“The Holocaust trumps art every time,” Art Spiegelman repeated more than once at the press opening for his traveling mid-career retrospective, which originated in Paris and finally landed at Manhattan’s Jewish Museum this month. Spiegelman, whose name can be translated as “art mirrors man,” is the owner of a stunningly fertile graphic imagination that over the past 40 years has produced dozens of formally innovative and often searingly self-reflective strips in various magazines, including Arcade and RAW, which he co-founded and edited with his wife, French artist and editor Francoise Mouly. In his day job at the Topps trading card company, he created and edited the Garbage Pail Kid series before moving on to a more upscale day job at The New Yorker, where he tweaked that magazine’s DNA with iconic cover images, including a Hasid and a black woman kissing on Valentine’s Day in Crown Heights and the famous post-Sept. 11 “black cover,” which, when you held it at an angle to the light, showed the outlines of the vanished Twin Towers.
Spiegelman credits Mad magazine and the sensibility of its founder Harvey Kurtzman for shaping his childhood in Rego Park, Queens, and his early desire to use cartoons to express his sense that something was not entirely right with the world. His first Mad anthology, which he studied with the intensity that some of his peers brought to pages of the Talmud, was a gift from his mother, who survived Auschwitz, and he was kept on a tight budget by his father, who also survived Auschwitz. (Spiegelman was born in Stockholm, Sweden, after the war; his brother Rysio died in Poland before he was born after being poisoned in a bunker along with two other small children by his aunt, so that they wouldn’t be taken to an extermination camp.) When Spiegelman was 20, his mother killed herself, and Spiegelman was released from a state mental institution in Binghamton, N.Y., to attend her funeral—an event that would become the basis of one of his early, devastatingly personal cartoons. Spiegelman’s father then burned his mother’s diaries about her experiences during the war and in the camps, which she had intended for her son to read after her death.
Starting in 1978, Spiegelman, then a well-known underground cartoonist, began interviewing his father about his wartime experiences. In the early 1980s, he began creating strips that narrated his father’s stories and were gently framed by his own relationship with his father, a miserly and compulsive character; the strips were published in RAW under the title Maus. Both the title and the device of portraying Jews as mice and Germans as cats had been used by Spiegelman before, in a three-page strip he had published in 1972 and that was later published in his collection Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, which attracted the deep admiration of hundreds of alternative comics fans but few buyers.
Today it seems clear that Maus and Maus II are the most powerful and significant works of art produced by any American Jewish writer or artist about the Holocaust. While their enduring popularity is a tribute to Spiegelman’s incredible honesty and his graphic and narrative talent, it is also a reflection of the way in which the Holocaust has morphed from a threatening and largely repressed communal trauma to the glue that binds the American Jewish community together. If Art Spiegelman is a genius who created a work of searing originality and insight out of his familial and personal suffering, it is also hard not to worry about the anti-aesthetic consequences of his achievement. If he is right to complain that the Holocaust trumps art, it was Maus that opened the floodgates.
David Samuels: I was sitting downstairs waiting to talk to you this morning, and I was watching all the people passing by the hand-inked panels from Maus II, which are preserved safely behind glass in the gallery. And I suddenly had this vision of Maus being preserved for posterity like the Dead Sea Scrolls in some big weird-shaped climate-controlled building on the Mall in Washington, so that future generations of American Jews can remember the Holocaust, which is what we were apparently put here on earth to do.
Art Spiegelman: OK, thanks for bumming me out. Let’s move on.
Does that bum you out? Why?
I mean, I’ve now drawn it 15 different ways—the giant 500-pound mouse chasing me through a cave, the monument to my father that casts a shadow over my life right now. I’ve made something that clearly became a touchstone for people. And the Holocaust trumps art every time.
Well, there’s that, sure.
I’m proud that I did Maus; I’m glad that I did it. I don’t really regret it. But the aftershock is that no matter what else I do or even most other cartoonists might do, it’s like, well, there’s this other thing that stands in a separate category and it has some kind of canonical status. It’s what you’re describing with your Dead Sea Scrolls analogy. It’s been translated into God knows how many languages, it stays in print, it’s a reference point. So, when I’m reading some movie review in the Times about 12 Years a Slave, all of the sudden I’m seeing a reference to Maus, even though the subject matter is quite different. It’s studied in schools from the time they’re like in middle school to the time they’re doing post-graduate work.
There was that great strip that you did for the VQR, where you were handing a little treasure chest to your son Dash, “Hey, here’s this wonderful magical present”—the gift being historical memory—and he opens the box and this horrible fire-breathing dragon comes out in an Auschwitz striped prisoner’s cap with a little extra Hitler head and breathes fire on him and burns him. And he’s like, “Gee, thanks, Dad.”
It’s one that you can’t deal with and then move on easily. I remember Claude Lanzmann at some point saying Shoah ruined his life.
Except he wanted his life to be ruined in that way.
Yeah, but I don’t know if I wanted it or didn’t want it. It wasn’t part of my operating system. I wasn’t thinking about it.