What does cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s 4 1/2-year-old daughter, Nadja, know about the Holocaust?
”Nothing!” says Spiegelman, dismayed at the prospect.
”She’s too young. Obviously at some point her innocence will be burst and she’ll have to learn the rather cruel aspects of the world.”
And what will Spiegelman, 43, tell his little girl when that time comes?
”I’ll say, ‘Honey, let’s read this book,”’ he says. He refers to a slim volume resting on the drafting table in the cluttered studio of his downtown Manhattan loft. ”That’s a good place to start.”
Actually, Spiegelman has two slim books in mind: his Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale — My Father Bleeds History, published in 1986, and now Maus II — And Here My Troubles Began, which this week hits No. 10 on the Publishers Weekly best- seller list.
Maus I and II tell the story of Spiegelman’s late father, Vladek, a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz and Dachau and immigrated to Rego Park, N.Y. What makes this account of the Holocaust so stunning is Spiegelman’s startling choice of medium. Both Maus books are written in comic-book form; the Jews are depicted as mice, the Nazis as cats, the Poles as pigs, and the Americans as dogs. Once you suspend disbelief, which is surprisingly easy to do, you are thrust into the world of the Nazi death camps, feeling every bit like one of Spiegelman’s starving, terrified mice.
”Comics make things very, very immediate,” Spiegelman explains. ”They move directly into your brain in ways other media don’t. I read Animal Farm as a kid. I read Aesop’s Fables. I’m sure they sunk into my mind. But a fable indicates a moral, and I don’t believe there’s a moral to be drawn from (my) story except that humans can be bestial.”
When the first Maus was published, reviewers weren’t sure how to take Spiegelman’s unnerving memoir. The author, who is coeditor, along with his French-born wife, Francoise, of the avant-garde graphics magazine Raw, was used to such uncertainty about his work. Until he began Maus in 1978, he had been drawing what he refers to as ”postmodernist, deconstructionist comics.”
”About 25 people might have been able to figure it out,” says Spiegelman, who supported himself working on Topps gum’s Wacky-Pack stickers and the Garbage Pail Kids. ”I thought, ‘People want stories. What story do I know that’s worth telling?”’
Recounting Vladek’s compelling story of suffering and survival was no straightforward task for the circumspect Spiegelman; his relationship with his father, who died in 1982, was complicated and painful. In both books, which are told in flashbacks, Vladek is portrayed as almost ludicrously stingy, obsessive, and controlling. He repeatedly clashes with the character of ”Artie,” his cartoonist son who is determined to record his father’s horrific experiences even as he is openly disgusted by Vladek’s overbearing ways. Spiegelman documents the dynamics of his dysfunctional family with nearly as much pathos and candor as he does the events of his father’s life.
”Growing up, I found him oppressive,” says Spiegelman, whose mother, Anja, also a survivor of the camps, committed suicide when he was 20. Vladek then married Mala, another survivor and Maus character. ”My relationship with my father as an adult consisted of interviewer and interviewee. We were at a permanent impasse and I came as close as I could.”
Finishing Maus became urgent in 1985, when Spiegelman came across a & description of a forthcoming Steven Spielberg animated film, An American Tail, that sounded a little too familiar: An Eastern European Jewish family of mice flees from the evil cossack cats and moves to America. ”I panicked,” admits Spiegelman, who published Maus‘ first chapter in Raw in 1980. He quickly finished the first half of his book, which Pantheon issued just months before the release of the hugely successful An American Tail.
Even though Franz Kafka and others have portrayed Jews as mice, Spiegelman still believes Spielberg stole his idea. He hasn’t sued the filmmaker because, he says, theft ”would be very hard to prove without a smoking gun.” Now that the publication of Maus II has coincided with Spielberg’s sequel, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, Spiegelman is quick to dismiss both films as ”cynical, nasty pieces of s—.” A spokesperson for Spielberg had no comment.
If he is passionate when defending his work, Spiegelman is detached, almost clinical, when he talks about his father. The irony, of course, is that Vladek Spiegelman was at once his son’s nemesis and the source of his greatest success. ”My father never quite understood what I was doing,” the artist says. ”He’d say, ‘Artie is working on some kind of comic book about me,’ but I don’t think those words had much meaning for him. I think there’d be a degree of embarrassment for him. On the other hand, he’d be pleased that the book will probably make money.”
Spiegelman shifts in his leather armchair and pauses to stretch his legs, which he’s kept tucked under him. ”Do I miss him? Yes and no. Yes in that I wish Vladek and Anja could know Nadja. On the other hand, I don’t know that I could have had a child when my father was alive.”
Though his bookshelves are lined with titles like Return to Auschwitz, Spiegelman seems somewhat uneasy in his role as unofficial spokesperson for the children of Jewish Holocaust survivors. ”Although not everybody had parents who went through the Holocaust, everybody had parents,” he says matter-of-factly. ”This book is about me as a child of survivors. The confusion can happen if you think that’s all I am. I’m an American kid and my reality was rock & roll and comic books and bowling and trying to get dates in school.”
While Spiegelman doubts his next project will be anything like Maus — ”I have no specific intention of doing III, IV, and V or Maus Goes to the Moon” — he isn’t sure how he will proceed. Since he only finished Maus II in September and soon after went on a four-week publicity tour, he hasn’t had time to get any distance on the work that obsessed him for more than a decade. Now he is preparing his Maus drawings for a show this month at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. His dimly lit studio is still littered with Post-It notes that say things like ”When was Yom Kippur in 1944?”
”As soon as time allows, I’d like to have a nice, long depression,” Spiegelman says, without a trace of irony. ”I really look forward to it. Then I can crawl around with a notebook and find out what the next thing is.”