Art Spiegelman on life with a '500-pound mouse chasing me'

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Art Spiegelman on life with a '500-pound mouse chasing me'
Art work in Art Spiegelman’s living room which includes a large lithograph of one of his drawings, a work called “The Bastard Offspring of Art and Commerce Murder Their Parents and Go Off on a Sunday Outing,” in New York on Dec. 19, 2022. Known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning comic book, “Maus,” the author has had a busy year, after the book was banned and jump-started a fresh debate about the sanitization of history. (Sara Messinger/The New York Times)

by Alexandra Alter

NEW YORK, NY.- On a recent afternoon, Art Spiegelman was sitting in the living room of his SoHo apartment, puffing on an e-cigarette that he wears around his neck, clipped to a pen holder so that he doesn’t misplace it. “I’m always losing things,” he explained.

He was feeling more disoriented than usual, having just returned home after several weeks on the road — a two-week road trip across the South with his son, Dash; a research excursion to a comics museum in Columbus, Ohio, for a new project; and a stop in Cincinnati to attend a memorial service for cartoonist Justin Green, a close friend and mentor of his.

The whirlwind trip capped a momentous and chaotic year for Spiegelman, an iconic cartoonist, who was thrust into a national debate about censorship and rising antisemitism after a Tennessee school district banned his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, “Maus,” from classrooms in January.

Since then, Spiegelman has been called upon again and again to champion and defend his work. He’s given countless interviews, speeches and webinars, including a Zoom meeting with residents of the Tennessee county where “Maus” was removed after parents objected to scattered instances of profanity and nudity in the text. He has argued repeatedly that the ban is about much more than “Maus,” which details his parents’ experience during the Holocaust, depicting Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. To Spiegelman, the decision to remove “Maus” from schools reflects a more insidious campaign to sanitize disturbing chapters of history, under the guise of “protecting” children.

“They want a kinder, gentler, fuzzier Holocaust,” he said.

Ironically, the ban has brought droves of new readers to his work and underscored its ongoing relevance, at a moment of heightened fear over a resurgence of antisemitism, fascism and white nationalist movements. “Maus” shot to the top of the bestseller list and sold 665,000 copies this year, more than triple its 2021 sales.

But the renewed attention has also been exhausting, and left him with little time or energy for his art, said Spiegelman, who never wanted to be a spokesperson for Holocaust remembrance and would rather be sketching in his notebook.

“It’s been a wild year,” he said, adding, “I’m done.”

Of course, Spiegelman is not unaccustomed to the spotlight. Fame has followed him ever since “Maus” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, becoming the first comic book to win the award, and transformed the medium, proving that comics can be a form of high art and literature. It sold 6 million copies in the United States, becoming a staple of school curricula and a classic of Holocaust literature.

Still, this past year, Spiegelman has been in especially high demand. In November, the National Book Foundation awarded Spiegelman a medal for distinguished contribution to American letters. This fall, a new collection of essays and criticism about “Maus” and its enduring resonance, called “Maus Now,” was released by Pantheon. And to Spiegelman’s great delight, Pantheon just reissued a new edition of “Breakdowns,” an anthology of his early work, which was first published in 1978, and never received much attention outside academic and hard-core cartoonist circles.

“There’s a small coterie of people who really read comics that know what I do,” Spiegelman said. “But for the most part, ‘Maus’ is like this giant skyscraper.”

The collected images, which feature his comics from the 1970s and later work from the 2000s, offer a glimpse of Spiegelman’s range as an illustrator and the breadth of his influences. The drawings include gag comics, a detective serial with a cubist bent and some images that veer into hard-core pornography. The anthology also features intimate, emotional drawings that capture his devastation after his mother’s suicide, and reveal how he internalized his parents’ lingering trauma.

“This is where I found my own voice,” Spiegelman said of the work in “Breakdowns.” “I discovered territory that was genuinely mine.”

Close students and fans of Spiegelman’s work view “Breakdowns” as a sort of Rosetta Stone that offers a master key to his intricate and varied visual idiom, revealing his enormous and often overlooked range as an artist.

“On one level, it’s a deeply formalist book, showing how anti-narrative comics can be, with this avant-garde experimental language that Art is exploring,” said Hillary Chute, a professor of English, art and design at Northeastern University who edited “Maus Now” and has studied Spiegelman’s work for years. “It’s also incredibly personal.”

The reissue was already in the works well before the “Maus” ban, but the timing has proved fortuitous, said Lisa Lucas, Pantheon’s publisher.

“The reissue of ‘Breakdowns’ has coincided with a moment when the import of Art Spiegelman’s extraordinary career has become so deeply apparent to the culture,” Lucas wrote in an email. “Given the increased attention to his work and career, it’s exciting that so many new readers will learn about Art’s contributions to comix writ large.”

Spiegelman, 74, speaks softly and with precision, and has a reserved, professorial demeanor that can seem at odds with some of his transgressive early comics, which can be hypersexual or grotesquely morbid.

He reflected on his work and its legacy for nearly two hours on a recent frigid December afternoon, alternately sitting and pacing in the art- and book-filled apartment where he and his wife and creative collaborator, New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly, have lived since the mid 1970s. Back then, they had a printing press in their living room, where they put together editions of Raw, an eclectic, alternative comics magazine that published luminaries like Robert Crumb, Richard McGuire, Chris Ware and Green, who was one of Spiegelman’s idols.

It was Green who showed him that “that confessional, autobiographical, intimate, unsayable material is perfectly fine content for comics,” Spiegelman said.

“It’s not just, ‘Make a joke,’ or, ‘Make a fantasy story,’” he continued. “This was like, ‘What’s going on in one’s brain, and how can you express it?’”

As a boy growing up in Queens, Spiegelman was haunted by the feeling that he shouldn’t exist, given his parents’ narrow escapes from the death camps, and found refuge in the subversive humor and wild art of Mad magazine and other comics. He began drawing early, prompted by doodling games he played with his mother, a playful side of her that he captures in “Breakdowns.” When he was 13, he published a comic in a weekly Queens newspaper, which later hired him as a freelancer.

In 1966, he got a job at Topps Chewing Gum, designing stickers and novelty cards. The company subsidized his career for 20 years, giving him a steady income while he experimented with edgier and less commercial comics.

Spiegelman was shaped by the underground comic scene of the 1960s, and became a fixture in some of the era’s magazines, which peddled cartoons about drugs, sex and twisted genre stories. He arrived at a turning point in his career and life in the late ’60s, when he was hospitalized after a mental breakdown, got kicked out of college and was shattered by his mother’s suicide.

He became interested in mixing high and low art, and in pushing the boundaries of narrative in comics, exploring how time and space could be compressed or stretched in a series of images, and how interior experiences and memory could be illustrated on the page.

“For me to be able to bring the vocabulary of everything from Gertrude Stein and James Joyce to Picasso and other more formal aspects of picture-making, opened up very new territory,” Spiegelman said. “In order to do ‘Maus,’ everything I learned here became new vocabulary for me.”

In 1972, Spiegelman drew a three-page comic that later evolved into “Maus.” It opens with Spiegelman, as a young mouse, in bed as his father tucks him in and tells him the story of how he was captured in Poland by Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. Using animal faces in place of people gave him enough distance to tell the story. “For me, it was powerful just because it allowed me to deal with the material by putting a mask on people,” he said. “By reliving it microscopically, as best I could, moment by moment — it allowed me to at least come to grips with something that otherwise was only a dark shadow.”

Spiegelman worked on “Maus” for 13 years. It swelled to over 300 pages, and recounts the story of how his father and mother, Vladek and Anja, survived unimaginable horrors in a Nazi concentration camp, intertwined with the narrative of his own experience as a cartoonist, recording conversations with his father and aiming to capture the unspeakable in images. The first chapter was printed in 1980 in Raw, where it was serialized over the next decade.

When Spiegelman tried to find a publisher for a book version, the manuscript was widely rejected until Pantheon took it on. Spiegelman never imagined that it would become such a cultural and historical behemoth, or that decades later, it would become “cannon fodder in the culture wars,” as he put it.

“The only person I wanted to teach anything to was myself. I wanted to find out how I got born, when both my parents were supposed to be murdered before I could be conceived,” he said. “And so that was a complex project, to reconstruct for myself what that history was for them.”

“Maus” has long been a magnet for controversy. Critics took offense at the use of animal imagery to explore such a grave subject, and some said it was doubly offensive that Spiegelman drew Jews as mice, given that Nazi propaganda compared Jews to vermin — which was precisely Spiegelman’s point. It was banned in Russia because of the swastika image on the cover. When it was published in Poland in 2001, protesters, who were outraged that Spiegelman depicted Polish gentiles as pigs, burned copies of the book. In Germany, Spiegelman was asked by a reporter if a cartoon about Auschwitz was in bad taste. “No, I thought Auschwitz was in bad taste,” Spiegelman replied.

In the years since its release, Spiegelman has often felt oppressed by the scale of the book’s success, which has overshadowed all his other work. “Ever since ‘Maus,’ I’ve been having to deal with a 500-pound mouse chasing me,” he said.

Spiegelman hopes that the revival of “Breakdowns” could introduce readers who only know “Maus” to a greater range of his work.

Looking back on the artist he was when he drew the works in “Breakdowns,” Spiegelman feels a mixture of affection and pride, for what he overcame and what he was able to create.

“I admire that guy,” he said with a smile. “Yeah. I was on fire.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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