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Friday, October 22, 2010

Mighty Maus

When the graphic novel Maus first came out, I bought it without knowing anything about it because “Maus” was my German grandmother’s maiden name.  Of course I knew it wasn’t about my family, but upon reading it I was delighted.  No, not with the sad story (which is about a Polish, Jewish Holocaust survivor and his son), but with the art work.  Maus was a graphic novel for adults, not kids, thus changing the genre into an adult art form.

The Ur-Maus was a three-page strip that was printed in 1972 in Funny Animals, an underground comix published by Apex Novelties.  Art Spiegelman went on to lengthen the piece and published it serially in RAW magazine, a magazine he co-edited with Françoise Mouly, his wife.  Its final form was a two-volume graphic novel.  Volume I:  My Father Bleeds History was published in 1986, and Volume II:  And Here My Troubles Began was published in 1991.  Eventually Maus was published in a single volume, and also came out on CD-ROM.

Translated into 18 languages, Maus has been the subject of numerous essays, and one can find online college course syllabi that either focus on or include the work.  Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for Maus in 1992, as well as many other prizes and nominations worldwide.

He studied art and philosophy at Harpur College in New York, and then went on to join the underground comix movement. Using various pseudonyms (Joe Cutrate, Al Flooglebuckle, and Skeeter Grant) he created the comix “Nervous Rex”, “Ace Hole, Midget Detective”, and others.  In 1975 he founded Arcade with Bill Griffith, a comix revue which featured artists such as Robert Crumb.

He was a creative consultant for Topps Candy from 1965-1986, famously designing “Garbage Pail Kids”.    He taught the history and aesthetics of comics from 1979-1986 at the School for Visual Arts in New York, before founding the acclaimed avant-garde comics magazine RAW in 1980.  He was a staff artist and writer for The New Yorker from 1993-2003, and published an anthology of his work there entitled Kisses from New York.  He and his wife created an exceptional cover for the magazine after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  He later used the image in a graphic novel about his experience of the attack, called In the Shadow of No Towers.  He later wrote a children’s book, Open Me…I’m a Dog.  Currently he is editor of a series of comics anthologies for children called Little Lit.

But he will always be remembered, honored, and respected for his audacious and (at the time) controversial use of the comics form to expand Holocaust literature.  This juxtaposition of a genre of humor with one of the most tragic stories of our time was inspired and daring.  Additionally it weaves two stories together – Holocaust survivor and a second generation survivor whom the Holocaust affected significantly even though he was not born during its occurrence – which distinguishes it greatly from other Holocaust narratives.

Some say that great art comes from great tragedy.  In the case of Maus, Spiegelman not only became the world’s most famous graphic artist, influencing generations to come, but retold one of the most horrendous stories of human suffering and devastation in a new way,  causing readers to look upon it differently.


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