JANUARY 30, 2012
IN THE 1991 SECOND VOLUME of his classic graphic novel Maus, published five years after the first, Art Spiegelman briefly — and dramatically — drops the conceit for which his book is so famous. For seven pages, instead of depicting himself as a humanoid mouse, he draws himself as a human being wearing a mouse mask. When we first meet this new version of Art, he is sitting at his drafting table, balanced atop a pile of dead, emaciated humanoid-mouse bodies, reflecting on the success of the first volume of Maus. In the panels that follow, journalists ask an exasperated Art what Maus means. Merchandisers approach him offering lucrative opportunities to turn his comic book about his father Vladek’s experience surviving a Nazi concentration camp into what Spiegelman has elsewhere called “Holokitsch”: grossly sentimental and commercial appropriations of survivor stories. In response to the trauma of success, Art shrinks down to a child-sized form. “I want … ABSOLUTION,” he whines. “No … No … I want … I want … my MOMMY!” Art visits his therapist, Pavel — another Holocaust survivor, whose own mouse mask bears an eerie resemblance to Vladek’s mouse face (talk about transference!) — and slowly returns to adult size. But not for long.
If the newly published MetaMaus — an engaging 25th anniversary commemoration of the first volume’s publication — is any indication, Spiegelman has yet to recover from the trauma of his creation’s success. And the ironic distance that once separated Spiegelman the artist from “Art” has, if anything, shrunk. The image of Art atop a stack of bodies was, as Spiegelman notes, less a reflection on the impact of the Holocaust on his everyday life than a response to the monumental triumph of Maus itself, its distance from its humble beginnings, serialized as a pamphlet insert in Spiegelman and his wife Françoise Mouly’s avant-garde comics anthology,RAW. “It’s just that after a while it started seeming like Groundhog Day,” Spiegelman laments inMetaMaus of the constant requests for interviews, lecture appearances, and other explanations of and elaborations on his work. “I suppose it led to the image of me perched on a pile of corpses with a lot of microphones aimed at me in the ‘Time Flies’ section of Maus.” “Time Flies,” which partly reverts to the formal experimentation that obsessed Spiegelman before he started working on Maus, is itself “a MetaMaus-like commentary on the whole project.”
The core of MetaMaus is a book-length interview of Spiegelman, ably conducted by University of Chicago English professor and distinguished comics scholar Hillary Chute. This interview is divided into three sections, each attempting to answer a single question: Why the Holocaust?, Why Mice?, and Why Comics? These are the questions that have haunted Spiegelman for almost three decades. As Spiegelman says in the pithy cartoon introduction to MetaMaus — which constitutes, as far as I can tell, the only new artwork in the book:
I thought I’d finally try to answer as fully as I could … That way, when asked in the future, maybe I could just say … NEVER AGAIN! And maybe I could even get my damned MASK off! I can’t breathe in this thing …
In the last panel of the intro, Spiegelman’s alter ego — a humanoid mouse this time, not a human wearing a mask — pulls off his face to reveal a skull beneath. We have good reason to doubt that this will be the end of Spiegelman’s anxious relationship to Maus, or to his own success.
A rich and rewarding work of reference — one scholars, comics aficionados, and Spiegelman fans will cherish for years to come — MetaMaus nonetheless raises some unsettling questions. If the second volume of Maus was already a sophisticated meta-commentary on the success of the first volume — one that effectively dramatizes the anxieties Maus inspired, while also working in its own right as a work of art — then what does MetaMaus add to the mix? After all, as Spiegelman suggests, wasn’t “Time Flies” already a MetaMaus? Is MetaMaus a necessary companion piece, or a sort of intellectual repetition compulsion?
We should not be surprised to find Spiegelman himself addressing these questions head-on inMetaMaus. Discussing the difficulties of telling his father’s story honestly, he explains:
All kinds of elisions and ellipses and compressions are a part of any shaped work, and my goal was to not betray what I could find out or what I heard or what I knew but to give a shape to it. But giving shape also involves, by definition, the risk of distorting the underlying reality. Perhaps the only honest way to present such material is to say: “Here are all the documents I used, you go through them. And here’s a twelve-foot shelf of works to give these documents context, and here’s like thousands of hours of tape recording, and here’s a bunch of photographs to look at. Now go make yourself a Maus!”
This passage gives a representative flavor of Spiegelman’s penetrating intelligence, and can also serve as a précis of MetaMaus itself. The book gathers together myriad primary source documents, including original sketches; studies for various pages and panels of Maus; transcripts of interviews with Vladek; the original three-page version of “Maus” that appeared in the underground comic Funny Aminals, no. 1, in 1972 (years before the RAW version of the story); photos of Spiegelman’s family and Spiegelman in his studio; a range of primary sources (visual and textual) that Spiegelman used in conducting his research; new interviews with Spiegelman’s wife and children; a heartbreaking family tree that shows how few members of the Spiegelman family survived World War II; excerpts of other comics that Spiegelman created before and after the publication of Maus; an astonishing panoply of rejection letters — some curt, others thoughtful, others embarrassingly wrongheaded — from what seems like every major publishing house in New York City; and a handy “Maus chronology” exhaustively outlining every Maus-related event that occurred between 1906 and 2010. And the accompanying DVD contains still more: the digitized full text of Maus; thousands of sketches; the original audio recordings of Spiegelman’s interviews with Vladek; and a variety of reviews, essays, and critical articles. The core Spiegelman-Chute interview itself has a powerful centrifugal force, leaving the careful reader not only with a sense of what mattered to Spiegelman during the 13 long years he toiled completing Maus but also with an excellent bibliography that will take another 13 years to get through. Only after doing all this reading, the quote above suggests, might one be in a position to grasp what Maus means, let alone to make a Maus of one’s own.
In a way, this proliferation of ancillary documents is very welcome. We will be reading Maus for as long as humanity survives its own self-butchering impulses — as long as we have the capacity to appreciate art and a willingness to imaginatively “witness” the hideous suffering we seem to enjoy inflicting on each other — and so any illumination of the sources, artistry, and thought behind the book is valuable. MetaMaus also reflects and nicely complements the explosion of Holocaust historiography in the decades since Maus first appeared, and perhaps even the Talmudic tradition of scholarship and interpretation without end. “The whole nature of Judaism as a process of questioning is actually interesting to me,” Spiegelman remarks to Chute in passing. “The idea that there should be midrashes and midrashes of commentary around commentary around commentary — that’s swell.”
And yet there is something obsessive about MetaMaus, which says as much about the price of success in the contemporary literary marketplace — and its attendant culture of celebrity authorship — as it does about its subject. When a book like Maus makes a big impact, we often condemn its creator never to move on to new projects. MetaMaus give evidence that Spiegelman has endured a fate not unlike that of Ralph Ellison after he published Invisible Man in 1952. Like Ellison, Spiegelman has rightly earned enormous praise, and, also like Ellison, he has become his own best interpreter. But just as Ellison produced no major work after Invisible Man other than the unfinished, posthumously published Juneteenth (which was itself but a fragment of the more recently published Three Days Before the Shooting …), Spiegelman has yet to produce a work of comparable depth and sophistication to Maus. Some of his latter-day productions – such as his illustrations for Joseph Moncure March’s The Wild Party, or his delightful Little Lit anthologies – are fun but relatively slight. His 2004 return to a Big Subject, In the Shadow of No Towers – Spiegelman’s response to the 9/11 attacks – is a fast read, doesn’t really add up to a single narrative, and, for all its innovations, still often depicts Spiegelman using the shorthand of a humanoid mouse. It is, to be sure, a compelling short story, but it leaves us hungry for longer work.
In the early 1970s, Spiegelman explains in his interview, he wanted to create a “long comic book that needed a bookmark.” At that point, his life had “mostly consisted of finding the hardest thing I’m capable of doing to placate the Hanging Judge within,” and Maus turned out to be that “hardest thing” as he turned 30. Before he fully committed himself to Maus, though, he “was toying with” a fascinating project called “A Life in Ink,” which would “[focus] on the century through a metafiction. It was going to be a history of comics in the form of a fictional cartoonist’s biography, made up of documents and booklets in a box, all to be printed on the multilith printing press Françoise had moved into our lives and loft.”
Even now, over 25 years later, Spiegelman’s description of this unattempted project crackles with energy. How wonderful it would be to open that box! Dave Eggers’s Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the most obvious inheritor of the user-friendly avant-gardism that RAWpioneered, has attempted something like this with their 36th issue: a “cubed head” containing a number of pamphlets featuring a variety of stories. But what Spiegelman was proposing is far more interesting. The cubed heads over at McSweeney’s are great at creating physically beautiful books and objects, but it’s only on rare occasions that the innovative form of their packaging genuinely enhances the stories they publish, however enjoyable those stories (and the packaging) are. The physical form of the booklets in the project Spiegelman was contemplating would, by contrast, mimic the primary source documents that his fictional cartoonist would have produced. In this case, as with Maus, content would brilliantly justify form.
As with Maus, we would be asked to make “A Life in Ink” for ourselves, and in so doing learn about the history of comics in the 20th century, a history that even today needs to be more widely known. Such a work might, ideally, serve as a corollary to Scott McCloud’s classic comicsars poetica, Understanding Comics, doing for comics history what McCloud has done for comics form. For almost three decades — as an editor, publisher, artist, critic, and public intellectual — Spiegelman has done more than anyone on the planet to demonstrate and defend the power of comics. If MetaMaus is any indication, the hardest thing for him now would be to let his masterpiece finally speak for itself, to step off the pile of humanoid mouse corpses he has imagined himself to be stranded on. It is, of course, not the job of book reviewers to give artists advice on how to live their lives — it’s hard enough for us to figure out how to live our own! — but it would be tremendously exciting if Spiegelman resumed his life in ink, took on the hardest project he could imagine, and showed us all what new vertiginous heights we still don’t realize comics have the power to attain.