Drawing Blood

Notes on Maus

Detail from Art Spiegelman’s Maus (Pantheon Books, 1991).

THE GHOULISH URGE to pile on more content, more inanity, more everything all at once, now! came from an unusual subject recently: Maus, by Art Spiegelman. For those of you tuned out to the outrage cycle or just wisely ignoring all news until a blinding flash of light makes equals of us all, in January the McMinn County, Tennessee, Board of Education voted unanimously to remove from the eighth-grade curriculum Spiegelman’s comic book memoir of his parents’ life before, during, and after Auschwitz. The principal objections: a few damns and one naked corpse. The subtext: fear, a dash of anti-Semitism, and ignorance. The punchline: This trifecta is lately used by the righteous and the damned alike to control what can and can’t be seen. Anyhow, innumerable think pieces have been written, the cartoonist himself has spoken eloquently and movingly, and I’ve been asked to write about Maus in its cartooning context.

Not atypical for suburban Jews of my generation, I was a Holocaust-obsessed kid. Because of my father’s Polish-Jewish roots, it took up permanent residence in my mind. Having read and reread the first Maus when I was eleven or twelve, I was anxiously awaiting the sequel. In 1991, when I was fifteen, my mom took me to see Spiegelman speak about the book at the Bethesda Jewish Community Center. The room was mostly empty. As he chain-smoked all the way through his “Comix 101” slide lecture, he became a nicotine-stained Moses handing unto me the history of comics that he helped to canonize (including Milt Gross, Chester Gould, and Harvey Kurtzman) around the globe (and even in the pages of this magazine). Then, he signed my copies of Maus, Volume I and the brand new Maus, Volume II and off we went.

The cover of the first volume of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, 1986 (Pantheon Books).

I’m (much) older now. When I first moved to New York, age twenty-three, I packed boxes and ran errands for Spiegelman. Later, I rejected him and his canon, then synthesized it, repaired relations, and now value his friendship and hard-earned perspective. The cartooning pantheon with which he blew my mind back in 1991 is perhaps on shakier ground than ever as new generations of cartoonists and readers have necessarily diversified its range of subjects, readers, and practitioners. Amid this welcome change, as in any canonical shift, some of the established traditions are getting lost. This is rather a shame, since (a) what now might be regarded as old hat is even richer than I thought then and (b) the ubiquity and deceptive simplicity of Maus obscures its place as a living work rooted in Spiegelman’s profound understanding of the history and practice of cartooning. There are many ways to approach Maus, but a particularly generative one is through the cartooning that informed it.

Born in 1948, Spiegelman grew up in Rego Park, Queens, in love with comics and involved in fandom, trading mimeographed fanzines with a generation or two of future cartoonists and historians. One of his great loves was EC Comics, which from 1950 to 1955 spewed publications aimed at the teenage and college market, even readers in their twenties. Harvey Kurtzman, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, wrote and storyboarded some of the best (and the young Spiegelman’s favorite) comics about the moral hazards of war in Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, and most importantly, the anarchic, stall-kicking Mad, which Spiegelman described in a 1995 interview as “an urban junk collage that said, ‘Pay attention! The mass media are lying to you, including this comic book!’ I think [Kurtzman’s] Mad was more important than pot and LSD in shaping the generation that protested the Vietnam War.”⁠ EC’s output was both sophisticated and lurid—consciously aiming for higher ideals yet still fundamentally with a whiff of the lumpen, the ghetto, the Jew.

Detail from Bernard Krigstein and Al Feldstein’s Master Race (EC, 1955).

Spiegelman especially admired Master Race (EC, 1955), a brilliant eight-page story drawn with spiky modernist bravado by Bernard Krigstein from a script by Al Feldstein. The story is simple: A concentration camp survivor and a concentration camp guard encounter one another on the subway. But the execution remains masterful: Memory, time, terror, and finally, a confrontation and physical chase are broken down into panel units that contract and expand keyed to the time, space, and emotional tenor of the action. Spiegelman wrote a college term paper about it in 1967, then updated it with coauthors John Benson and David Kasakove and published a new version, along with responses by Krigstein, in the sixth issue of Benson’s superb fanzine Squa Tront (1975). That essay (hell, the entire issue) is a highwater mark of comics criticism. We’re all still (or should be) trying to top it—even Spiegelman, who returned to Krigstein in a 2002 essay in The New Yorker.

Like a bunch of other EC-loving kids, Spiegelman began working in underground comics in the late 1960s, publishing in the East Village Other alongside Robert Crumb, Kim Deitch, and Spain Rodriguez. Underground comics facilitated and encouraged the kind of radical experimentation Krigstein and Kurtzman dreamt of, but were denied by the parameters of what was essentially an industry for children. But once the underground press placed the funnies right next to Allen Ginsberg, and Crumb proved that the lowly comic book could be a container for an expanded, fucked-up consciousness and sold to heads across the country, a world of potential opened—autobiography, confession, advocacy, psychedelia, literary fiction. Spiegelman first drew a three-page demo version of Maus for future Ghost World and Crumb director Terry Zwigoff’s 1972 one-off animal rights comic book anthology Funny Aminals. Spiegelman was ambitious for the medium early on: He coedited the progressively more adventurous and influential comics anthologies Short Order, Arcade, and RAW, the latter the vehicle for Maus’s serialization from 1980 to 1991.

His initial intention for the book-length Maus was to create the first emotionally layered and carefully constructed work of literary nonfiction in comics form. And while his was not the earliest so-called graphic novel—there were other longform comics, there was even a (too) beautiful anti-Nazi comic by the French cartoonist Calvo—but Spiegelman met his own criteria and in so doing established a paradigm for the medium. It’s important to understand Maus as, yes, an anomalous work in its scope and execution, but also as a work that came out of a cartooning world that is still little understood.

Detail from Art Spiegelman’s Maus (Pantheon Books, 1991).

Maus works so well because it communicates directly and concisely, and because it doesn’t seek to elevate the form so much as get down in the muck with it. Spiegelman learned clever, no-nonsense communication as a young commercial artist (Crumb did much the same in the greeting card industry) at Topps Bubble-Gum, where he helped birth Wacky Packages and the Garbage Pail Kids. As a cartoonist he studied the techniques from the masters themselves, most notably Kurtzman, whom he befriended. He took all this training, understood it had potential to generate more than trading cards and gags (both noble pursuits), but essentially stayed underground in spirit—he liked to fuck with his audience and the debased origins of his form while expanding both. 

Most of the staging and characters in the first decade (1895–1905 or so) of newspaper comics were rooted in minstrel shows and vaudeville, and caricature as a form was built on exaggerating the features of all ethnic types. The experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs unlocked this idea for Spiegelman in the early 1970s by explaining that Mickey Mouse was basically Al Jolson. Further, some of the best comics of the 1940s and ’50s were written and drawn by a former Disney story man named Carl Barks. His comics had pathos, cynicism, visual detail, and richly delineated characters. He injected new life into such highly recognizable ciphers as Donald Duck and his nephews so that he could unspool the personal stories he needed to tell.

Spiegelman knew all of this and realized that by rendering his characters as cats, mice, and other animals, he could simultaneously explore the history of his chosen medium, tweak the visual taboos, and offer readers a path into a difficult subject. It works because his drawings are precisely composed but roughly drawn—bringing warmth to his Krigstein and Jacobs–influenced structuralist approach—and his writing wry, knowing, and self-critical. His book emerged from a horrific story and a dank, permissive place. Like Mad and many of the best comics, it bores right into its readers, and in its engagement with difficult histories and genres carries with it the pungent (read: Jewish) and rough sensibility of the best and most essential art.

Dan Nadel is a 2021–2022 fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center, CUNY. His exhibition “Hard-Ass Friday Nite: The Art of Spain Rodriguez,” is currently on view at Andrew Edlin Gallery in New York.