Considered one of the best if not the greatest of all graphic novels, Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1991) is a two-volume comic book recount of his Polish parents’ experiences surviving Auschwitz. Daringly, Spiegelman drew the Jews and mice and the Nazis as cats. The making of Maus had been traumatic for Spiegelman, forcing him to dredge up unhappy childhood memories, as well as spend many hours recording interviews with his father, Vladek, who died in 1982.
Fifteen years after its publication, Spiegelman began work on MetaMaus (2011): an interactive companion volume containing photos and source materials, including audio of the original taped interviews. What it was like, Time Out wonders, to hear his father’s voice again after so many years? On the line from New York, Spiegelman’s voice suddenly alters in pitch. “Oh man!” the 65 year old says. “When I agreed it was a good idea to do [MetaMaus], I then very sanely put it off for about four years… [then] for the first month it was a case of going to the studio, rolling up my sleeves, sitting at my table, and sobbing.”
Anyone who has read Maus can sympathise. The book is harrowing stuff but it had the effect of drawing a line once and for all between comics as cheap, adolescent wish-fulfilment and a rich adult medium. To confirm the point, Spiegelman will be appearing at the Sydney Opera House this month as special guest of the Graphic Festival, and in Melbourne for the Wheeler Centre, giving a spoken performance on the history and aesthetics of comics.
Spiegelman is troubled by the concept of the graphic novel. “To me, it brings up all kinds of issues,” Spiegelman says, “because I’m deeply wed to the tradition that I call ‘comics’ and having them all gussied up as ‘graphic novels’ puzzles me, even though I’ve been called one of the progenitors of this thing.” Spiegelman will talk about a body of work from the early 20th century that was hugely influential on Maus: the woodcut novels of Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Milt Gross and others, that functioned just like comics but never suffered any lowbrow stigma. “These are artists telling beautiful stories strictly with images, with one image to a page. Those books were taken seriously from the moment they appeared.”
Highbrow-lowbrow distinctions are of acute interest to Spiegelman, who notes that Maus is now being taught in Australian schools. “When I was a young person doing comics, it was easier to get a date telling a woman you’re a plumber that telling her you’re a comics artist. Nowdays cartoonists have a quasi-rock star status… in the 1950s there were comic book burnings in America.”
Spiegelman grew up in Queens and first became aware of comics through Mad comics, which precededMad magazine, as a six year old in the 1950s. Moving to San Francisco in 1971 he joined the Underground Comix movement alongside the likes of Robert Crumb. An embryonic version of Maus first appeared in his autobiographical 1977 book of short strips called Breakdowns. That same year, he married French student Françoise Mouly and together they went on to edit the influential Raw magazine. Mouly, who is the art editor for The New Yorker.
Maus was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and continues to be the most written-about graphic novel. Perhaps a true measure of Spiegelman’s standing is the 2007 episode of The Simpsons in which he voiced himself alongside comics greats Alan Moore and Dan Clowes. “I think I put it higher on my resume than having been made a Commander of Arts and Letters in France.”
Hot five: Canonical graphic novels
From Hell (1999)
Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000)
Alan Moore & Dave McKean
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1985)
Sandman Volume 1: Preludes & Nocturnes (1989)
Neil Gaiman et al