Arena: Art Spiegelman and Of Cats and Mice

Maus – A Survivor’s Tale was probably not the first novel in comic form, as Spiegelman says maybe it was the Bayeux tapestry, but it certainly demolished any arguments that comic art could not be regarded as just as valid a vehicle for artistic expression as any other form. Published as a whole book in 1986, Maus is Spiegelman’s most intensely personal work, it’s a quest to understand the experience of his parents, Polish Jews, before and during the war.

Both survived Auschwitz. At its simplest he presents the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats. Spiegelman works on the edge. “My work life has consisted of finding the hardest thing I’m capable of to placate the hanging judge within.” The idea of a comic book about the Holocaust?? With Nazis as cats and Jews as mice?? Spiegelman pulled it off, to great acclaim.

The book is based on thirty hours of recordings Spiegelman made of conversations with his father, that in itself is one strand of the story. Spiegelman casts himself as a younger mouse insistently asking his father about his life and he doesn’t spare their difficult personal relationship. The book moves seamlessly between this contemporary mise en scène and his father Vladek’s memories.

I first met Spiegelman at the end of 1980, I was making an Arena film about Superman as the archetypal comic strip hero and I wanted an alternative view to Truth, Justice and the American Way. He and his wife Francoise Mouly had just begun to publish their brilliant magazine RAW, a showcase for new comic talent from around the world. Each edition would contain an insert that would eventually become a chapter in Maus.

However, the idea of Maus was quite a bit older. It had first appeared as a three-page strip in 1972, the drawings are somewhat, not massively, different but the ideas are all in place. In 1972, Spiegelman was seen to be very much a part of a movement of new comic strip artists who emerged out of the counter-culture of the late ‘60s. Distancing his work from the cliches of superheroes, Spiegelman told me he sought “general expression of self rather than ritualised expression of fantasy, maybe make the reader work a little bit”. He’s certainly been true to his word.

The general expression of self could have been the manifesto of those comic strip artists who emerged in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The comic art of Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, Gilbert Shelton, Robert Crumb among others, was unlike anything seen before. It could be corruscatingly satirical about the norms of American society, it could be obscene, hilarious and always startlingly original. There was no name for their comic style, the comics were called Underground in parallel with the new music. The term pop could hardly describe The Grateful Dead or The Doors.

Anyone who imagined comics began and ended with Superman on the one hand and Peanuts on the other were in for a shock when presented with the likes of Last Gasp Comics. Spiegelman and Crumb in particular were merciless on the perceived social order of the day but they also subjected themselves to a ruthless moral scrutiny. Spiegelman’s work is invariably intensely personal, often unforgivingly so. It’s no coincidence that the magazine is called RAW.

Spiegelman has always been determined to explore and expand the language of comics, its formal potential. Maus is a tour de force of comic strip artistry, the relationship of the panels to each other, the way they guide the eye, different sizes, different angles and shapes to increase or relax the tension in the story. Sometimes he superimposes smaller panels on a large one, he occasionally inserts actual photographs or a map on to the page.

The book was hailed as an extraordinary breakthrough in the comic form, it attracted great interest, not least from Israeli producer Israel Goldvicht and Austrian director Georg Troller. Their idea was to make a film taking Spiegelman to Poland, to the key places that feature in the book. They came to us at Arena and asked if we wanted to co-produce the film. Knowing Spiegelman a little and admiring his work so much, I of course said yes.

Spiegelman is ambivalent about the experience and the film to say the least. He observes that the trip itself “was incredibly important to me as a way to research what had happened.” The film has powerful sequences, not least the juxtaposition of the book and the very locations at its core. However, he has gone on record to say that he felt the director was trying to manipulate and effectively commodify him to fit his own take. For Spiegelman’s critique of the whole thing, I’ll let him express that himself at the Arena at JBW event on the 17th May.

Spiegelman continued his work on Maus and in 1991 he finished a second volume, the two parts were published as one book and it was an even bigger success. Awards flowed in, including the Pulitzer Prize, Spiegelman was feted. Through the rest of the ‘90s, Spiegelman was a contributing artist to The New Yorker and designed numerous covers. Famously he and Mouly responded to 9/11 with a cover that was simply black at first sight, on closer inspection the silhouettes of the twin towers appeared in a slightly denser shade. He lives and works in SoHo in downtown Manhattan, just above the Business District. He witnessed 9/11 first hand from his apartment and that New Yorker cover became the cover of In The Shadow of No Towers, once again a deeply personal, brilliantly realised book.

Throughout his career, Spiegelman has been unswervingly dedicated to the cause of comics. Most recently he presented The Parade by a forgotten artist Si Lewin. During the war, Lewin had been in an advance unit of native German speakers in the American army and was among the first to enter Buchenwald. The Parade was a book with no words, only pictures and it describes the endless cycle that impels humans to go to war. It captured Spiegelman’s imagination. In 2016, at the age of 94, Lewin was delighted to see the publication of a beautiful reissue of the book that Spiegelman put together.

For comic art, Spiegelman has been a teacher, an ambassador and a master. Back in the early ‘70s he said, “As an art form, the comic strip is in its infancy, so am I. Maybe we’ll grow up together”. Spiegelman and comics have come of age.

Anthony Wall – Series Film Curator and Executive Producer, Arena at Jewish Book Week