Art Spiegelman shattered the conventions of comic books and Holocaust literature with the publication of “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel
that depicts the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice. Now, a quarter-century after the publication of “Maus,” Spiegelman allows us to glimpse the origins, making and enduring impact of his courageous masterpiece in “MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus” (Pantheon: $35).
Spiegelman credits Hillary Chute, an English professor at the University of Chicago, with inspiring and “enabling” him to create “MetaMaus,” which draws on four years of interviews by Chute and what he calls “my rat’s nest of files, archives, artwork, notebooks, journals, books and dirty laundry.” The result is an eye-catching and highly kinetic book-and-DVD package of art and text, conversation and reminiscence, photos, drawings and audio clips, all of which add up to an intimate family memoir, a detailed account of how a great work of art and literature came into existence, and a lively version of the kind of literary deconstruction that is ordinarily conducted in the dry prose of academic journals.
“Why comics?” asks an unseen interlocutor in one cartoon panel. “Why mice?!” “Why the Holocaust?!” The author, depicting himself as a skeleton in a mouse mask, answers: “Yikes!” And then adds: “… Or to quote my forefathers: Oy!”
No intimate detail is left out. Spiegelman reveals that he discovered the Holocaust at the age of 13 when he was searching out a copy of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” in his mother’s private collection of books and happened upon “Minister of Death: The Adolf Eichmann Story.” His parents only reluctantly revealed their own experiences as survivors of the Holocaust, and his mother later took her own life, but he succeeded in extracting the real-life story that is played out in “Maus.” The theme of his reminiscences is the restless search for a safe place in which to encounter his parents and their horrific experiences and, at the same time, a way to define himself as an artist and a writer.
“The irony is just that the safety zone in my relationship with my father took place in discussing the moments when he was least safe, and where there were just such high stakes and disaster everywhere,” Spiegelman explains. “My impulse to become a cartoonist had something to do with finding a zone that was not my parent’s zone. It was my assimilation into the American culture that was closed to my parents, and it gave me a zone of safety from them.”
Spiegelman is brave and candid about the risks he took in using the tools of the cartoonist to depict the events of the Holocaust and about his own motives in doing so. “I didn’t think in terms of making a text about the Holocaust,” he explains. “The book was a text about my … my struggle, ‘mein kampf.’ And, within that context, I was just trying to tell the story without falling into the two pits on either side of the project: either coming off as a cynical wisenheimer about something that had genuine enormity, or being sentimental, a form of trivialization on the other side of that road.”
The impact of “MetaMaus” owes much to the artifacts that are displayed on its pages — bar mitzvah photos, early sketches from “Maus,” and the source material he consulted in his research, among much else. For example, he reproduces the rejection letters he received from America’s most important agents and publishers, most of whom managed to miss the point of the book in ways that should embarrass them. “It was very clever and funny,” wrote one famous figure, then at Knopf, “but right now we are publishing several comic strip-cartoon books, and I think it is too soon to take on another one.”
Spiegelman, by contrast, is an acute observer of the culture in which he lives and works, which helps to explain how he was able to navigate so deftly through the minefield of a comic book about the Holocaust. His editor at Pantheon, for example, feared a backlash from the Jewish community and recommended that he “just move to the country for a while and lie low,” but it turned out that America — if not Israel — was ready for a Holocaust comic book.
“If anything, I guess my fellow American Diasporists could accept the self-deprecating image of Jews as cute, fuzzy rodents,” he observes. “But I think that one of the reasons Israelis were never quite comfortable with the book is that the image of mice contains the stereotype of Jews as pathetic and defenseless creatures.”
The author acknowledges that the critical and financial success of “Maus” changed his own life, but he also discloses the moral burden that came with the honors and the royalty checks: “I’d incurred an obligation to the dead.” In “MetaMaus,” he has discharged that obligation and, at the same time, he has enriched our experience of his important work in a rare and significant way.