Issue 04 /
November 2012 Discussion

Art Spiegelmann


A Look inside a Modern Classic

DOI : 10.48248/issn.2037-741X/702

At the end of the day, does MetaMaus constitute more than a mere vanity project, a self-congratulatory attempt to wheedle more manna out of the artist’s painful family history? To answer that, one must obviously grapple with the question of whether this tome succeeds in deepening our understanding of the complexity of the original work. From the outset, it must be immediately acknowledged that the new work adds highly significant detail to what we learned earlier about the family’s pre-war lives, their religious faith, domestic routines, and work. The working process of Maus itself is of course the main attraction and both the book (which includes a thorough index and chronology tracing pivotal events in the Spiegelman family history) and here I should note at the outset that the accompanying DVD provides an extraordinary repository of draft sketches, private notebooks, and historical documents in addition to later comics originally published in the New Yorker and other venues. It deepens the original work with substantial layering (offering hundreds of sketches and designs, audio and video features and will be hard to surpass in terms of the presentation of digital comics) and the entire package adds up to a complex, richly textured and sometimes surprisingly intimate statement about the inheritance of trauma and its transformation into art.

For those familiar with the peculiar challenges faced by those sometimes identified as “second generation” which began to be addressed in the late eighties in Helen Epstein’s groundbreaking Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors (Penguin, 1988) and a decade later by scholars such as Alan Berger, Aaron Hass, Ilany Kogan, and others, it is useful to see how well Spiegelman’s experiences can be aligned with those of numerous others who felt the constant, oppressive pressure of a trauma never voiced. He recalls a childhood in which both the individuals closest to him and the culture at large were complicit in a silence well known to others (I have heard the children and grandchildrenof survivors describe their struggle with that taboo knowledge variously as “secrets more taboo than sex,” a “locked black box in your household” and a pervasive sense of “alienation” and “suffocation”). For example, at home, “as a kid, I can remember my friends asking my mother about the number on her arm, and her saying it was a phone number she didn’t want to forget” while the massive, authoritative tomes about the war seemed to conspire in a similar withholding: “I had been shocked when…I looked at the definitive, two-volume picture history of World War II with text by Winston Churchill, published by Time-Life Books in 1959…It was one of the heaviest things in the house: over six hundred luxuriously oversized pages…It was filled with sumptuously printed war photographs and color war paintings but the reference to Jews and concentration camps was a damn cameo—less than a footnote—mentioned in passing among other victims of ‘Nazi Barbarism’ on one spread. Churchill’s war seemed to have very little to do with he one my parents went through. The Holocaust wasn’t part of the public conversation” (43-44). But that was Art’s childhood; emerging into young adulthood he recalls Vladek’s readiness to tell his story “like it was my birthright to know these things” (14). At that time he was also a painful witness to his mother’s relatives refusal to listen to any of the horrific details of what they experienced. That too, was something Art’s parents shared with other survivors in that time.

He traces the origins of his prodigious research to the 1970s, a time when he voraciously devoured both historical works and literary witnessing: Raul Hilberg’s magisterial The Destruction of the European Jews and Lucy Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews but also Primo Levi (“the most profound work I read by any survivor”) and Tadeusz Borowski’s caustic short fiction, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (44-45). Over the years, one has become accustomed to Spiegelman’s generous assessments of his peers and precursors in comic art but I cannot recall much reflection on other narrative forms. However, not surprisingly, even here it is the “visual” or descriptive aspect of language that he most values. For instance, speaking of Borowski’s language, Spiegelman praises its “hard-boiled style…though it makes Chandler and Hammett look like romantic wimps. There was a detailed objectivity to his prose, as if his eye was a camera trained on a world that stopped at the barbed wire fence, and it gave me some indispensable help in trying to envision life in a death camp” (46). While these and other historical and literary works were undoubtedly profound influences, it is manifestly evident that the greatest influences on his struggle to artistically render Vladek’s story were the precious and few collections of art drawn by those who perished in the camps.

Spiegelman memorializes this aesthetic legacy: “Those drawings were a return to drawing not for its possibilities of imposing the self, of finding a new role for art and drawing after the invention of the camera, but rather a return to the earlier function that drawing served before the camera—a kind of commemorating, witnessing, and recording of information—what Goya referred to when he says, ‘This I saw.’ The artists, like the memoirists and diarists of the time, are giving urgent information in the pictures, information that could be transmitted no other way, and often at great risk to their lives. For someone like me, who was trying to visually reconstruct what they lived through—or didn’t—their images were invaluable” (49-50). Spiegelman also admiringly invokes classic films such as Alain Resnais Night and Fog (1955) and Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour epic Shoah (1985); of the latter, he remarks simply that “its sobriety and respect for what could be shown and what couldn’t had a very strong impact on me” (54). In other ways, Spiegelman’s restraint invites admiration; he has firmly rejected countless highly lucrative offers to turn Maus into a film (and seems to agree with his wife Françoise’s remark that “Next to making Maus, your greatest achievement may have been not turning Maus into a movie” [74]). As for the inspiration to narrate Holocaust trauma through the images of mice Spiegelman (who has declared that Hitler was his “collaborator” on Maus, cites the influence of yet another film, the infamous 1940 The Eternal Jew, in which Jews in the stifling conditions of the ghetto were juxtaposed with scenes of rodents with title cards proclaiming Jews as the “rats” or “vermin” of mankind. Thus, from the very beginning, the artist realized his project was to grapple with and subvert the dehumanizing forms of representation (“The idea of Jews as toxic, as disease carriers, as dangerous subhuman creatures, was a necessary prerequisite for killing my family….It’s amazing how often the image still comes up in anti-Semitic cartoons in Arab countries today” [115, 116]).

For readers with an appetite for such, there are more painful revelations about the apparent sheer impossibility of meaningful communication between Art and Vladek outside of the Holocaust story. In that context (in a book brimming with many other forms of candor and incisive speculations), there are numerous instances where MetaMaus is distinguished not merely by the way it illuminates the composition of Maus; often it is the lessons Spiegelman gleans from other survivors’ children that prove most indelible, especially when they broach the enigma of survival itself: “I know a survivor’s son who told me about his father who survived very specifically because he was part of a whole group taken to the camps from his small village at the same time. They stuck together throughout the entire camp experience and they all kept each other alive. That’s a way of making it through that is in some ways counterintuitive to the American notion of the individual who triumphs. There really was a kind of identification with their whole group that got them through, and insofar as I can glean anything from the clues about Anja, that was how she survived” (21). Such revelations obviously maks for a telling contrast to what we learn in Maus about Vladek’s own individualist, self-sufficient strategies throughout the war years and camp experience.

Given his famously difficult relationship with Vladek (and what often seems a softer appraisal of his mother’s role in his life), it may be startling for some readers to encounter Art’s stark and decidedly reluctant moment of clarity recognizing that he could fully identify with his father’s character and, arguably obsessive, coping strategies, during the period of his institutionalization in Binghamton State mental hospital (a chilling episode portrayed in Maus). Musing on his uncomfortable realization of their similarity, Spiegelman confesses that:

I’m sure that’s at the center of what made our relationship so fraught. Being rebellious and resistant to Vladek, but finding aspects of him well embedded into my character formation…when I was incarcerated…back in my psychedelic days, wandering around the dayroom, gathering up pieces of string or something, just to have something to do and, in that sense, unconsciously reenacting the kinds of scavenging Vladek always did reflexively: ‘Oh, this piece of paper could come in handy sometime; this scrap on the ground, maybe I could use it as toilet paper.’ There were so many ways in which I didn’t want to model myself after Vladek; it was very hard for me to acknowledge aspects of myself when I’d see him acting out in exasperating ways. (33)

There have always been readers more than a little tone-deaf to the sharp self-criticism that Spiegelman directs toward his own behavior throughout Maus; here that inherent humility and self-judgment (even as his portrayal of his prickly father is relentlessly unsparing), is even more apparent: “I try to understand how I function as a parent to my kids and I’m positive I’ve done some things that are equally god-awful” (33).

For readers interested in broader aspects of his creative career, Spiegelman is also engaging when he reflects on his artistic origins; even today he expresses gratitude for his sticker-designing days for Topps Bubble Gum, which he calls his “Medici.” As for Mauss critical reception (recent years have seen the rapid growth of a formidable industry of scholarly books and journal articles devoted to it) it is worth noting Spiegelman’s assessment of his critical interlocutors; he particularly cherishes Ren Weschler’s critical delineation of the book’s “crystalline ambiguity” (33). For Spiegelman, that coinage artfully embodies his artistic struggle: “ambiguities had to just be presented without being spun for the sake of catharsis—that was essential. All kinds of elisions and ellipses and compressions are a part of any shaped work, and my goal was not to betray what I could find out or what I heard or what I knew but to give a shape to it” (34). As even the most casual reader of Maus will recognize, Spiegelman was ever self-conscious of the constant risk of betrayal and distortion of a fundamental, underlying reality. In that context, Spiegelman’s honest admission of the frailty of memory itself is profoundly illuminating. There has been growing awareness of the problem of the witness’s memory, ever since the appearance of Geoffrey Hartman’s nuanced and sophisticated discussion in Holocaust Remembrance: the Shapes of Memory (1993) and Spiegelman grapples with the implications of conclusions similar to what Hartman (who, while empathic, pragmatically assesses the frequent appearance of Mengele in a suspiciously vast number of survivor anecdotes to be a kind of unreliable trope of traumatic memory) posits: “Memory is a very fugitive thing. And I was aware of it at the time as part of the problem and part of the process….it was obvious to me, doing my homework, that Vladek’s memory didn’t jibe with everything I read. I knew I had to allude to that somewhere. And for awhile that was troublesome to me…do I just correct errors based on other people’s authority? Or do I ignore other people’s authority and go strictly with Vladek’s memory as if it was n objective correlative that could be drawn?” (29-30). Even today Spiegelman seems anguished about meeting this challenge but the strategies he employed seem admirably nuanced and judicious. Acknowledging that he “wrestled with it for a long time. In matters of firm historical record…I tended to triangulate the event and allow his memory to be subsumed in the grander memory. But if there was any kind of personal reason for him to remember differently – because it was something he specifically says he saw, or because of the importance and weight it seemed to have in the conversation—then I went with is version…The closer it came to his personal story, the less I would interfere” (30). In a work saturated with such thoughtful reflections on the processes of collective and individual memory, it is also rewarding to find the artist searching for his earliest recollection of encountering his father’s tormented past. The latter seems to be “[t]he anecdote where Vladek is almost caught by Polish children calling him a Jew when he was in hiding…a source of nightmares for me. It was vivid for me even before I drew it—one of those places where I could enter into Vladek’s story and feel it viscerally. The vulnerability of being the other, that made even little children lethally dangerous” (28).

One of the most powerful and disturbing effects of Maus is its refusal of the kind of redemptive responses other popular Holocaust narratives such as Spielberg’s Schindler’s List have encouraged. For many readers that resistance is especially visible in the tormented and tormenting figure of Vladek. In MetaMaus, Spiegelman often revists his struggle “to avoid despair or cynicism without becoming fatuous” (70). A constant touchstone seems to have been a remark made by a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto uprising: “I you could lick my heart, it would poison you” in response to which the artist says simply: “To find a tone that could be informed by that bleakness and not be an inevitable prescription for suicide was difficult” (70).

Some of the more surprising features in MetaMaus include the very candid reflections of family members on the impact of Maus and Spiegelman’s repute on their lives (At times MetaMaus resembles a sort of family album with its bountiful photographs and clippings). While some readers may be taken aback by that choice, it is impossible to read young Nadja Spiegelman’s (Art’s daughter) and not be stirred once again by the intergenerational resonance of the Holocaust. And one is reminded once again that Maus itself is, above all, a meditation on the inter-generational transmission of trauma. Indeed, the current edition of Maus is dedicated to Nadja and her brother Dashiell (a burden she feels is symbolically intended for her entire generation and “a lot to carry forward” [84]). Accordingly, one is chilled by this unanticipated echo: “My grandparents were this secret that I didn’t know anything about. My dad never talked about his parents, and I knew that it was for a reason. I sensed that he had shut the difficult things into this book…it scared me to read it” (84). Given her father’s own struggle with reverberating silence, there is a palpable, poignant irony here. As for Françoise’s musings, it is fascinating to learn about the remarkably strong rapport she developed with Vladek (she happily converted solely for his sake over Art’s own vehement objections), in contrast to Art who only grew more impatient over time. As for their wedding, the most memorable memento seems to be a photo which she says features “Vladek looking in one direction, very happy, and Art looking the other way, and they’re at polar opposites of each other” (98). Issues of intergenerational reception also surface in an extensive section where Spiegelman addresses the fraught history of publishing his work in Poland and Germany. While Spiegelman has been resolute on insisting on the same cover, lettering, and format in each of the book’s foreign editions (roughly thirty languages to date), the German publishers initially refused to use the usual cover exhibiting the swastika due to a national law forbidding its display (eventually the German government granted permission). Spiegelman also recalls the extraordinary intensity attending the book’s launching at the 1987 Frankfurt Book Fair. On one occasion, Spiegelman relates that an aggressive reporter shouted “ ‘Don’t you think that a comic book about Auschwitz is in bad taste?’ I liked my response. I said, ‘No, I thought Auschwitz was in bad taste’” (155).

In terms of Spiegelman’s post-Maus endeavors, MetaMaus highlights often seems like an increasingly restless reinvention. In that context it is illuminating to learn that his ideal model of an artist was always James Joyce, who “had three or four different incarnations of himself, each represented by works that were stylistically, thematically vaguely related to each other, but were almost the works of different creatures….I had this notion that my first collection of work, Breakdowns, was going to be a fractal, a paradigm of what I wanted to do in longer, larger terms. The pieces [including the famous three-page version of “Maus” as well as “Prisoner on the Hell Planet”] were all there in Breakdowns” (104). Today he sounds decidedly rueful about the dreams of his younger self to produce a work as complex and textured as Ulysses.

Today it is hard to grasp just how the Pulitzer-winning Maus came to be rejected by over twenty publishers (as Spiegelman ruefully recalled on one occasion “sometimes really gruffly and perfunctorily, and sometimes with soul-searching agony, because an editor really liked it but couldn’t figure out how on earth to put such a book out”).  Most entertainingly, a number of these are included here for posterity, in all their apologetic, convoluted, rationalizing, and devastatingly clueless glory. Even for those long familiar with the fact that Spiegelman fashioned Maus on the foundation of hours of audio interviews with his father Vladek, many of the details of this arduous process (in which other family members and friends were also consulted) in which he struggled to capture his cadences and speech pattern in the reduced medium of captions and balloons, as well as other research efforts to corroborate his father’s story are beyond compelling and MetaMaus will enthrall anyone who wishes to come closer to understanding the mysteries of the artistic process of discovery and invention.

Ranen Omer-Sherman, University of Miami

Art Spiegelmann, MetaMaus. A Look inside a Modern Classic (New York: Pantheon Books, 2011), pp. 299 & DVD.

How to quote this article:
Ranen Omer-Sherman,
discussion of Art Spiegelmann,
MetaMaus. A Look inside a Modern Classic,
Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Journal of the Fondazione CDEC,
n. 04,
November 2012
DOI: 10.48248/issn.2037-741X/702