December 25, 2008
The ‘Maus’ that roared
Art Spiegelman, the cartoonist whose graphic memoir, "Maus," won a Pulitzer Prize, was in town recently to promote a reissue of "Breakdowns," a collection of his underground comics work first published in 1978.|
As Spiegelman pointed out to me, his name in German means "Mirror Man" (mine means "Pond-wood") -- and revisiting "Breakdowns," now subtitled, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!" was like finding a letter you'd written 30 years ago. For this new edition, Spiegelman spent two years drawing an introduction in comic book form, a series of vignettes that Spiegelman described as "a demo of how memory works" as well as a prose afterword -- an elaborate consideration of the most fundamental of questions -- "Who am I? How did I become this way? How did I become an artist and what inspired this work?"
Spiegelman was born in 1949 (in Sweden, of all places). His parents, Polish Holocaust survivors, were making their way to the United States, en route to landing in New York City, where they lived in Washington Heights and Rego Park. As he renders in the new introduction, Spiegelman started drawing early and as a child became besotted with newspaper comics and with Mad Magazine. He published his first cartoons at 13 in a local newspaper, and by the time he was 18, he had landed a summer job working for Topps Chewing Gum (which included cartoons in the gum wrappers) under the legendary Woody Gelman, where he met some of the now-celebrated early comic strip artists, as well as some rising talent, among them Robert "R" Crumb.
Spiegelman attended Harpur College in Binghamton, N.Y. (now part of Binghamton University). It was the '60s! Sex, LSD and combinations of both blew his mind, while trips to San Francisco, the East Village and a Vermont commune put flowers in his hair, or at least in some of his drawings.
Although his parents wanted him to be a dentist, a breakdown (of the mental hospital kind) made clear that was never going to happen. That same year, 1969, Spiegelman's mother committed suicide. In his comic book depiction of her death, Spiegelman dubbed it "the perfect crime," saying that in killing herself she murdered a part of him and at the same time left him "to take the rap."
After his mother's death, Spiegelman returned to Binghamton, where filmmaker Ken Jacobs inspired him to think of himself as an artist. Studying the way early cartoons anthropomorphized animals in one of Jacobs' classes gave Spiegelman his "Eureka!" moment. He decided to create a comic in which the victims would be drawn as mice, and the persecutors as cats. It would be about ... race in America! Imagine Ku Klux Kats lynching black mice! It seemed genius -- that is until Spiegelman realized he knew, as he put it, "bupkis about being black in America."
Justin Green, one of the cartoonists Spiegelman had befriended in San Francisco, had asked him to contribute a short strip to an underground comic to be called, "Funny Animals." Spiegelman decided to apply his earlier idea to a different tack -- his own life. The three-page cartoon Spiegelman produced in a month's time in 1972 was called "Maus." It was about a father who tells his young mouse son "bedtime stories" about his time in Mauschwitz. He drew it in a very simple black-and-white direct style, as he called it, "conventional in form, radical in content." Later that same year, Spiegelman would draft a German Expressionist style narrative called, "Prisoner on Hell Planet" about his mother's suicide.
Over the next six years, Spiegelman experimented with a variety of comic book forms, incorporating elements of pulp detective fiction and porno films, referencing everything from the Sunday funnies of the early 1900s to Cubism and riding a "New Wave" in his work that, much like the movies or music of the time, mixed high art with low to find new forms. This was the work collected in the 1978 "Breakdowns," the title of which is a play on words alluding both to the artistic term break-down, to Spiegelman's own mental anguishes and his breakthrough artwork.
Much like Norman Mailer's "Advertisements for myself," "Breakdowns" was meant to make the case for Spiegelman's art. "For me," Spiegelman notes in his new afterword, "Breakdowns" is "a manifesto, a diary, a crumpled suicide note and a still- relevant love letter to a medium I adore."
Spiegelman then decided to expand "Maus" into a book-length work. When people asked him how long it would take to finish "Maus," he would answer "two or three years," which he now says was "idiotic because I was saying that for years and years."
In 1982, his father died. During our conversation, I suggested that perhaps one of the reasons "Maus" took so long was that Spiegelman couldn't finish it while his father was still alive.
Spiegelman admitted that although he had hoped to finish the work while his father was still alive, his death, "may have made certain things easier." "My relationship with my father improved a lot after he died," Spiegelman explained. "I bristle when people ask if I think of my comics as therapy, but I will say that to act out [Vladek's part] in this, which is what you have to do in order to draw any decent strip ... was a kind of gestalt thing to see it from his point of view."
"Maus" was first published in book form in 1986 (in part to beat out Spielberg's animated movie about a mouse, "An American Tail"), and "Maus II" came out in 1991. "Maus" won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 -- requiring a special category since its form was considered so unconventional.
"Maus" also became a tough act to follow. In a comic strip called "Pop Art" that is part of the new intro to "Breakdowns," Spiegelman draws himself fleeing from a giant Maus-like mouse monument, saying "No matter how much I run I can't seem to get out of that Mouse's shadow." The success of "Maus," he now says, was "constricting."
Then came Sept. 11.
For Spiegelman, who lived in lower Manhattan with his family, the event was profoundly affecting. Having spent much of his life living with the specter of his father's cataclysm, he now found that "something one might call history was intersecting with my story in a direct way." (I suggested to Spiegelman that this was like the scene in "Hannah and her Sisters" where Woody Allen plays a hypochondriac who visits his doctor and is shocked to find out that he might indeed be deathly ill).
"One of the things I felt that morning [was]... 'Schmuck, you should have done more comics.' I feel it's like what I can do best. Even though it's hard."
Spiegelman started to draw large one-page panels, which a friend who was editor of Germany's "Die Zeit" offered to publish with a "no editing" clause (The New Yorker, where he had worked for many years, passed). Over the next year, Spiegelman drew 10 pages. Publishers from England, Italy and France carried it -- "A coalition of the willing," as Spiegelman called it, and eventually it was published in the United States in The Forward, which had also published "Maus" in serial form. It also came out finally in book form with the title, "In the Shadow of No Towers."
Keeping his vow to make more comics, Spiegelman has several works forthcoming: He just did a volume for Toon Books (www.toon-books.com), whose editorial director is Francoise Mouly, Spiegelman's wife and frequent collaborator (he's listed on the Web site as "series advisor"). He's also done a collection of three different sketchbooks to be published by McSweeny's, as a well as "Meta Maus," an update of the 1994 "Maus Voyager" CD-ROM, to be published by Criterion. And he is working on a new comic that, he says, "I refuse to talk about what it would be, because that would sure kill it."
As much as "Maus" owes to the legacy of his father, Vladek, Spiegelman feels equally that "all of my work before that and after that [owes] a lot to the fathers who made the Sunday comics from 1900."
"Maybe that's the way I am Jewish," Spiegelman said. "I was lecturing somewhere on Yom Kippur, and I explained that I didn't observe the High Holy Days, since I haven't gotten high since about 1980. [However]... in many ways the Jewishness has to do with carrying a history."
"The irony for me is that I am involved in this Oedipal struggle, and now here I am this patriarch of comics who's in a kind of Oedipal target position for younger comics, who might think I'm taking up too much oxygen."
Reflecting on the way comics have changed since he first published "Breakdowns," Spiegelman said, "When I was growing up, if you went into a bar and told this woman that you drew comic books, it wasn't a really surefire pick-up line.... Now it seems to be as good as saying that I play bass in some punk band."
The current comics explosion that has birthed Comic-Con and made graphic novels hot literary properties for the movies, is "part of the trifecta that just happened to comics."
"Now comics can be anything," Spiegelman said, "that includes a literary or visual arts comic that could find its way into bookstores or museums easily." Much as that makes Spiegelman happy, it also concerns him.
"I've been fretting recently [that] I placed my bet on this when it was an unusual place to be. It seems I'm living in a Phillip K. Dick world -- like I willed it into existence somehow. Now, in the last eight years, is when it's really flourished. Comics can now be a serious medium -- as opposed to ephemeral garbage. I'm worrying perhaps that I used up the seriousness quotient for the planet and it ended up being in comics; so now the world of political and social arena has no adults left in it."
One could say it was as if from "Maus" to now, the Mirror Man and the comics he begat had passed through the looking glass.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week and his new Tommywood (the blog) appears daily, pretty much.