjective and often flawed, and Spiegelman demands that the Holocaust be understood as trauma, a trauma that continues to cast a long shadow with deep impact far beyond 1945. 

“My father bleeds history,” Spiegelman stated as the subtitle for Maus I, and this statement stands as a visceral acknowledgment that the violence did not end with the Allied victory and the liberation of concentration camps in 1945, but lingered as a wound that would mark subsequent generations. To be a survivor was to not experience closure but to carry the wounds with you (and pass them on to the next generation), and for many, that lingering wound was fatal. For Spiegelman’s mother, Anya, who committed suicide in 1968, the wound bled slowly and painfully.

The absolute beginning of Maus was actually a short comic Spiegelman produced in 1972 for a commissioned collection edited by cartoonist Justin Green called Funny Animals, for which Spiegelman (and other cartoonists) were asked to produce a three-page strip using animals as central characters. The anthropomorphized animal has been a staple of comics and cartoons (with deep roots in the history of art and satirical graphics). A particularly powerful example was Walt Kelly’s Pogo (a political strip that had a profound influence on Doonesbury and Bloom County) and, of course, Charles Schultz’s Snoopy. While the animal substitute allows for a certain distance, it is also an opportunity to heighten characteristics. It is a risky but potent narrative strategy. 

Following an initial idea to deal with racism, Spiegelman developed an intense short story featuring Nazi cats and Jewish mice called Maus in response to Green’s request. As he has often noted, his choice of mice was a response to the Nazi categorization of Jews as “vermin.” In this early comic, the renderings of the characters feel very much of their time and evince the underground comic esthetic of the radical San Francisco counter-culture Spiegelman was immersed in, surrounded by such contemporaries as Robert Crumb and the circle of innovators around Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD magazine. 

When he returned to the Maus subject matter, a few years later and after he’d moved back to New York, and began interviewing his father, he reworked the look of the characters. What emerged was graphically stark, high contrast and bold, a clear nod to early modern graphics and image narratives of Lynd Ward, Frans Masereel and German Expressionism. As always, Spiegelman worked with deep admiration for earlier cartoonists, and he has cited Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie as a key influence. In turn, Maus would have a profound impact on comics to follow. It would be hard to imagine Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000), Joe Sacco’s award-winning war correspondent reportage (such as Footnotes in Gaza, 2009) or Chester Brown’s Louis Riel (2004), without Maus.

“Prior to the publication of the first issue of RAW, Art Spiegelman and François Mouly gave a few interviews that I found captivating. What Art said about the potential of the medium was very inspiring to me. And then he began to serialize Maus. I couldn’t have predicted the impact it would have, but reading that first chapter, I knew it would be a masterpiece. Maus showed that, if they’re good enough, serious comics can have a very large audience.” 

– Chester Brown, Canadian cartoonist

Like leading Toronto-based cartoonist Chester Brown, I distinctly remember my first encounter with Maus. Unlike Brown and the great Canadian cartoonist Seth quoted earlier, I was not immersed in comic culture and so was not aware of RAW and Spiegelman’s catalytic presence in a cartooning revolution when, as a student living in New York, I bought a copy of Maus I at the Strand bookstore on Broadway in the fall of 1987. I bought it as a book, from a new release table, not in a vast and expansive section of comics and graphic novels that my oldest daughter can now lose a day in at the Strand. (My daughters, like many Canadian kids, would be introduced to Maus at school.) Back in the 1980s, there was no large comic section, but there may have been a shelf of comic material somewhere in the sprawling multi-story landmark that still remains a vibrant hub of activity with its distinct red banners in lower Manhattan. 

Spiegelman clearly helped create the demand and boom in comic publishing and also reminded us how important the printed book is as a creative and tactile form. In 1991, back in Canada, I bought Maus II when it first came out at Pages on Queen Street West, a truly great independent bookstore with a dedicated comics section that sadly closed in 2012. Fortunately, we still have The Beguiling and TCAF (Toronto Comic Arts Festival).

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“Since The Beguiling opened in 1987, Art Spiegelman’s work has introduced more readers to the medium than any other author – from the adult non-comics readers converted by Maus, to, more recently, the children who started with Little Lit and Toon books as their first comics. Even now, with a market crowded with books that followed his successes, his books are still the books people cite as sparking their love of comics.”

– Peter Birkemoe, The Beguiling Books & Art Inc. and TCAF

Toronto has emerged as a leading centre of comic arts internationally and Spiegelman’s influence in this community is substantial (as it has been in Montreal through comics publisher Drawn and Quarterly). This has carried over to the current emerging generation of artists, many of whom have established significant international reputations in their own right, thriving in the creative space Spiegelman (and Mouly) have shaped. Nina Bunjevac (whose second major graphic novel, Fatherland, was recently published worldwide by Random House) and Michael Deforge, who continues to make his mark as a leading innovator, are great examples. 

“Any cartoonist who doesn’t realize that Spiegelman paved our way, twice, is a fool,” says Bunjevac with her characteristic bluntness. “He first did it with RAW, and then again with Maus. I would not be doing what I am doing now were it not for having been exposed to both. It’s that simple.”

Deforge adds that “Art Spiegelman pushed the edges of what the medium could be, both in the formal experiments in his own comics and in his work as an editor.” 

Toronto publisher Annie Koyama sums it all up nicely: “Without Art, and his publishing partner Françoise Mouly, there would be no art comics. Without Art, and his trailblazing experimentation and fearlessness in mining his own past, there wouldn’t be a comic honoured with the literary world’s top prize. Without Art, comics would be a poorer place.”

As often happens when an artist produces a work of such power, popularity and influence, that work can become almost a burden, even a barrier. Maus, at times, has certainly been that for Spiegelman, not only because of its phenomenal success, but also clearly because of the intense personal demands telling such a tale put upon the author.

It would not be until post 9/11 that Spiegelman would once again attempt a work of scope and ambition on par with Maus (In the Shadow of No Towers, 2004), but he has remained a constant provocative presence, particularly through his many iconic covers for the New Yorker. His black on black silhouette of the Twin Towers must be considered one of the most powerful responses to the events of Sept.11, 2001. 

Spiegelman’s work stands as great art, the argument of its art status resolved. How could such a body of work so deeply rooted in (and building on) long recognized traditions of visual and graphic arts and literature, and that has had such a fundamental impact on culture, not be. 

Art Spiegelman likes to point out that spiegel in German means mirror, so his name equals, in essence, “Art Mirrors Man.” Spiegelman has always been bold in his convictions and has never shied away from holding up the mirror and also seeing his own reflection in it. His most powerful works (and there are many) expose the wounds that often fester and won’t heal, and he has been unflinching in his willingness to engage with the trauma of history and memory as trauma. His Pulitzer Prize was well earned and richly deserved. 

Andrew Hunter is the Fredrik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario. He is the co-ordinating curator of Art Spiegelman: Co-Mix, A Retrospective at the AGO that opened on Dec. 20, 2014 and runs through March 20. The exhibition features over 600 artworks, including original manuscript material from Maus.


See also Art Spiegelman discusses the art of cartooning.