To say that Art Spiegelman’s Maus changed everything might seem like excessive hyperbole, but it did exactly that. The publication of the first volume twenty-five years ago (has it really been that long?), was like a warning shot that took everyone by surprise – and not just the comics-reading public, but mainstream America as well. “Attention everybody! Here’s what the medium is actually capable of.”
To mark the anniversary, Spiegelman and his publisher, Pantheon, have released MetaMaus, a new book about the making of that seminal graphic novel, which features a lengthy series of discussions with editor Hillary Chute, as well as interviews with Spiegelman’s immediate family and transcripts from his initial conversation with his father, Vladek.
The real highlight, however, is the DVD that accompanies the book. While a good bit of the material found on the disc duplicates the now antiquated Maus CD-ROM that came out in the 1990s, there’s a lot of extra material rarely or never seen before, including preliminary sketches, photos, interviews with Vladek and people that knew Spiegelman’s mother, a family tree, a video of his trip to Auschwitz, and much, much more.
The book was designed to give definitive answers to some of the most frequent questions Spiegelman receives, especially “Why mice?” and “Why comics?” But it delves deeper than that and offers an exploration not only of his relationship to the original work but also to comics in general.
I spoke with Spiegelman over the phone from his office in New York City about MetaMaus. We only had a short amount of time to talk (fifteen minutes) and I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to get more than a few hurried answers, but as usual he proved to be a thoughtful, eager conversationalist, showing once again why he and Maus remain at the forefront of any comics discussion.
[Transcription by Janice Lee.]
CHRIS MAUTNER: The first question I wanted to ask you about MetaMaus is why you’re pulling back the curtain in the first place. As you say in the introduction, you always get questions like, “Why mice?” and “Why comics?”, but you really go in depth into the process of making Maus here. Why did you feel the need to reveal so much? There are times, especially toward the end of the book, where I felt like you’re the magician showing how the trick is done.
ART SPIEGELMAN: There’s actually a paragraph or sentence about this, where I say the kind of magic I admire the most is the kind implied by Penn & Teller. They don’t actually do this, but what they do is, they sort of explain and debunk the trick, and then do it. And it still works as a magic trick. I’m not that interested in art that overtly manipulates people, and the things that go into doing Maus itself were meant to be both transparent to those who can see, mildly opaque to those who can’t, and yet somehow be allowed to work, but not to deceive.
MAUTNER: I was also wondering if you felt like due to the weight of the subject—the fact that it is about the Holocaust, which is obviously such a personal issue for you—that you needed to share so much detail because the research and the process is directly tied into the issues that you address in Maus?
SPIEGELMAN: Well, I think it is so wrapped together. The book exists on a crossroads between family history and comics. And explaining the geography of where the work sits involved answering both questions pretty fully, and it was very difficult to reenter, I’ve got to say. Very painful.
MAUTNER: How so?
SPIEGELMAN: Well, you know, you get calluses when you work, and it protects you as you do your gardening, and during the thirteen years of Maus, I got my protective layer of dead skin, so that I could kind of deal with my family and history at least, and even get the comics done efficiently, if thirteen years is efficient. But those went away. You get new skin. And re-entering, looking at my dead family, rereading, and further reading, on an area where I haven’t really been focused, i.e., the death camps, and reading more, is really painful — and even looking back at my own work, and how it’s affected my work life since is difficult. So, I avoided the project for a long time. The first month or so was really devastating. Then the callouses came back, and I could go on to shaping and making a byoo-ti-ful book. So that’s why, basically.
MAUTNER: Where do you see this book in relation to your bibliography? Do you see it as a standalone work, do you see it as equal to Maus, or more as simply a supplement?
SPIEGELMAN: It stands next to the work. It is clearly dependent on Maus to have any existence at all, but I tried to give it everything I got. Where it sits, that’s for somebody else to figure. It’ll be in the trash bin for some people and in a glass case for others. I have no idea. But it was made with the intention — this actually answers a bit more of the first question — it was made to replace the Maus CD-ROM that came out the moment before the Internet happened. It’s now no longer usable, written in a language more obscure than Aramaic, impossible to reconstruct. But the first part of the DVD, the first half, is, as best as one could, rewriting the code for making a new version of the old CD-ROM, because it seemed to have a lot of efficacy—which was never intended but I don’t object to it—as a didactic tool. One of the things that makes the book a so-called “modern classic” is that it’s become canonical in schools, ranging from middle school to post-grad, and it’s there for them, when studying, to have access to historical material, my father’s voice, that’s very important to me.
So the book started with an idea, trying to replace the CD-ROM, but then the technology made it impossible to do some version of that. The problem was solved so that they were able to, through dedication, make a new version of it. Then, with a lot more space available, all right, take this as well: here’s 7,500 sketches, here’s four hundred of my notebook pages scanned, you can have it. So it’s basically all of the component parts. You want to make yourself a Maus? You’ve got all the components now.
MAUTNER: I was looking at it again last night, and I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of material they managed to get on that disc.
SPIEGELMAN: It’s amazing what I’ve held onto. Not every single rejection letter remains in the files, but I found fifteen of them or so.
MAUTNER: I love the rejection letters.
SPIEGELMAN: You ask where it sits. It just came out better than it had any right to. It was somehow meant to be a functional satellite. I think it now has a kind of integrity as a book. I’ve seen a lot of anniversary-event books that are like, “Oh, it must be an anniversary. Here’s like forty pages of sketches.” It’s not like that.
MAUTNER: I agree with you. There are those books that feel just like supplemental material, but I think this book somehow feels like something more than that.
SPIEGELMAN: Françoise [Mouly, Spiegelman’s wife] ultimately had to write the back cover copy, because the publisher wasn’t able to. Fortunately for me, she likes my work. [Mautner laughs.] But … it says somewhere back there, [that this book] has a right to exist on its own. It tells you about the creative process, or something like that. I don’t remember the phrase, but essentially, it was making a claim for it as a work that can stand on its own, certainly once it has the complete Maus enfolded in it digitally, at least.
MAUTNER: You mentioned how it’s a didactic tool, and it’s true in two ways: as a tool for learning about the Holocaust, but also as a making-comics guide, a guide to what comics can do.
SPIEGELMAN: It’s true that the “drawing comics” part is just a given for me, even though people came up and said, “Why did you do it in a comic book?” “Well, how else?”
It’s in my grammar; it’s in my language. And yet, I think that [Maus’s] subject matter overwhelms the formal aspects as it reasonably should or would, and therefore, it’s a bunch of loose figures that somehow get this story told instead of setting it in type. [Comics] informs, for better or for worse, all of my work. Even this book — OK, it ain’t comics, but it is words and pictures and graphic.
When you say it’s useful as a [teaching] tool about the Holocaust, it’s probably also useful in how to deal with what’s urgent in your own life by trying to assimilate it and make it into something. So, again, the Holocaust subject matter overwhelms everything, as it reasonably would. But I think that [MetaMaus] came out better than it had any right to. It does have other aspects to it. So I’m kind of glad.
It’s why, even after vowing I was going to pull a David Mazzucchelli, I’m not. [Mautner laughs.] Basically, I said, “I’m not doing anything. I’ll do three interviews. I won’t be as bad as Mazzucchelli.” And now I’m doing about a dozen. I now put so much into the book that I can’t bear the thought of not at least signaling that it exists.
MAUTNER: Right. I thought for a minute there you meant you were going to be working with Frank Miller on something.
SPIEGELMAN: [Laughs.] That’s to be revealed next week.
MAUTNER: Holy Terror Part 2 or something. [Spiegelman laughs.] Do you hope this to be the final word on the subject?
SPIEGELMAN: I would like it to be. That notion of admiring the idea of a magic trick that works once you understand how it works; like you can understand how, optically, cinema is made. You can have all the voice-over tracks on your Criterion DVD that you can handle, and yet, when the film works, you turn it all back off, you put it back on, you understand that it’s based on the retention of vision from one frame to another, you understand that the director’s interested in cross-cutting and that the actress was having her period. But, nevertheless, the movie still remains what it is. I prefer that to the one where somebody comes out and says “BOO!” until you scream.
MAUTNER: The reason I asked that question is that some artists don’t like that at all. I know of film directors who hate the idea of a commentary track. They want you to experience the movie itself and nothing else. They don’t want you to see the thing behind the curtain.
SPIEGELMAN: That’s reasonable. I’ve gotten used to Maus’s existence. It’s been an uncomfortable negotiation, clearly. Maybe it is because the subject matter is so overwhelming that it’s affected the rest of my work life ever since. I’ve always been looking for little loopholes in it. I’ve found ways where I have to reutilize imagery from it, because it remains the center of attention somewhere in my brain, even though I vowed never to become the Elie Wiesel of comic books. I’ve waited, maybe two or three times, on one work of art or literature, or another, over a twenty-five-year period. But I really had to negotiate with this work. The thing that’s so strange in comics is I believe that other artists still have to negotiate with it as well.
MAUTNER: You half-answered my next question, which was regarding your relationship with Maus. In this book, and in your past books too, you have suggested a very ambivalent relationship with the work. But you’ve referenced it in just about every comics work you’ve done: In the Shadow of No Towers, Breakdowns …
SPIEGELMAN: I’ve done many New Yorker covers and even strips and a Wild Party book that have no mice in it, as well.
MAUTNER: I was going to mention that too.
SPIEGELMAN: But still: you used the word “ambivalent,” and ambivalent isn’t the same as knowing what you’re doing. [Mautner laughs.] It’s dealing with — how can I say it? Just real straightforwardly — on the one hand I’m very grateful for the reception Maus has received in the world. It makes me feel like I’ve made something that might outlive me, which is always nice for an artist. On the other hand, yes, it’s absolutely cast a shadow, sometimes metamorphosed as a giant mouse chasing me, a rat and sometimes, a momentous shadow I can’t get clear of, and so on and so on. It’s become so wrapped up in my psyche and how I’m seen in the world, even by people I know well. So, I’m always in negotiation with it. I’m not free of it. As somebody who tends to rely on autobiography as subject matter, more often than not, how can it not keep coming up? I’m stuck with something, at least from where I sit — elsewhere, it may be like, “What’s he making such a mountain out of a molehill? It’s only one book.”
But for me it’s “only one book” that took me thirteen years to do without any map of how to do it. No matter what somebody says now about graphic novels, this was made without any instruction manual. I didn’t know how to make a comic that was built to be reread, and that held up as it got reread, and be built over such a large span of time. There wasn’t something for me to look at. I guess there were long mangas out there, but I wasn’t that into them. They weren’t translated back when Maus was made. So I didn’t have any way to structure this, and structure is so basic to how I perceive. So I’m stuck with something that took a lot of me to make. So what can one do after it without either betraying it or capitulating to it? It’s an ongoing struggle.
MAUTNER: It’s had such a huge influence on the industry too.
SPIEGELMAN: Well, it changed things, you know? I know, it’s hard to look at and see what’s changed, because now there’s all kinds of tributaries that are coming together; it’s amazing, fantastic. I’m grateful. There’s actually company. I don’t have to sit and be a totally exempt creature. It did come up as part of the Dark KnightWatchmen thing.
MAUTNER: Back in the day, everyone was like, “Oh, Dark Knight/Watchmen/Maus,” and even though I love Dark Knight and Watchmen, even as a teenager, I remember thinking, “one of these things is not like the other.” And now that’s not really the case any more.
SPIEGELMAN: It all happened because the zeitgeist was ready to embrace something. There’s more affinity between Maus and Watchmen than there is between Maus and The Dark Knight, only in terms of structuring things. I found very tenuous connections with the other work that was out there [at the time]. It took years for things like Jimmy Corrigan and things like Charles Burns’s book to come out. I obviously wanted company, that’s what led to RAW magazine. Then these people came into their own, and many have followed since, and now it seems like a relatively healthy medium. And I’m grateful for that, although sometimes I get exiled into the history section rather than the graphic novel section, and can only even be grateful for that, as I see more multi-part Marvel comics coming out as “graphic novels.”
MAUTNER: [Laughter.] I think that exceeded your fifteen-minute allotment, there.
SPIEGELMAN: [Joking.] MY FIFTEEN MINUTES ARE UP! [Laughter.]