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Maus

Maus

Swedish-American author and artist Art Spiegelman won acclaim in the 1980s with his two-part graphic novel Maus, an account of his parents' experiences as Jews in concentration camps during the Holocaust. The work brought respect to the comic art world, fully transforming the genre from "funnies" or superhero stories into a new medium for literature. Formerly known as a driving force in the quirky world of self-published and underground comics, Spiegelman was also responsible for many of the offbeat ideas and artwork for Topps Chewing Gum's Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids—trading cards and stickers that featured irreverent pokes at popular culture. Spiegelman was awarded a Pulitzer Prize special citation for Maus and went on to put the whole collection on CD-ROM in 1994 for the information age. He is also known for the avant-garde graphic magazine Raw, which he and his wife began publishing in 1980. In 1991, Spiegelman began serving as a contributing editor for the New Yorker, producing sometimes controversial covers, and in 1996 he published a children's book titled Open Me, I'm a Dog.

Spiegelman was born on February 15, 1948, in Stockholm, Sweden, to Vladek and Anja (Zylberberg) Spiegelman. Spiegelman's parents and older brother were imprisoned in concentration camps at Auschwitz during World War II; the couple survived, but their first son did not. Afterward, they moved to Sweden, where Spiegelman was born. The family immigrated to New York City when Spiegelman was three, and he was later naturalized as a U.S. citizen. Though Spiegelman's father wanted him to become a dentist, the young artist was passionate about drawing. Spiegelman excelled at the High School of Art and Design in New York, and his art was published in alternative and local publications. While still a high school student, Spiegelman turned down an offer to draw comics for United Features Syndicate, deciding that he did not want to tone down his oddball style for a family readership.

Instead, Spiegelman continued writing for underground comics, which were often self-published, printed in small anthologies, or picked up by minor companies. Unlike traditional comics, which usually feature superhero action-adventure or silly humor, underground comics often deal with social issues or taboos, feature black humor or no humor at all, and have been known to contain adult and offensive material. After his freshman year in college, Spiegelman went to work for Topps Chewing Gum Company in 1966, where he stayed for over 20 years. At Topps, Spiegelman created the Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids series of trading cards and stickers. Wacky Packages were spoofs of typical supermarket items, such as "Fright Guard" deodorant, "Bustedfingers" candy bars, and even mocking itself, "Wormy Packages." Later, in a spoof of the popular Cabbage Patch Kids craze, Spiegelman came out with "Garbage Pail Kids" cards, featuring unkempt children with names like Acne Annie and Wrinkled Rita.

In 1968 Spiegelman suffered a nervous breakdown, and shortly thereafter, his mother committed suicide. The artist then moved to San Francisco, where underground comics were flourishing thanks to artists like R. Crumb. Spiegelman's cartoons were published in a number of periodicals such as Real Pulp, and in the early 1970s, he produced a number of his own titles. In 1972 Spiegelman developed the idea for his later masterpiece, Maus, when he produced a short cartoon for Funny Animals using the idea of Jews in the Holocaust as mice. He taught for a short time at the San Francisco Academy of Art in 1974-75. Also around this time, he banded together with Bill Griffith, creator of Zippy the Pinhead, to form the comic anthology Arcade in order to showcase new material.

Later in the 1970s Spiegelman returned to New York, where he met Francoise Mouly, an editor and graphic designer. The two married on July 12, 1977, and joined creative forces, publishing Raw, an underground comics anthology magazine, beginning in 1980. The publication featured a smorgasbord of works from underground and up-and-coming comic artists. Meanwhile, Spiegelman began interviewing his father about his experiences at Auschwitz. The first book of the oral history was published in 1986 as Maus: A Survivor's Tale, My Father Bleeds History. Jews are drawn as mice, the Nazis are cats, Poles are pigs, Americans are dogs, and Auschwitz is Mauschwitz.

Initially, people were stunned that someone would dare make a cartoon out of such a serious issue as the Holocaust, perhaps not realizing that Maus was a graphic novel, not a funny comic book. In fact, Spiegelman had a difficult time finding a publisher. Pantheon eventually came around, and the book became a sensation. Spiegelman followed this volume in 1991 with Maus: A Survivors Tale II, and Here My Troubles Began. The volumes were overwhelmingly praised, especially for their ability to make the reader deal with the events through the use of animals instead of humans (not unlike George Orwell's Animal Farm). Spiegelman also noted that Hitler even used the word "extermination," typically used only in the context of ridding vermin and pests, to refer to his plan of genocide. In 1992 Spiegelman was awarded with a special citation Pulitzer Prize for his Maus graphic novels. He later began contributing cover designs to the New Yorker, stirring controversy with what some considered offensive themes.

Though Spiegelman was undoubtedly one of the most integral forces in underground comics throughout the 1970s, and started to make his mark in the 1980s with Raw, he was perhaps the most effective artist in changing the image of comic books, thanks to Maus. After its publication, the graphic novel finally took its place as a legitimate form of literature and brought the horrors of the Holocaust to another generation of readers in a provocative medium.

—Geri Speace

Further Reading:

Chapman, Jeff, and John D. Jorgenson, editors. Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. Vol. 55. Gale Research, 1997.

Graham, Judith, editor. Current Biography Yearbook. New York, H. W. Wilson, 1994.

Young, James E. "The Holocaust as Vicarious Past: Art Spiegelman's'Maus' and the Afterimages of History." Critical Inquiry. Spring 1998, 666.

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