Famous First Words: Maus
“When I was a kid growing up, I wasn’t overwhelmed by thoughts of the death camp,” Art Spiegelman once explained in an interview. “It just entered into the mix, just like I suppose a child of an alcoholic doesn’t think of anything specifically unusual about a parent that passes out at 6 p.m. It didn’t seem unusual until I moved away from home and went to college—then, in retrospect, it seemed that maybe my roommates’ parents didn’t wake up screaming in the middle of the night.”
Art Spiegelman was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1948, but his story began in Poland. His father, Vladek, and mother, Anja, had already lived an eternity before his birth, spending much of their early married life in the death camps during World War II and surviving through a combination of chance and ruthless guile that hadn’t been enough for so many others. Spiegelman never knew his older brother, Richieu, who had died in a bunker during the war, poisoned by his aunt together with two other children and herself to escape the fate of the death camps. In 1951, the Spiegelman family left their adopted home and immigrated to the United States, settling in Norristown, Pennsylvania. They moved again in 1955 and put down roots in the Rego Park neighborhood of Queens, New York.
Though his parents had always hoped that he would become a dentist, it was Spiegelman’s mother who instigated his career when she gave him his first Mad magazine anthology. There was no going back after that. Spiegelman’s first experiments with his own cartoons began in earnest in 1960, and by 1963 he was publishing them wherever he could, including in the pages of his fanzine, Blasé. At the age of 16, he was already getting paid for his art, selling illustrations to the Long Island Post and other publications in his spare time while attending Manhattan’s High School of Art and Design, where he majored in cartooning. He then enrolled at Harpur College (now Binghamton University) and continued to develop his personal philosophy and aesthetic as the staff cartoonist at his college paper and during a stretch as editor of a local humor magazine.
In the summer of 1966, Spiegelman got hired as a creative consultant at the Topps Chewing Gum company—he had met the company’s art director while in high school and had been encouraged to apply for a job there after graduation—providing illustration and development for the Topps line of novelty trading cards, stickers, and candy products. It was the start of an association that would last more than twenty years, with Spiegelman playing a role in the creation of some of the most enduring artifacts of collectible parody (Garbage Pail Kids, Wacky Packages, et al.) on the market during that period. It was also during this time that he first began to build his reputation in the emerging underground comix community, hawking his wares on street corners and then as a freelance artist for a variety of independent magazines and newspapers.
His studies came to an abrupt end in 1968, when a psychological breakdown led to a brief stay at Binghamton State Mental Hospital. While in recovery there, Spiegelman was notified that his mother had committed suicide after a long history of depression. He was released from the hospital to attend her funeral, an experience that he would chronicle a few years later in a stark and disquieting autobiographical account entitled “Prisoner on the Hell Planet.” Eventually, Spiegelman returned to his work, contributing to a succession of magazines in New York as a cartoonist and illustrator before moving to San Francisco in 1971.
It wasn’t long before his work was familiar to a West Coast readership as well. In 1972, a three-page comic strip by Spiegelman appeared in an underground anthology called Funny Aminals. The story, titled “Maus,” was a depiction of the events of the Holocaust told through the subjugation of a collection of terrified mice by their feline oppressors (referred to as die Katzen). Spiegelman’s singular interpretation caused an immediate stir among disciples of the form, with secondhand copies circulating freely to feed a rapidly expanding audience. “Maus” got a bit more press after Spiegelman moved back to New York City in 1975 and the story was reprinted in an anthology published by Marvel Comics, achieving certified mainstream status as a favorite of Spiegelman’s extensive catalog.
And the story remained as a free-standing, three-page statement for several years as Spiegelman continued to earn a respectable income freelancing for an increasingly eager list of clients. When he married Françiose Mouly, an artist and editor, in 1977, the pair began to merge their respective expertise. The first volume of RAW, a comics and graphic art anthology (originally conceived by Mouly as a personal imprint called “Raw Books and Graphics” in 1978), was launched in July of 1980, featuring some of Spiegelman’s artwork among the other entries. It was the second issue, however, released in December of the same year, that contained the opening episode of what would become Spiegelman’s most influential and—for him—inexorable composition.
Spiegelman had started interviewing his father in 1972, hoping to gain a more instructive understanding of the experiences of his father and others who had lived through Hitler’s regime in Western Europe. His relationship with his father had always been contentious at its very best, and his inability to connect with a man who was so fundamentally defined by such a horrific past proved to be an exceptionally complicated problem to remedy. Spiegelman kept trying, with varying degrees of success, until Vladek passed away in 1982.
Those burdensome and often painful attempts at comprehension are chronicled right along with his father’s account of life in the death camps in Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, subtitled My Father Bleeds History. The story extends the concept of the original comic but is more explicit in its delivery, its cast of characters now unambiguously identified—mice as Jews and cats as Germans (with dogs and pigs in supporting roles as American GIs and non-Jewish Poles, respectively). Four more chapters of Maus were serialized in RAW over the next few years, ultimately compiled with a closing sixth and picked up by Pantheon Books, who published the completed graphic novel in 1986.
But Spiegelman felt that he still had more to say on the matter, leaving for Poland in 1987 so that he could start researching the next part of the story. In 1991, Pantheon released Maus II, subtitled And Here My Troubles Began, which focuses even more intently on the experience of Spiegelman’s parents in Auschwitz and on the conflict between Spiegelman and his father, relating both of their efforts to accomplish some small measure of empathy where it had never existed before. The two books are now generally regarded (and packaged) as a single work, and however unsettling Spiegelman’s particular vision may have been for many when the first pages were published, Maus quickly established itself as one of the most indelible documents on the subject of the Holocaust by any author, in any format. (“Don’t you think that a comic book about Auschwitz is in bad taste?” goes the famous inquiry from an irate reporter as it was recalled by the author. “No,” he answered. “I thought Auschwitz was in bad taste.”)
Maus continues to fuel an unceasing stream of dissertations, documentaries, and exhibitions. It scored a Pulitzer Prize for Spiegelman in 1992. The text is taught to children, and it serves as the basis for a surplus of post-graduate coursework. Despite everything that Spiegelman created leading up to it and everything he produced afterward, “that cat-and-mouse graphic novel about the Holocaust” is the only book that people ever want to talk to him about, even if they’re polite enough to ask him something else first. Spiegelman has had plenty of time to come to terms with this reality of his career, though, and he’s clearly at peace with it now. MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus was published in 2011, an absolutely exhaustive resource by Spiegelman detailing the history behind the formation of the book that he’ll never quite escape.