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Art Spiegelman

Helen Whittle
September 24, 2012

Art Spiegelman revolutionized comic books with his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Maus." In an interview with DW, he talks about the value of comics, the post-9/11 world, and life under the weight of a 5,000-pound mouse.

US comic book artist Art Spiegelman
Image: Getty Images/AFP

Art Spiegelman is a busy man. The self-described "rooted cosmopolitan" is in Germany to promote the touring exhibition "CO-MIX. Art Spiegelman: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps" at Cologne's Museum Ludwig.

He's also set to receive the 2012 Siegfried Unseld Prize in Berlin at the end of September. Then there's the newly released German-language edition of "MetaMaus," an extraordinarily detailed, behind-the-scenes look at the genesis and production of Spiegelman's magnum opus, "Maus."

Sitting at a wooden table in a conference room in the bowels of Museum Ludwig, Spiegelman is surrounded by a handful of journalists armed with notebooks and tape-recorders. There's a palpable sense of relief when a reporter asks, "Do you agree if we do not ask, 'Why a mouse, why a comic book?'"

"Good idea," Spiegelman says. "I mean, I've answered everything I can answer."

Hall of mirrors

That's a big part of the reason for producing "MetaMaus." It's a chance, he says, to face the 5,000-pound mouse that has been chasing him since "Maus: A Survivor's Tale" was released over two decades ago.

Art Spiegelman's "Maus: A Survivor's Tale"
Art Spiegelman's "Maus: A Survivor's Tale"Image: Fischer Taschenbuch/Gunter Glücklich

"'Maus' was built on interviews with my father and I made 'MetaMaus' built on interviews with myself and now 'I'm being interviewed about 'MetaMaus.' So, there's a certain point at which it gets so 'meta' that one gets lost in the hall of mirrors," Spiegelman explains.

The author is highly adept at navigating that particular hall of mirrors. Like his cartoon drawings and books, he's eloquent, thoughtful and engaging.

"Maus" has brought Spiegelman the kind of international, life-altering acclaim and gravitas only the rare few ever experience. Does he feel like the world is watching?

"I felt it even in the middle of making 'Maus.' When the first 'Maus' came out is when this all started, this kind of attention being paid. And it made the second part of 'Maus' very hard to complete," Spiegelman recalls. "And ever since, inevitably, 'Well, it's ok, but it's not Maus,' you know? Oddly enough, it's not just me who has this problem, but it's a lot of comics artists after 'Maus.' So we're all in the same boat - the Spiegelman guy has created a lot of problems for us."

The weight of history

Spiegelman was born in Stockholm on February 15, 1948, the son of two Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivors. The family immigrated to the US when Spiegelman was still a young child, and he grew up in Queens in New York City. A major figure in the underground comix movement in the 1960s and 70s, he started working on "Maus" back in the early 70s.

"Maus" tells the story of Spiegelman's father, Vladek, from his early life in Czestochowa, Poland, then in Sosnowiec, after meeting Spiegelman's mother Anja, and their subsequent experiences at the hands of the National Socialist regime. Both Vladek and Anja survived the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. The overwhelming majority of their family members, including their first son, Richieu, did not.

"Maus" jumps from conversations between Spiegelman and his father in New York to events in Poland and Germany during the Second World War. In the novel, Jews are depicted as mice, Germans as cats and Poles as pigs.

Art Spiegelman, "Self portrait with Maus mask," 1989
Art Spiegelman, "Self portrait with Maus mask," 1989Image: Art Spiegelman

Despite the family's German-Jewish heritage and the author's childhood in Sweden, his conversations with his father are recounted in English. "I don't know any other language. I'm an American," he explains matter-of-factly. But the initial language choice was paired with childhood hurts.

"I grew up speaking Swedish until I was three years old because I was born there. I don't remember that, because as soon as we came to America we were living in a housing project, and the family legend was - I don't remember this either - I went downstairs to play with the other kids who played in the courtyard of the housing project and I came back upstairs afterwards and I had a really big black eye and I was speaking in English. It was like instant Berlitz!" Spiegelman recalls.

The 'Maus' mask

"Maus" was originally serialized in RAW, an avant-garde comics anthology edited by Spiegelman and his wife, Francoise Mouly, from 1980 to 1991. After a series of rejection letters from prospective publishers, the first half of "Maus: A Survivors Tale," subtitled "My Father Bleeds History," was published by Pantheon in 1986.

That book and the second volume subtitled "And Here My Troubles Began," published in 1991, changed the popular perception of comic books - also known as graphic novels - forever. It won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and has continued to garner awards, distinctions and recognition ever since. Needless to say, it's been one hell of a ride for Spiegelman.

"I got a 'Maus' mask stapled onto my face and I have to either learn to live with it on and be able to see through it or be able to take it off and allow people to see the mask and see, you know, whatever little protoplasm is behind the mask," he says.

"MetaMaus" is his way of doing that. It's an archive of historical documents, family albums, a DVD containing the audio files of the taped conservations with his father, private notebooks and sketches. It even contains copies of the rejection letters from when Spiegelman was struggling to find a publisher for the work. The idea of depicting the barbarity of the Holocaust in the seemingly superficial comic-book form scared off the majority of publishers.

Illustration for the central panel no. 6 of In the Shadow of No Towers, 2002
Between world history and personal history: An illustration panel for "In the Shadow of No Towers"Image: Art Spiegelman

Drawing annihilation

The challenge of representing the systematic persecution and extermination of millions of people has troubled generations of artists since the end of the war in 1945. Nevertheless, popular culture is awash with films, books, documentaries and biographies about the Holocaust. But few get under the skin quite like "Maus." It's one of the most affecting, frightening, authentic works of any genre on the Holocaust around - and it's a comic book.

"There's a certain kind of making that's like a seismograph of thinking. It makes thought visible. And that to me is exciting and interesting when I look at others work. And all I can offer is making my thought visible," Spiegelman says.

Like his parents before him, Spiegelman found himself just over a decade ago at the intersection between Personal History and World History, as he describes it. Right there in New York, where the American comic-book tradition was born on the Hearst and Pulitzer printing presses, is a place now known as Ground Zero.

Spiegelman produced the iconic cover for "The New Yorker" published on September 24, 2001, depicting the Twin Towers in black on a very dark grey background. An assemblage of comic strips detailing Spiegelman's experiences during 9/11 and the aftermath, first published in the German weekly newspaper "Die Zeit" after the author failed to secure an American publisher, was published again in 2004 in his book "In the Shadow of No Towers."

The art of provocation

Spiegelman says it wasn't so much the day itself - September 11, 2001 - that motivated him to draw, but the consequences of that historic event as they developed over the following years.

"I wasn't able to do anything in 2005 or 2006 when the Mohammed cartoons appeared. I was falling behind on all my deadlines because I got really interested in that story," he remembers. "I got really interested because it's the biggest thing that ever happened to cartoons and it had nothing to do with cartoons, so I was insulted."

“Comics as a Medium for Self Expression?". Cover, PRINT Magazine. Ink and watercolor on paper. May-June 1981 by Art Spiegelman
"Comics as a Medium for Self Expression?": Spiegelman's cover for PRINT MagazineImage: Art Spiegelman

As we're talking at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, the controversy surrounding the film "The Innocence of Muslims" is raging around the world. A set of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad printed in the French satirical newspaper "Charlie Hebdo" has also added fuel to the fire.

It would seem that the job of being a cartoonist is more hazardous these days. But from Honoré Daumier to Art Young, from Robert Crumb to Kurt Westergaard, the history of illustration and cartoons lives and breathes provocation.

"I'm very proud of 'Charlie Hebdo' for the cartoons that they made this week, even if it creates a real mess for the government of France, because it's never really about a bad movie or bad cartoons. It's always about what I called in the essay a 'MacGuffin,' a word that Hitchcock invented to describe what sets a story in motion," Spiegelman says. "The actual artwork is an excuse."

Cultural sustenance

An illustration from Art Spiegelman's "In the Shadow of No Towers," 2002
"There's a certain kind of making that's like a seismograph of thinking," Spiegelman says

It's the ephemeral nature of comics, their unassuming ability to capture life in the moment it happens, that fascinates Spiegelman. Comics provided "poetic and rich and beautiful source of cultural sustenance" for him, especially in the ongoing aftermath of 9/11 - a time, he says, when he was feeling "especially whacked up."

"Art, the way I understand it, is just about giving a form of any kind to one's thoughts and feelings and those provide a record for other people. The rest is all bullshit. The rest is all about marketing," Spiegelman opines. "If art and literature are a record of thoughts and feeling, then comics have a place at that table," he adds.