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.
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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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Spiegelman was rattled by Maus’s success (though he no doubt laughs now over the letters from many of the country’s top editors who turned down the chance to publish the book). On top of the standard “How can I top this?” anxiety experienced by any mega-hit artist, he was distressed by the accusation—coming most insistently from his own tormented soul, though also from some drive-by detractors—that he was profiting from the Holocaust. Maus had taken him thirteen years to complete, and then his creativity stalled for a good decade as he found himself unable to sustain any significant new comics project.
But Spiegelman hardly stopped working. He made slinky and sinister illustrations for a new edition of Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 poem The Wild Party. He designed covers for The New Yorker, where his collaborator and spouse, Françoise Mouly, became art director in 1993 (the pair edited the avant-garde comix journal Raw from 1980 to 1991, and Maus was first serialized there before being published in its entirety by Pantheon). And, with Mouly, he launched a series of enchanting children’s picture books. Spiegelman’s Open Me…I’m a Dog!—in which a bright orange pup insists on its canine identity despite having been turned into the very book in your hands—is, I have it on good authority, irresistible to 3-year-olds, who know a thing or two about imbuing inanimate objects with life. All the while, he was promoting his medium and building its archive. Working with the designer Chip Kidd, he paid tribute to a Golden Age master by writing the book Jack Cole and Plastic Man (extolling Cole’s “cheerful streak of perverse violence”), and he constantly spoke about comics at colleges, bookstores and anyplace else that gave him a platform. (You can watch him hold forth in thousands of YouTube clips.)
It was the trauma of September 11, 2001, that reignited Spiegelman’s pilot light for extended work: “disaster is my muse” he contends in In the Shadow of No Towers (2004), an oversized book, printed on heavy cardstock, that, in forty-two glossy color pages, follows several simultaneous trajectories. The central narrative relates his and Mouly’s panicked sprint to pick up their daughter from a school near the World Trade Center as the towers fell; in a loud obbligato, he rants against the Bush administration’s jingoistic manipulations of the crime. Meanwhile, visually and thematically, Spiegelman calls upon early-twentieth-century newspaper comic strips—“the only cultural artifacts that could get past my defenses”—to help him contain his terror. He transports Bringing Up Father into the twenty-first century, where Jiggs grows ever more paranoid as TV and radio blare bad news; he has the Katzenjammer Kids running for their lives as the Twin Towers burn atop their very own heads. Jumpy and dense with activity, these strips break the comics grid more aggressively than he’d done before. The book’s second section anthologizes seven strips from the early 1900s in which war breaks out, flags flap furiously, and buildings threaten to topple. The gesture behind this section resembles that of David Hockney assembling his “Great Wall” of artworks dating from 1350 to 1900 as he explored the manipulation of light in painting: both men demonstrate a specific historical continuity in their medium and place themselves within it.
In recognizing a sense of individual trauma within a collective historical one, Art can’t help but recall his father in many of the scenes. I don’t know of another work that so acutely captures the discombobulating sense of alarm and rage and love of the city that overtook so many of us in the months after the attacks. Still, no doubt because of its savaging of the Bush doctrine, you won’t find it for sale in the gift shop of the new 9/11 Memorial and Museum; you can, however, buy postcards of Spiegelman and Mouly’s iconic New Yorker cover of the towers silhouetted against a black background in the Jewish Museum’s shop.
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A surge of work followed, some of it completely new—a theatrical collaboration with the Pilobolus Dance Theater; a lecture-demonstration slide show, with music by the jazz composer Phillip Johnston, on the history of wordless novels—and much of it retrospective. Indeed, even before the “Co-Mix” exhibit with its attractive, image-packed catalog—bookended by essays by J. Hoberman (on Spiegelman’s collapse of high and low art) and Robert Storr (making a case for comics departments in museums)—Spiegelman was documenting his oeuvre.
He first chronicled his early experiments in narrative strategies and drawing styles in 1978 in a large-format album called Breakdowns; having found his voice as a cartoonist, he explained later, he “needed to see my strips in a setting separate from the underground comix they had been born in, to understand what I had articulated.” The pieces show his allusive, self-referential, often witty and sometimes bizarre explorations of plot-making in comics, appropriating insights and images from Dada, Cubism, TV soap operas, the comics canon, porn, his own dreams. The three-page proto-Maus from 1972 was here. So was a breakthrough strip, “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” a gut-wrenching four-page account of his response to his mother Anja’s suicide in 1968, when Spiegelman was 19.
Drawn in an Expressionistic scratchboard style that makes the panels resemble woodcuts, “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” portrays Art dressed in a striped concentration camp uniform, his stunned eyes large and drooping on a face made haggard with multiple hatch-marks. The lines become more jagged as the strip progresses: Anja’s coffin juts out of the comics grid as Vladek drapes himself over it, howling; Art slumps in the corner of another panel, “alone with my thoughts,” which he pictures in a stack of images (a heap of corpses in Auschwitz; his mother reading him a story in bed as a little boy; a close-up on her right hand, stamped with its Auschwitz number, slitting her left wrist with a razor). The closing frames show him locked up in prison, a speech bubble emerging from the bars: “You murdered me, Mommy, and you left me here to take the rap!”
Years later, Spiegelman inserted “Hell Planet” whole into Maus. With the jarring visual disruption, he provided important exposition and introduced both a powerful new plot point and a layer of fury and sorrow: Vladek finds the strip, which Art never intended him to see. Later, the father admits that in a fit of grief he had burned Anja’s reconstructed wartime diaries, further silencing the mother Art still longs to know (and to be known by). Incensed, Art transfers a share of his guilt to his father: “You—you murderer!” Vladek thoroughly mediates Anja’s story, dismissing Art’s question of what happened to her while they were separated at Auschwitz, saying, “she went through the same what me: Terrible!” An agonizing sense of her absence pervades the father-son drama of Maus.
Nothing else in Breakdowns approaches the strong emotion of “Hell Planet.” The overall tone is one of intellectual whimsy and delight in the tricks that comics can perform: one strip moves from frame to frame in any number of directions; another renders the pair of crooks in a hardboiled detective story as Mr. Potatohead and Picasso’s split-faced Weeping Woman.
The book barely sold and was hardly noticed. But Spiegelman reissued it in 2008, this time introduced by the nineteen-page autobiographical comic essay “Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@?*!” In richly drawn color strips—into which he occasionally collages a page of an early work—he traces his development toward the Breakdowns pieces that follow. Eyeballs bulging and tongue lolling, Art pants after Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad the moment he sees it in a store at age 7 (and the small boy is drawn with the older artist’s bearded chin, receding hairline and perpetual cigarette hanging from his mouth). Another chapter shows him as an incompetent, bored and amblyopic boy in the outfield, reading a comic book as a baseball comes his way and whomps him on the head; in the next frame, he is a decked Charlie Brown and, in the last one, he is shown hiding from sports in the library after school reading Kafka. So this bildungs-cartoon continues, not always chronologically, ending with a peroration on form, content and the power of narrative that cites Susan Sontag and Viktor Shklovsky.
Looking at all these works, it’s not surprising to learn that the impetus for Maus was formal: Spiegelman wanted to create a comic that “needed a bookmark” and would be worth rereading. (For the most part, poring over his oeuvre in book form is more rewarding than gazing at it on walls.) The process is recounted in minute detail in MetaMaus (2011), a 300-page compendium of notes, sketches, resource materials and all the rest that went into making Maus, with a lengthy interview conducted by the comics scholar Hillary Chute. The book comes with a DVD, The Complete “Maus” Files, that contains the words and images of both Maus volumes, with individual pages linked to relevant background materials and preparatory drawings; the 1946 booklets of renderings of concentration camps and other contemporary accounts that Spiegelman had found on his mother’s bookshelf; home-movie footage from his second research trip to Auschwitz; and the full audio of the interviews with Vladek. In all, the volume is like a cross between a variorum King Lear and the six-disc deluxe reissue of The Velvet Underground and Nico, designed for prospecting academics and zealous fans—who can’t ever come close to Spiegelman’s own obsessiveness. Not that they haven’t tried. Dozens of doctoral dissertations have been written about Maus, and a scholarly-journal database shows thousands of references to it; in the comments notebook by the exit from “Co-Mix,” one museumgoer wrote: “My future wife and I have matching Maus portrait tattoos taken from the endpages of Maus. Thank you.” One can only wonder if they put them on their forearms.
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In Breakdowns/Portrait and MetaMaus—and in the more overt teleology presented in the exhibit, where, in the most satisfying use of the museum format, all of Maus II is mounted in horizontal sequence, with variant pages running in vertical branches—one sees Spiegelman clambering up the mountain and applying the lessons of his earlier experiments, in which he mastered the use of the distancing devices that, as in theater, are built into the very form of the medium, available to those who want to make use of them: breaking the fourth wall, juxtaposing disparate realms of story and meaning, making metaphor material, monkeying with metonymy. Comics can captivate the reader with representational narrative even as they reveal and comment upon their own themes and strategies. They can simultaneously make and break illusion—while yakking about the process. Sometimes, this takes the simple form of making figures of speech visual. When a “Portrait” strip recalls how Art was “in the grip of my recovered memories” while working feverishly on “Hell Planet,” a huge white hand squeezes around the artist at his drawing table; in Maus II, when Art visits his therapist, he is actually shrunk—tiny against his chair and barely a third of the other man’s size.
Sometimes, the strategy involves giving graphic shape to the unspoken. In another “Portrait” strip, after Vladek unwittingly buys his son crime and horror comic books—once banned for allegedly causing juvenile delinquency—the boy tosses his “pops” a quarter for another batch, appearing in the frame transformed into a hoodlum replete with leather jacket, shades and greaser pompadour. A strip called “A Father’s Guiding Hand” offers a powerful portrayal of trauma transmission, as the middle-aged Art presents his own son with the family heirloom: a chest from which a fire-breathing monster bursts forth and keeps growing, a Hitler face protruding, Alien-like, from its belly.
Most important, as Spiegelman enthuses, comics turn time into space. Panels can collapse or juxtapose different temporalities, pit them against each other, dissolve them entirely. And all that can happen in the visuals alone, in the accord or contradictions between image and text or between speech bubble and caption. Early in Maus I, Art asks Vladek to describe his life in Poland and the war as he pedals on a stationary bike in Art’s old bedroom. Vladek’s arms dominate a long, narrow panel as they grasp the handlebars, framing Art in the background—just beneath his father’s concentration-camp tattoo. In Maus II, when Art and Françoise visit Vladek in the Catskills, he tells them about the cremation pits dug for the mass arrival of Hungarians at Auschwitz: as big as the swimming pool at the Pines Hotel. While driving to the Shop-Rite, he answers Art’s question about four women who revolted and blew up a crematorium: as he explains that these women—good friends of Anja’s—were caught and hanged, the car travels a wooded road, passing four bodies dangling from the trees. The perpetual presence of the past in comics maps directly onto the perpetual presence of past trauma.
Maus has long been credited with winning some highbrow legitimacy for comics, best exemplified by its special Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and an exhibit on the making of Maus (largely incorporated into “Co-Mix”) at the Museum of Modern Art in 1991 (there, one had to don earphones to hear Vladek’s testimony). It’s hard to imagine that the serious, long-form narratives by artists like Chris Ware, Marjane Satrapi and Alison Bechdel could have happened without it (nor, perhaps, the spate of comics about the Holocaust like Bernice Eisenstein’s I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, Miriam Katin’s We Are On Our Own, Joe Kubert’s Yossel: April 19, 1943, and even a manga version of Anne Frank’s diary). Spiegelman helped open the way, too, for works in other media, like Ari Folman’s animated film Waltz With Bashir and Lisa Kron’s solo performance 2.5 Minute Ride.
Less widely noted—and tied to the ways comics allow the present to be permeated by the past—is the fact that Maus became the proof text for academic study of the transgenerational transmission of trauma and its representation. It was in her discussion of Maus that the scholar Marianne Hirsch coined the term “postmemory” to describe the experience of second-generation children being so intimately and powerfully shaped by the stories and images of events that preceded them that they take on the force of their own memories.
Spiegelman likely still wishes to get out from under the shadow of the giant mouse—“a monument I built to my father,” though “I never dreamed [it] would get so big,” as a strip in Portrait puts it. But Maus is one of the great artistic works of the twentieth century, so what can he do? It is also a monument to the medium he has championed, and expanded, for decades.