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More than 25 years after it was first published, the graphic novel Maus continues to revolutionize both comics and representations of the Holocaust—and its Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Art Spiegelman, remains on tour.
By depicting “complex and complicated stories of intertwining human destinies acted out by mice, cats, pigs and dogs,” Maus turns “the notion of sub-human back on itself,” Ruth Knafo Setton—director of the Berman Center for Jewish Studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., where Spiegelman speaks Nov. 8—told JNS.org.
Spiegelman “reminds us that the Final Solution of the Nazis was not merely to murder Jews, but to exterminate them,” according to Setton.
“Extermination is what we do to rodents, to those we view as nonhuman, or less than human,” she said.
A prominent advocate for the medium of comics, the 64-year-old Spiegelman tours the U.S. giving a lecture he calls “Comix 101: Forbidden Images and the Art of Outrage,” a presentation that includes the evolution of comics.
A graphic novel where Spiegelman interviews his father about his experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, Maus attracted an enormous amount of critical attention for a work in the form of comic, including an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
Born to Polish Jews in Sweden, the cartoonist grew up in Queens, NY, and was a major figure in the underground comics movement of the 1960s and ’70s. In 2005, he was named one of Time magazine’s “Top One Hundred Most Influential People.”
In Maus, Spiegelman interweaves image and text, past and present, global history and individual tragedy, and the problematic relationship between father and son, to create a drama of global proportions.
According to “Necessary Stains: Spiegelman’s MAUS and the Bleeding of History,” a journal article by scholar Michael Levine, the publication of Maus, first in 1986 and then a second edition in 1991, has helped to define an important turning point in the history of Holocaust testimony.
“Forty years after the Second World War, many survivors had reached a point in their lives where they knew that if ever there was a time to pass on their experience as a ‘legacy,’ it was now,” Levine writes. “It was also a time when the children of survivors began to participate in increasing numbers in the process of bearing witness. For this second generation it was a question not only of helping to elicit their parents’ stories—of persuading them to write, speak, or agree to be interviewed—but also of coming to terms with their own implication in their parents' experiences. Indeed, many of these children had come to the discovery that the stories of the first generation had already been passed on to them, that they themselves had become the unwitting bearers of a traumatic legacy.
For Spiegelman, the question of Holocaust survival is not only a matter of who survives as a witness, but of the interminable nature of the Holocaust itself.”
The Wall Street Journal has called Maus “the most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust.” Spiegelman said that in making MAUS, he found himself drawing every panel, every figure, over and over—obsessively—so as to pare it down to an essence, as if each panel was an attempt to invent a new word, rough-hewn but streamlined.
In a 2009 interview with the Washington Post, Spiegelman was asked about his lecture on the history of comics.
“Comics were the first rock ‘n’ roll,” Spiegelman said. “That’s part of what I’m really interested in. Comics broke rules and infiltrated youth culture in the ’50s, during the (McCarthyism) Senate hearings. That made it kind of dangerous, and it’s still being felt.”
Having worked as co-editor on the comics’ magazines Arcade and Raw and as a contributing editor at The New Yorker, Spiegelman will be remembered mainly for Maus. Today, critics regard Maus as a pivotal work in comics, responsible for bringing serious scholarly attention to the medium.
“Maus demonstrates the struggle of art (and Art) attempting to accomplish the impossible, to express the inexpressible, to restore humanity and complexity where it has been ripped away,” Lehigh’s Setton told JNS.org.