The Haus of Maus
A faint murmur wafted toward the entrance of “Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective” at the Jewish Museum in New York City. Barely audible and wholly indecipherable at first, it grew louder as one moved through the first few galleries and could begin to discern a human voice. Then, at the center of the show, amid scores of preliminary sketches, research materials and finished panels from Spiegelman’s masterpiece Maus, one discovered its source: excerpts of the interviews that the artist recorded with his father, Vladek, beginning in 1972, in which Vladek recounts his experience surviving in Nazi-occupied Poland and in Auschwitz—the basis of his son’s celebrated two-volume graphic memoir, published in book form in 1986 and 1991.
Encountering Vladek’s voice was shocking. In part that’s because, as with any retrospective, “Co-Mix” is dominated by the artist’s consciousness, and the intrusion of someone else’s breaks the spell that is one of the pleasures of a large solo survey—submerging oneself entirely in a single imagination. First mounted in Angoulême, France, in 2012, then moving on to Paris, Cologne and Vancouver before showing in New York (with some additions) for four months, and now headed to Toronto for a December opening at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the exhibit is the first to take stock of Spiegelman’s sweeping fifty-year career. If his sensibility has remained constant, his drawing style has shifted constantly over the decades—from the inchoate, simple-line caricatures in the hectographed satirical zine Blasé that he produced at age 15, to the busy, bulbous, lurid scenes of his underground comix years in the early 1970s; the visual homages to old masters like Winsor McCay and Chester Gould as he staked out an avant-garde in the ’80s; and the stark graphic forms in the painted-glass window he recently designed for his alma mater, New York’s High School of Art and Design. Meanwhile, from the mid-’60s through the ’80s, Spiegelman paid the rent by working in another, altogether different vernacular, parodying consumer goods and popular dolls in the Topps bubble-gum sticker series Wacky Packages (“Crust Toothpaste,” “Botch Tape,” etc.) and Garbage Pail Kids (“Bony Joanie,” “Potty Scotty,” etc.). From early on, and to this day, Spiegelman’s work betrays a restless, cheeky intellect at play, filtered through a smarty-pants Jewish anxiety; he tests the formal limits of his medium while championing its illustrious history, and refuses to give up the charge of épater le bourgeoisie (despite knowing how long ago that battery drained).
Against the twitchy irreverence and boho self-consciousness of Spiegelman’s art, Vladek’s voice sounds steady and calm, its soothing tone all the more astonishing in contrast to the tale it tells. Spiegelman’s first stab at Maus, a three-page strip that ran in a 1972 underground comic (with a cover by R. Crumb) called Funny Aminals, captures the disjunction brilliantly by figuring Vladek’s narration as a bedtime story. After an opening panel that mimics Margaret Bourke-White’s famous photograph of Buchenwald prisoners in striped uniforms lined up behind barbed wire—but with the inmates drawn as mice and one, in the second row, labeled “Poppa”—the story begins. Poppa sits on the edge of his son Mickey’s bed, the boy snugly bundled under the covers, head on his father’s lap. Poppa describes life in the ghetto, then its liquidation, the hiding place he and Momma shared with several others in an attic, their betrayal to the Gestapo, and so on, all in highly condensed language that incorporates the syntactical and prepositional glitches of a non-native English speaker. (“One night it was a stranger sitting in the downstairs of the house…”) The story is told via narrative captions, while the panels illustrate those scenes—goateed and helmeted cats pursuing long-snouted mice, with no trace of the word “Jew,” “Nazi” or “Holocaust,” the mice wearing “M” badges rather than yellow stars—and the story occasionally flashes forward to the cozy bedroom in Rego Park. By page 3, Poppa and Momma have been sent to “Mauschwitz.” One panel shows a pair of mice in striped uniforms hauling a skeletal corpse to a heap adjacent to the smoke-spewing crematorium chimneys, and the next crosscuts back to Queens, where Poppa tucks Mickey in, telling him it’s time to sleep. The sweet final image—it almost looks like it was culled from the Russell Hoban–Garth Williams children’s classic Bedtime for Frances, which features a family of adorable badgers—belies the nightmares sure to trouble the child’s slumber.
When he was first invited to contribute to Funny Aminals, Spiegelman imagined a 1950s-style horror comic about a mouse caught in a trap, as he relates in a series of autobiographical strips. The comic portrays him as stuck until he visits a film class where his friend Ken Jacobs lectures on the parallels between early animation and minstrelsy; Spiegelman envisages a piece about racism in America, with lynched mice and “Ku Klux Kats.” But as he lumbers down a snowy road, mice scampering behind him, he quickly realizes, in a thought bubble: “Shit! I know bupkis about being Black in America. Bupkis.” The caption adds: “Then Hitler’s notion of Jews as vermin offered a metaphor closer to home.” The next panel shows the sun shining over a row of homes in Rego Park, while a single gray cloud engulfs only the “Maus Haus” in rain.
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Later, when Spiegelman decided to pursue a long-form comic based on his father’s story, the animal motif made even more sense: Spiegelman knew he could never find out what the particular Germans and Jews his parents encountered looked like (as the canvas expanded, he added Poles as pigs and Americans as dogs), and he also realized that the accuracy he wanted to convey would be better served through abstraction. At the same time, the schema functioned as a distancing device, inoculating the work against sentimentality. The drawings became simpler than those in the 1972 strip—and as the visual variety in “Co-Mix” makes plain, this was a painstakingly deliberate choice—but the framing device became much more complex. And this is the third reason that hearing Vladek’s voice is so startling: in the full Maus, Vladek’s story is always mediated. To happen upon it naked feels like a violation.
Here, Spiegelman portrays himself not as a little boy, but as the adult son drawing the story out of Vladek and then drawing it onto paper—both arduous processes of stops and starts, digressions and snags, erasures and harrowing details. Thus, the story of the story—set in the narrative present in Queens, SoHo and the Catskills—focuses on the relationship between the Holocaust-survivor parent and the boomer-generation child, as well as the process of representing the putatively unrepresentable.
One effect of this structure—and a reason for Maus’s blockbuster success—is that it blasts away the mawkish and heroic tropes of familiar Holocaust narratives. I have always thought of Maus as the flip side of Anne Frank’s diary, and not only because (as Maus’s subtitle puts it) it is “A Survivor’s Tale.” Both diaries—Spiegelman’s framing story, after all, is the first-person account of Art’s trials—are told in the youthful voice of an aspiring artist with a sharp eye for the irritating foibles of others, an ardor for popular culture and a sense of belonging to a rich, if remote, wider world. But Anne’s story, of course, is cut off abruptly, with the pathos of her life and talent left unfulfilled. Where she is all innocent promise, Art is a guilt-wracked success. A panel in Maus II shows him, bedecked in a mouse mask, hunched at his drawing table and describing Maus I’s triumph. Part of a Nazi guard tower can be glimpsed outside his window; there’s a pile of emaciated corpses at his feet. A speech bubble from an unseen figure—Hollywood tempter or Nazi executioner?—announces, “Alright Mr. Spiegelman. We’re ready to shoot.”
Maus tells of an older brother, Richieu, whom Art never met: his parents left Richieu with friends in a vain attempt to save his life; he died in Poland somewhere around the age of 6. A photograph of Richieu (one of three actual snapshots reproduced and collaged into Maus) hung in their parents’ bedroom—a silent rebuke to the comfortable boy in Queens, alive and thus capable of becoming a disappointment. Anne Frank has occupied a similar place in the Jewish-American psyche: despite her moments of adolescent sarcasm and (at one time, expurgated) sexual curiosity, she came down to us as the irreproachable Jewish daughter, haunting the girlhoods of those growing up flawed and fortunate in postwar America, who were enjoined to remember that we, too (no matter if our own parents were born here in safety), could have been pursued and exterminated like vermin. Among his other achievements, Spiegelman intimately lays bare this dynamic, with all its rancor, yearning and shame. Even in a bowdlerized Hollywood or Broadway adaptation, one could never imagine Art believing, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart. Hasn’t that always been part of Maus’s allure?
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