The Daily Heller: The Maus That Roars

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Last year, Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivors Tale, the Pulitzer Prize–winning genre-defining comics memoir, became embroiled in the Talibanning of race, gender and history books in American school libraries and classrooms. Maus was removed from the shelves following a 10-0 vote by the McMinn County, TN, school board for profanity (although, really now, what single words could be more profane than the reality of the Holocaust itself?) and nudity (there is one panel showing Spiegleman’s mother in the bathtub having commited suicide). Prompting a national backlash, it drew attention to other book banning around the country. Since Maus is a target of culture wars, Spiegelman had to accept the role of an anti-censorship crusader.

As the preeminent advocate for comics—which, for most of the 20th century, was ignored by the arts and letters establishment and considered unworthy of critical scholarship—Spiegelman has shown through his lectures and published strips and books why the medium now enjoys its rightful place as a wellspring of personal expression and deep reflection.

The esteem Spiegelman has earned is not only for Maus, a hybrid of autobiography and oral history (it is the precursor of today’s graphic novel), but also for his zealous experimentation that has paved the way for comics to be reckoned with as ART. If Spiegelman’s long list of awards and major exhibitions was not enough to cement his successful straddle of low and high culture, we have a new 400+ page book of authoritative critical essays that delve deep into literature, visual art and Holocaust studies to explain in minute detail why Maus is already in the canon of the most-respected 20th-century books regardless of genre.

Cover design by Chip Kidd

Maus Now: Selected Writing (Pantheon), edited by Hillary Chute, distinguished professor of art and design at Northwestern University, bolsters Spiegelman’s rightful place in history through various cultural, scholarly and philosophical texts that dissect and analyze facets of Maus’ form, format and what makes it such a seminal opus in a unprecedented discipline that has spawned and influenced hundreds of subsequent graphic novels.

In the mid-1960, Spiegelman came of age as a taboo-busting Underground comics artist rebelling against moral restrictions imposed by the industry’s self-censoring Comics Code Authority. Spiegelman made the decision not to kowtow to those who demeaned or demonized comics but instead to seriously practice the form along with its litany of tropes and conventions—including sequential framing, pictorial narratives, speech balloons and splash panels—and was one of the creators of what were termed comix (the ‘x’ was coined during the underground press era) as a transgressive but rapidly expanding language. What was once considered gutter grammar became a platform for complex fiction and nonfiction, short and long storytelling, satire and protest. Spiegelman and his cohorts in the Underground Press opened the floodgates of unfettered expression for a wave of renegades who broadly pushed taboo tales that became a cultural vernacular.

Following in the wake of twentieth century progressive comics pioneers who influenced his own work— Winsor McCay, George Herriman, Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman and Jules Feiffer—Spiegleman has been the most restless of innovators. His goal to transform comics into an essential medium allowed him to bring ’60s Underground comics to a level that encouraged greater artistic freedom. With his wife, New Yorker art editor Francoise Mouly, they co-published RAW, an unprecedented post-underground/postmodern journal that showcased a wide range of inventive comics and graphic narratives. Yet the key that opened the door to his current status as cultural influence is Maus, arguably one of the most humanist and emotionally raw explorations of the Jewish Holocaust, conveyed through the transformation of Nazis and Jews into anthropomorphic cats and mice.

Complex sketches drawn in color for black-and-white finishes are used as endpapers

Chute’s well-chosen selections for this anthology include arguments, musings and explanations (many profusely footnoted) of why this unconventional method of memoir and recollection using animals as surrogates is appropriate to the theme. The essayists point in many directions, including borrowing from the history of fables, using metaphors to illuminate the human tragedy and building on intense oral history. Spiegelman invented a language for relating the Holocaust as recalled by his father, Vladek, a Polish-born Auschwitz survivor. Vladek is the fulcrum of Maus, along with a Maus-masked Spiegelman, who digs into the depths of his parents’ “Mauswitz” experiences, while simultaneously self-analyzing his own deep-seated feelings as the son of survivor parents and the ill-fated brother he never met.

The essays in Maus Now run in a sequence that builds as Maus is accepted into the zeitgeist. After Chute’s contextualizing introduction (which serves as a brief self-contained overview of Maus), the essays and themes that follow address aspects of comics form and content, Holocaust psyschology, graphic symbolism and verbal language, and how wit and humor perform throughout this narrative structure—all contributing to Maus being unequivocally accepted by pundits and intellectuals as across many areas of critical thinking.

I’ve known Spiegelman for over 40 years and I am embarrassed to admit, I did not think Maus was such a good idea (disrespectful, I said) when he first told me about his plan for a serialized series about the Holocaust in RAW and its first iteration in the comic book, Funny Animals. But my mind changed once I saw the first RAW installment and realized it was biography of a real time, place and characters. Suggesting that Maus get a closer look, my wife, Louise Fili, art director of Pantheon Books, brought it to then-publisher Andre Schiffrin, after it had already been rejected by his own editors and a score of other publishing houses. I was also in attendance when music and book reviewer Ken Tucker was assigned to write the first major critique of the as-yet-unpublished book (and I urged an already enthusiastic New York Times Book Review editor, Rebecca Sinkler, to break policy and publish Tucker’s story as a work-in-progress (and a comic strip, no less). It was after that first Times article (republished as the second essay in Maus Now) that the gravity of writing about Maus began to take on more critical weight. Tucker had to explain an alien concept (a comic about surviving the Nazis) to an audience who mostly knew nothing about Underground or adult comics or held the stereotypical view of comics in general going back to their childhoods — and he did so with aplomb. Subsequent writers had their own intellectual, structural and cultural challenges.

Maus Now is at times a little repetitious for being variations and perspectives of the same subject, but what it nonetheless reveals is the quick-paced evolution of a critical vocabulary for addressing the work. In her intro, Chute quotes Spiegelman as stating, in his only slight direct intrusion into her editorial role, as being okay about republishing negative arguments. Amusingly, even the one essay that started off somewhat argumentative turned out to an accolade. But these essays are not lengthy superlatives; they expand the understanding of a major work.

I have lived with Maus from its creative inception to initial audience reception and beyond. I have read it a half dozen times and talked to Spiegelman about it more times than I can count. I couldn’t conceive of learning anything new, however, Maus Now offers fresh insights on the book and its creator that I had never considered before. Even minor bits, like this revelation buried in one essay: Maus rhymes with Raus!—the bone chilling command (meaning get out!) used by Nazis when clearing out nests’ of Jews! I never before made that connection.