Art Spiegelman didn’t set out to write a genre-bending, Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the horrors of the Holocaust.
“My idea was to make a very long comic book, that needed a bookmark,” Spiegelman, 70, said in a phone interview last week from his studio in New York. “Later, I come to find out that’s now called a graphic novel. There wasn’t a word for it.”
The work Spiegelman produced, “Maus,” tells the personal story of the young artist learning about his parents’ internment at the Auschwitz death camp in World War II. Vladek, his father, and mother, Anja, escaped the war, but Anja would later commit suicide, and Spiegelman’s guilt is a central theme of the work. Its signature look, driven by Spiegelman’s decision to depict his Jewish characters as mice and the Nazis that pursued them as cats, has led to the work being taught in all levels of American classrooms as a historical record, a psychological examination and perhaps the most academically studied comic in history. On Tuesday, Spiegelman will talk about the state of the modern comic at Gonzaga University, in a lecture titled, “What the %@&*! Happened to Comics?”
For Spiegelman, it’s still strange to consider the book he wrote over a 13-year period would be taught to students of any age. He didn’t write “Maus” with the intention of producing a cautionary tale even though he said scholarly study of the Holocaust was limited at the time.
“I was able to do all my reading, everything I could get my hands on in English through a library set of loans, in about three weeks,” he said. “Now, it would take three lifetimes.”
He also didn’t consider a resurgence of the philosophy that drove the feline antagonists of his work. Nazi flags flew last year during the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the death of a counter-protester, Heather Heyer.
“I’m horrified and scared by it, basically,” Spiegelman said. “I’ve always been the guy, you know, ‘The sky is falling. The sky is falling.’ Now, I think, we’re closer to the sky falling than I ever can remember it.
“There’s not much to be proud of here. It’s like, memory gets erased all too easily within one generation,” he continued. “Then all of a sudden, it’s the big conga line toward horror, and war, and death, starts swarming again.”
Meagan Ciesla, an assistant professor of English literature at Gonzaga University who is coordinating Spiegelman’s visit, said it wasn’t exclusively the cartoonist’s depictions of Nazi cruelty, and its more recent appearances in the American public square, that were the chief motivators in inviting him to speak during this year’s writer series.
“His talk is really going to be about the history of comics and Judaism in comics,” Ciesla said. “He’s one of the ones who really put comics on the map as a kind of formal and important craft.”
“Maus” was released in serialized form in the 1980s, at the tail end of what was known as the “golden age” of superhero comics produced by blockbuster publishers DC Comics and Marvel. The big budget, Hollywood blockbusters that brought names like Deadpool and Star Lord into American homes were still several decades off, but there was a tonal shift going on in the comics landscape with more mature-themed titles like “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight Returns” tackling divisive social issues.
“Maus” was lumped in with those works by Frank Miller and Alan Moore. But what they really showed was the breadth of the medium’s reach, Spiegelman said.
“ ‘Dark Knight’ and ‘Watchmen’ are different from each other, but ‘Maus’ is more different than them, than they are from each other,” Spiegelman said. “It just came from a different side of the street. But between them, it indicated that you don’t have to be a 9-year-old, or have a very low IQ, to read comic books.”
Spiegelman’s masterwork avoided larger-than-life characters, like Miller’s Superman-tackling Bruce Wayne or Moore’s azure-hued quasi-deity Dr. Manhattan. Though his panels were full of cats, frogs and (of course) mice, all of them possessed characteristics that were uniquely human: fear, jealousy, depression and racism. The work, published in full for the first time in 1991, earned Spiegelman a special Pulitzer Prize. Despite subsequent work for the cover of The New Yorker, including an arresting version of the Twin Towers in two-tone black following the 9/11 attacks, “Maus” remains his widest-sweeping contribution to the medium.
While acknowledging that much of the current fascination with comics has to do with spandex-clad heroes on the big screen, Spiegelman said comics afford a broader spectrum of storytelling for young artists and thinkers. Even if the possibilities of doing it for a living have evaporated, along with the number of comic strips in newspapers.
“At this point, there’s as many people who think of comics as young adult fiction,” Spiegelman said. “A bunch of middle-school girls, you know? That’s something that just didn’t used to exist, and now being considered in some corners as an art form, unto itself.”
In 2018, for the first time in its history, a graphic novel was in the running for the Man Booker prize, a literary award given annually to the best piece of English fiction published in England. Chicago-born Nick Drnaso’s “Sabrina” isn’t a finalist, but critics heralded the nomination of the comic – the first such work to be nominated in the prize’s 49-year history – as a breakthrough moment.
Ciesla hopes the appearance will kickstart interest in the medium within Gonzaga’s English department. There is no dedicated study of graphic novels or comics in the university’s academic catalog, although some instructors will include popular works in their classes, she said. Ciesla has assigned Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” a graphic memoir that was later turned into a Tony-winning musical of the same name, to her students.
“Writing is changing, and it’s becoming a lot more multimodal,” Ciesla said. “To bring someone to campus who’s a writer, and an artist, it’s a great way to get our students thinking about form as it relates to the message or purpose of their writing.”
Spiegelman said his message and purpose for writing “Maus” wasn’t to remind people of the atrocities that human beings can commit, and to remind them “never again,” instead focusing on his own place in a world where such atrocities can occur. Spiegelman pushed against a request from the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., to include an exhibit on “Maus,” instead suggesting they use artifacts and images from the violence in the former Yugoslavia, where an estimated 130,000-plus people died as a result of brutal wars for independence.
“They said, well what will we call such an exhibit?” Spiegelman said. “And I said, how about, ‘Never again, and again, and again’?”
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