Art for Art's Sake

When Art Spiegelman's Maus first appeared in 1972, it contained no references to Jews or Nazis but left no room for misinterpretation: It was a Holocaust tale, told with animals, that culminated at Mauschwitz--"which some people seem to have read as the punch line to the strip," Spiegelman once recounted. Years later, he would insist it was a conscious decision and a "delicate balance"; he wanted to tell the story of his father, a concentration camp survivor, in code--in this case, the language of comic books. "If I did it with people," he would say, "it would be very corny." Nine years later, in the "graphix" magazine RAW assembled by Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, Spiegelman attacked the tale full-on: He sat down with his once-estranged father and interviewed him at length, then went to the drawing board and translated the tale using mice as Jews and cats as Nazis--a rather grim Tom & Jerry, as it were, rendered at once horrific and mysteriously palatable.

Perhaps such a work was inevitable for Spiegelman: Where some children are weaned on fairy tale and superhero stories, he went to bed with images of Nazi atrocities bounding through his tiny little head. Maus, published in 1986, and its sequel served to heighten "the irony of a child growing up hearing tales of concentration bedtime," wrote the editors of The Comics Journal in 1988. For his efforts, Spiegelman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and Maus and Maus II became required reading.

Had there been no Maus, Spiegelman would still rank among the most important cartoonists to put pen to paper--not solely for his work, which places him alongside Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman and Carl Banks and R. Crumb, but because he and Mouly were among the first to make underground icons of Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Gary Panter, Drew Friedman and Sue Coe, among so many others. And his post-September 11 cover of The New Yorker--done entirely in black, with shadows of the World Trade Center barely decipherable in the gloom--symbolized all that makes him great: It's simple and overpowering, a whisper made up of a thousand screams. Do not miss a chance to hear a man who often says everything without using a single word.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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