October 10, 2011
Art Spiegelman: Behind the Mouse Mask
Wearing a three-piece suit and looking more elder statesman than the artist he is, Art Spiegelman addressed an audience of about 100 at the high-toned Soho House on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood late in the afternoon of Oct. 9. The occasion was the taping of a conversation with book scholar Michael Silverblatt, host of the KCRW public radio program “Bookworm,” who on this occasion was recording for a new online-only program, “UpClose,” which KCRW will edit and then post on the Web on Oct. 19.
This conversation was, according to a media release, to be one of only three such public interviews Spiegelman plans to submit to on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his Pulitzer Prize-winning series, “Maus I” and “Maus II.” And in honor of this anniversary, Spiegelman has just published “MetaMaus,” subtitled “A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus,” a new book and DVD that includes exhaustive material explaining the making of the autobiographical books about his relationship with his Holocaust-survivor father and the telling of his father’s story, where Jews are drawn as mice, Poles as pigs, Nazis as cats and Americans as dogs. (Journal Book Editor Jonathan Kirsch’s review of “MetaMaus” can be found here.)
In a short press briefing before the talk, Spiegelman confessed he’d hoped that in creating a complete exposé on his work he might preempt events like the one he was about to undergo: “I thought I would be able to say, ‘Just look at Page 227,’ ” he joked. A chain-smoker ill at ease with settings that don’t allow him to light up, he was nevertheless clearly anxious to accommodate his audience, even as he seemed just as anxious to be finished.
Of course, he is also keenly aware of his own accomplishment and the responsibilities it carries; it would be impossible not to be, given the attention the books have garnered — “Maus” was included among the top 100 books of the 20th century in a New York Public Library exhibition, and, in 2005, Spiegelman was named “one of the top 100 most influential people in the world” by Time magazine. (“They didn’t even give me a free subscription!” he quipped when Silverblatt mentioned this.) Nevertheless, in creating “MetaMaus,” Spiegelman has taken his own archival responsibilities far further than most artists, creating yet another work of book art, while probably hoping to leave little for future historians to dig out. Most moving are the taped recordings of Spiegelman’s father’s voice on the DVD, which the artist said allow, finally, “my father to speak in his own voice after having turned him into a marionette, to speak for himself without a mouse mask.”
On stage, Spiegelman was more comfortable talking about the form he helped invent — the now-ubiquitous graphic novel — than about the Holocaust and his own parents’ survival. “My goals were to tell a story in a long-form comic book that needs to be read, and to tell a fictional history of a cartoonist,” Spiegelman said.
And along the way, his books described the Holocaust in an entirely new way, from a second-generation point of view, at a time when the notion of the effects of the Holocaust on a survivor’s offspring had not yet begun to be fully revealed.
It took the artist some 13 years from his first taped interviews to complete the project, and through it, he said, “I had to develop calluses,” a draftsman’s metaphor for an emotional toll.
“I draw with some agony,” he said, adding that it took him years to figure out what he was doing. Discussing the Holocaust with his father became, he said, “three-quarters of what we talked about together.” His mother, who committed suicide when Spiegelman was 20, had often dropped hints when young Art was growing up, but his father told him, as quoted in the book, “Nobody wants to hear such stories.” Not surprisingly, the horror and pain of the subject were not easy to reprocess when he began to work on turning the interviews into a book: “When I started, in 1978, the first few years were very private and fraught. I found myself holding it away because of the subject matter, so as not to get burned,” Spiegelman told his audience.
Making “MetaMaus,” he found himself once again subsumed by the same emotions — even as he revealed himself to historian Hillary Chute, whose probing Q-and-A-format interview makes up much of the new book’s content. “What was horrifying for me with ‘MetaMaus’ was that I had to do it all over again. To look at those photos and the devastation that had to be overcome, it was a reimmersion that was very difficult,” Spiegelman said.
But also, as someone who grew up on MAD magazine and who once described the story of his own mother’s suicide through a strip called “Prisoner on Hell Planet” (included in “MetaMaus”), Spiegelman admitted that, despite the horror, his method was “betraying my father and somehow honoring him simultaneously.”
“I wasn’t out to tell people ‘never again,’ or ‘you’ve got to be nice to each other,’ ” Spiegelman said, adding later, “It is about trying to figure out what it means to be left with something that wasn’t cathartic.”
It’s probably worth mentioning — and remains to be seen how these will be handled online — that there were two surprises during the event: One came as Silverblatt was asking a very long-winded question, during which Spiegelman, in an unusual move, walked off the stage for a quick bathroom break. The second was that the artist, at the 11th hour, on stage, decided not to go through with a book-signing because he couldn’t smoke inside the venue. These two moments, both of which made the audience break into laughter, revealed more of the truly quirky artist we’d come to see than the statesman who’d dressed so well for the occasion.
A podcast of “UpClose,” the edited version of the conversation between Art Spiegelman and Michael Silverblatt, will be available as of Oct. 19..