Early in the second volume of Maus – the graphic novel about the Holocaust that made Art Spiegelman’s reputation – he includes a passage showing the reaction to the publication of volume one. The artist is sitting at his drawing board, perched atop a mountain of dead bodies, as a succession of importunate reporters crowd in bombarding him with questions: “Okay… let’s talk about Israel…” “Could you tell your audience if drawing Maus was cathartic? Do you feel better now?”
As the questions come in, he struggles to answer – “A message? I dunno…” “Who am I to say?” – and over the course of the following panels shrinks to the size of a toddler, marooned in his writing chair. “I want… ABSOLUTION. No… No… I want… I want… my MOMMY! WAH!” The reporters vanish, and mini-Spiegelman confesses: “Sometimes I just don’t feel like a functioning adult.”
Yet being adult is, in a way, what Spiegelman is famous for. In the age-old discussion about when comics finally “grew up” Maus is often exhibit A. The New Yorker called it “the first masterpiece in comic-book history”. It’s the comic that people who don’t read comics have read, and the only graphic novel ever to have won a Pulitzer prize. Forty years on – the first chapter appeared in serial form in Spiegelman’s underground zine Raw in December 1980 – it remains a monument in the genre.
I talk to Spiegelman over Zoom from his New York apartment. Wearing a pale fedora and tinted glasses indoors and choffing on a vape, he’s fidgety and garrulous and emphatic. But when I mention the anniversary he’s vague. “There seems to be another anniversary available from anything to anything if one just finds the right two events.”
Its creator may be vague, but Maus is precise. It’s a complex and subtle piece of work: partly a family memoir, partly an act of historical documentation and (as the passage I describe above makes clear), partly a self-reflective account of its own creation. The frame story, set in late 1970s New York, shows the grown-up Spiegelman’s relationship with his grouchy and eccentric elderly father Vladek, and his attempts to interview him about his early life. Threaded through this is the account that emerges of Vladek’s relationship with Spiegelman’s mother (who took her own life in 1968, when Art was just emerging from his teens), the Nazis’ rise to power, and the road to Auschwitz.
It’s a paradoxical mixture of apparent caricature and extreme fidelity to the truth. In the historical sections Germans are drawn as human-bodied cats, and Jews as mice, and in some of the present-day story the protagonists wear mouse masks. Yet their diction – the cadences of his Polish-born father’s English, his kvetching and kibitzing – is impeccably rendered, and Spiegelman worked like crazy to verify the historical detail, down to the look of the machinery in the tin-shop in which his father worked.
At one point in the book, Spiegelman is in despair: “I feel so inadequate,” he tells his wife, “trying to reconstruct a reality that was worse than my darkest dreams. And trying to do it as a comic strip! I guess I bit off more than I can chew.” He didn’t, obviously: but it’s surprising that a lifelong champion of the comic strip as an expressive medium seemed to be saying there that some subjects might be out of its reach.
“I didn’t mean comics,” he says now. “I meant art or literature. I didn’t feel it was possible to give structure to this that would be meaningful. I didn’t know how to proceed in making it in comics form, because there wasn’t much of a model for making something like it. But I think if I had somehow gone down one of those string theory universes next door where I became a writer, I would have the same misgivings.”
Spiegelman’s success had the disconcerting effect of placing an artist who had been happy in the comix-with-an-x underground – a lysergic disciple of R Crumb – very firmly in the literary establishment. He became a staple of Tina Brown’s New Yorker, a darling of academics, and came to be regarded by many, not without resentment, as a sort of capo of the US comics scene.
“I remember when I first got this Pulitzer prize I thought it was a prank call,” he says, “But immediately after I got back to New York, I got an urgent call from a wonderful cartoonist and friend, Jules Feiffer: ‘We have to meet immediately. Can you come out and have a coffee?’ And we met. He said: ‘You have to understand what you’ve just got. It’s either a licence to kill, or something that will kill you.’”
That comics are now considered “respectable” – thanks in part to Maus – is something Spiegelman never quite looked for. But he acknowledges it has its advantages. “I’m astounded by how things have changed. And I would say I might have been dishonest or disingenuous when I said I wasn’t interested in it being respectable. I love the medium. And I love what was done in it from the 19th century to now. But I know that on some level, I want it to be able to not have to make everything have a joke, or an escapist adventure story.”
His rocket launch into canonicity was both “liberating and also incredibly confining – trying to find places to go where I wouldn’t have to be the Elie Wiesel of comic books”. Even at the time, Spiegelman seems to have been conscious that Maus would be in danger of defining him. The next project he took on was illustrating Moncure March’s jazz-age poem The Wild Party for a small press: “This was going to be a kind of polar opposite [to Maus]: decorative, erotic, frivolous in many ways and involved with the pleasures of making; although it didn’t turn out to be so pleasurable in its third year. Every project I start turns into a coffin.”
And yet, what coffins. Spiegelman’s attention to his craft, to the grammar of comics and their narrative possibilities, is formidable. It seems quite in keeping that an apparently simple illustration project turned into a three-year job. Maus took more than a decade to complete – “I always assumed it would take about two years” – and in conversation he will zero in on the tiniest details in individual panels from memory. There’s a single transition panel, for instance, where a train ticket goes in as the caption, that he identifies as having been drawn under the influence of Will Eisner’s The Spirit.
In an afterword to Breakdowns, an anthology of his earlier work, Spiegelman writes of his younger self: “In an underground comix scene that prided itself on breaking taboos, he was breaking the one taboo left standing: he dared to call himself an artist and call his medium an art-form.” But that aspiration doesn’t mark a straightforward high culture/low culture divide.
“Lower middle class to middle class in terms of my upbringing,” Spiegelman says, “I was very suspicious of high culture and kind of described myself as a slob snob. If it wasn’t printed on newsprint, the hell with it. If I was learning about modernism, it was more likely to be from Winsor McCay and George Herriman than from Picasso. I was resistant. I read Kafka [and thought] he would have been a good script writer for The Twilight Zone. I was seeing it as a zone of culture that wasn’t exactly high or low, that just had to do with culture I could use.”
A thunderbolt moment was his discovery of Harvey Kurtzman and Mad magazine: “That was what changed my life,” he says. “I guess Mad came out as the lowest of low culture, but it actually has become our culture. The irony, the self-reflexivity, the questioning, the parodic enveloping of everything seen through that lens.” The recent demise of the print magazine was, he says, “mission accomplished. You know, there wasn’t much more it could do.”
And he is startlingly protean as a creator. A panel of Chris Ware or Daniel Clowes, Herriman, Bill Sienkiewicz or Jack Kirby is instantly identifiable as such. But you’d struggle to look at the urbane images for The Wild Party, or his psychedelic early work at Raw, or the cross-cutting of styles in In the Shadow of No Towers, and instantly clock them as the work of the author of Maus. And he still has people approaching him in astonishment to discover he was also the creator of The Garbage Pail Kids, the trading cards of 1980s playground fame. “It’s kind of dissonant for people,” he says. He is, as was said of the late Clive James, “a brilliant bunch of guys”.
“That’s nice phrasing,” he says. “I took to heart a quote from Picasso: ‘Style is the difference between a circle and the way you draw it.’ I would like to think of myself as just using whatever style seems appropriate to the work, and the style is as much finding out what the work is as the work itself. Everything I’ve done comes after a lot of stylistic research. And the main thing that makes it my style is I just draw badly.” That’s not wholly self-deprecation. When he’s tried writing for others to draw, he says, “I would find that other people couldn’t draw it wrong the right way.”
Incorporated into Maus is a full reprint of his short strip “Prisoner on the Hell Planet”, which describes his nervous breakdown in the aftermath of his mother’s suicide in a vividly expressionist idiom (and which portrayed Spiegelman wearing the striped pyjamas and striped cap of an Auschwitz inmate). One reason he did that, he says, is that the fact of his own breakdown “needed to be entered into the deposition”, but the other was something necessary “formally – which was to show that the drawing style in Maus was a decision”.
His one major foray into cartooning the political moment also had a drastic stylistic effect. In the Shadow of No Towers charted his response to 9/11, and found him out of kilter not only with his countrymen (David Remnick’s New Yorker declined to publish a comic whose author was “equally terrorised by al-Qaida and my government”) but with himself. “I think Towers came close to the any-port-in-a-storm kind of driving through a hurricane,” he says. “The styles shifted from sequence to sequence and panel to panel. And that felt very correct for trying to deal with the fragmentation that 9/11 caused for me. And I think that’s kind of where I’m at now.”
Indeed, he delayed this interview for several weeks as he attempted to process the summer’s chaos. “I am really trying to understand what the fuck?” he says. “The world was never a bed of roses, but at this point, every time I look up, it’s like … oh, man, you know? I feel like if I had a tattoo – which I’ll never get voluntarily – it would be on my chest. It would say: ‘You can’t make this shit up’, and it would glow bright red about five times a day.” But he says he has no impulse to respond to America’s current turmoil in art.
“Early on I realised I didn’t want to become a Trump caricaturist – that it was just playing into his narcissism, ultimately. I just backed off and I’m now trying to see what the hell’s been happening to us. It makes me recant something I rather cockily said back in 2001, which was when I found myself unable to move from September 11 to September 12. About three months later, my brains poured back in my head and I said: ‘I guess disaster is my muse.’” He recants: “Now disaster is just a fucking disaster.”
And in a sense, that was the theme of Maus – among whose many scrupulousnesses was a faithful rendition of the extremely difficult and annoying personality of Vladek. “I thought it was important to show that there’s nothing ennobling about being victimised,” Spiegelman says. “That’s a very Christian concept. But people don’t come out of it as better humans: they just come out of it seared, scarred. She came out with so much wisdom, or he came out as stupid as he went in, he came out even more traumatised and befuddled than when he went in. It’s a spectrum. But what it is, is: it wasn’t the best who survived, and it wasn’t the worst. It was random.”