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Art Spiegelman, the son of Holocaust survivors, is one of the most prominent ”second-generation” creators of depictions of the Holocaust and an important contemporary American sequential artist. Since the 1970s he has produced intellectually intriguing comics and illustrations, some of which are considered controversial, for numerous highly regarded publications. His major Holocaust work, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (1986, 1991), is a graphic novel, an extended comic book that treats serious subjects in greater depth and with a wider variety of techniques than is possible in the popular comic book. Despite its designation as a ”novel,” Maus is not exclusively limited to fiction but often includes autobiography, biography, and other forms of nonfiction narrative. Nevertheless, it is considered a masterpiece of the graphic novel genre.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Commitment to Artistic Integrity
Spiegelman was born in Stockholm, Sweden, on February 15, 1948, to refugees Vladek and Anja Spiegelman. His father was a businessman, and his mother was a housewife. Arthur immigrated with them to the United States in 1951. They settled in the Rego Park area of Queens, New York City, a neighborhood heavily populated by Jews. Spiegel-man began creating comics and cartoons at the age of thirteen, when he drew for his junior-high-school newspaper. While still attending the High School of Art and Design, he was given an opportunity to join a commercial comics syndicate, but he refused because joining would have required him to conform his art to syndicate rules. Then as now, Spiegelman maintained his independence and defended the integrity of the comics form. He has also refused to adapt his comics for motion pictures, which would involve group production.
Spiegelman attended Harpur College (now part of Binghamton University) in upstate New York from 1965 to 1968. He dropped out before completing a bachelor’s degree and, in 1968, suffered a nervous breakdown. He spent one month in a mental hospital, as recorded in the ”Prisoner on the Hell Planet” comic strip (first published in Short Order Comix (1973) and later included in the first volume of Maus). As that strip also reports, his mother committed suicide soon afterward, possibly influenced by the death of her brother in an auto accident.
Clearly it was a difficult period for Spiegelman. His psychological troubles may have been compounded by the fact that, at that time, his chosen art and mode of expression were not socially accepted. The mid-1950s had seen a sharp decrease in the number of comics being created and sold in America, due to a strident campaign that blamed comics for the moral degradation of teenage boys. The result: comics were redrafted to flatter establishment ideals (introducing, for example, the Justice League of America), and their survival depended on how successfully they achieved this goal. Many comics artists and publishers, including the future publisher of Mad magazine, lost their jobs or even their careers because they refused to conform.
Such a publishing atmosphere did not offer much freedom of creativity for a mind like Spiegelman’s. His only choice was to work independently, and in 1966 he began to do so, creating underground comics that defied the status quo. In 1971 he moved to San Francisco, which was flowering as a center for countercultural arts. There, under pseudonyms such as Joe Cutrate and Skeeter Grant, he published a series of original comics, one of which portrayed Jewish Holocaust victims as mice. He returned to New York in 1975, and in 1977 he married Franyoise Mouly, with whom he founded the influential avant-garde comics anthology Raw in 1980. As early as 1978, Spiegel-man initiated the research that led to Maus, which included trips to Auschwitz first in 1978 and again in 1986, the year the first volume of the graphic novel was published. In 1991, thirteen years after he began his project, the second and final volume of Maus appeared.
Maus and Man
Many have speculated on where Spiegelman might have garnered inspiration for the depiction of his characters in his widely acclaimed graphic novel. Jewish sources were especially prominent. Spiegel-man was working under the influence of William Gaines and Harvey Kurtzman’s satirical Mad magazine, in which the frequent appearance of Yiddish betrayed the presence on its staff of several Holocaust survivors. Speaking at a Jewish writers’ conference in 2001, he stated, ”I read Mad and read words like fershlugginer and had a clue they came from my neighborhood.”
More tellingly, Spiegelman has likened his creation of Maus to his coming out of an assimilationist, or conformist, closet to reveal the Jewish element in himself. This concept of embracing one’s cultural roots matches the post-1960s context of the civil rights and sexual liberation movements, including ethnic identification and self-confession. In fact, Spiegelman has told interviewers that he got the immediate idea for Maus from a college film course in which the instructor showed cartoons of cat-and-mouse chases along with racist movies in order to demonstrate the similarity between the depictions of mice and minorities in those genres.
In 1986, after the first volume of Maus appeared, it garnered the Present Tense/Joel M. Cavior Award for Jewish Writing, and after the second volume was published in 1991, the work received a Pulitzer Prize as well as a National Book Critics Circle Award, a Los Angeles Times Award, an American Book Award, and the Before Columbus Foundation Award (all in 1992). Maus is now taught in high school and college courses in Jewish studies, American literature, philosophy, and European history throughout the United States.
Over the two decades since the release of Maus, Spiegelman has continued to work in the comics genre and as a graphic artist. He co-edited several volumes of the Little Lit series, sophisticated children’s stories told in comic-art style. At least one of the stories in this series, contributed by Spiegelman himself, is based on a Hasidic, or traditional Jewish, tale. Spiegelman remains close to his ethnic origins, and a generation of overtly Jewish comic artists has followed in his path. His work and influence have undeniably enriched the American graphic novel, American art and literature, and most of all, the unsettling art of Holocaust remembrance.
Works in Literary Context
Spiegelman’s work has included comics, critical essays, and illustrations, some of which have been considered controversial. His most important work, however—Maus: A Survivor’s Tale—is also the hardest to classify. It has been called a graphic novel for the sake of convenience, but in fact, Maus contains elements of several genres, including autobiography, biography, epic, and fiction.
The term graphic novel has a number of definitions, among them ”adult comic” and ”sequential art narrative” according to George Dardess. Possibly due in part to the reputation of its predecessor in print—the comic book—what to call the genre has arisen as an important question. The word graphic seems to imply violence, while the term adult suggests that the works contain lewdness. Generally speaking, however, a graphic novel is a written work that combines comics-style illustrations with extended stories, often on controversial subjects.
Spiegelman’s Maus has traditionally been classified as a graphic novel. But it departs from the definition of the fictional novel in that it includes certain factual elements. The characters bear the same names as their real-life counterparts, for example, and many actual events related to the Holocaust are incorporated into the story. For convenience, however, the work continues to be included in the graphic novel genre.
Spiegelman’s mix of narrative types is characteristic of what has been called postmodernism, ”a style ofthought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity, and objectivity,” according to Terry Eagleton. Essentially, postmodernists believe that nothing can be known absolutely; their art, therefore, often incorporates a variety of techniques to view its subjects from numerous perspectives.
Spiegelman’s use of so many literary resources to portray the tortured history of his family suggests that he believed one genre would be inadequate to capture it all. The enormity of the Holocaust makes its representation in any format difficult. And because of the great exposure the Holocaust has received over the past half century, many worthy representations fail to impress as deeply as they should. Spiegelman’s serious literary adaptation of the allegedly frivolous comic-book format shocked many readers into seeing the Holocaust in a new way.
Works in Critical Context
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale
Critical reaction to Maus has been largely positive, with reviewers praising Spiegelman’s use of dialect and imagery and his parallel exploration of the Holocaust and his relationship with his father. Michael Staub has called the work ”much more accessible to a general audience than many other accounts, because it is particularly effective at inviting emotional involvement.”
Some critics, however, disagree, claiming that the subject of the Holocaust is too solemn to address in the graphic novel format. Critic Sheng Mei-Ma states that ”[Spiegelman] verges on irreverence by coupling the genre with Shoah [Holocaust] in Maus.” The central question seems to be whether the graphic novel genre is as worthy of respect as genres such as poetry or the novel. This question goes back to original arguments over the social value of comics and has not yet been resolved.
Regardless, with the publication of Maus, Spiegelman undoubtedly made an impact, not only on the graphic novel genre, but also on American literature as a whole. As critic Lawrence L. Langer has stated: ”Perhaps no Holocaust narrative will ever contain the whole experience. But Art Spiegelman has found an original and authentic form to draw us closer to its bleak heart.”
- Eagleton, Terry. The Illusions of Postmodernism. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996.
- Dardess, George. ”Bringing Comic Books to Class.” College English 57, no. 2 (February 1995): 213-222.
- Ma, Sheng-Mei. ”Mourning with the (as a) Jew: Metaphor, Ethnicity, and the Holocaust in Art Spiegelman’s Maus.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 16 (1997): 115-129.
- Staub, Michael. ”The Shoah Goes On and On: Remembrance and Representation in Art Spiegelman’s Maus.” MELUS20, no. 3 (Fall 1995): 33-36.
- ”Comic Creator: Harvey Kurtzman.” Lambiek. Accessed November 15, 2008, from http://lambiek.net/ artists/k/kurtzman.htm. Last updated on December 14, 2007.
- ”The History of Comics.” Comic Art and Graffix Gallery. Accessed November 15, 2008, from http:// www.comic-art.com/history.htm. Last updated in 2006.
- ”Joseph Raymond McCarthy, U.S. Senator.” CNN Interactive. Accessed November 15, 2008, from http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cold.war/ kbank/profiles/mccarthy/. Last updated in 1999.
- Devlin, Desmond. ”The Untold History of Mad Magazine.” DC Universe. Accessed November 15, 2008, from http://www.dccomics.com/mad/? action=about.
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