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The 5,000-Pound Maus 

On the anniversary of Kristallnacht, Art Spiegelman revisits his legacy

Wednesday, Nov 11 1998
Photo by Anne Hall
Art Spiegelman's Maus, the best-selling comic book in which the co-founder of Raw comics, now known for his out-there New Yorker covers, explored his tortured relationship to his father, Vladek, and to the Holocaust, tells the story of Vladek's survival in Auschwitz. Spiegelman is in Los Angeles this week to give two talks: "Comics 101" ("the history and aesthetics of comics distilled down to something that can be said while someone stands on one leg") and "Representations of the Shoah in Maus," a speech to Second Generation, a group of children of Jewish Holocaust survivors. In a telephone conversation from New York, Spiegelman made it clear that, like most artists, he's more comfortable talking about his craft than about the meaning of what he's crafted. But his presentation to Second Generation coincides with the 60th anniversary of Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938), when anti-Jewish violence erupted throughout the German Reich, setting the stage for the genocide that was to follow. Millions of Americans know little or nothing about that event or its ramifications. For that reason, and because Spiegelman is the only artist working in a popular medium who has addressed the Holocaust without trying to extract hope or inspiration from it, I tried to pin him down on the significance of his work and other popular representations of the Shoah.

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L.A. WEEKLY: Popular culture can have an important role to play in raising awareness of the Holocaust. On the other hand, much of the pop language on the subject is reductive and tries to fold the catastrophe into received genres or narratives that lean toward uplift.

SPIEGELMAN: I agree. I would say that one thing specific to my work has been that I wasn't interested in teaching anybody a damn thing and don't think the world can be made better. Talk to some Bosnians. I never did Maus as Auschwitz 101. It's useful to me that it has had this secondary life as a didactic tool, because it keeps my book in print. I don't mind being a good citizen, if it happens while I'm just busy living my life.

To me, Maus is one of the few successful attempts to confront the Holocaust from within popular culture, precisely because it doesn't seek to sentimentalize it.

I never thought of it as popular culture. It's just culture. I was interested in understanding my origins. It didn't occur to me that there was anything unusual or odd about doing it as a comic book. That's the idiom that I talk. It's what I understand.

Did you know you'd get flak for depicting the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats and the Poles as pigs?

By the time Maus was published, I'd been warned by my publishers that it would be a good idea to lay low somewhere without a telephone.

But as you were drawing it, that didn't occur to you?

I'm stupid. What do I know? And it turned out that the flak was rather mild. However, in the last decade there's been mostly a very understanding and supportive response, certainly within the community of the directly affected and afflicted. And a cry - a squeal, let's say - of outrage from the Polish community. That's where it's still a problematic book.

Speaking of problematic, I wonder what you thought of Roberto Benigni's film Life Is Beautiful?

I think I would like Benigni a lot as a dinner companion. I have the reputation for being - at least since the New Yorker covers started coming out - a member of the shock troops. And yet I must say that I was shocked by the movie. I think Benigni overreached. I understand the movie has been very well received, and it makes me very confused about the planet. It's a bizarre film, done, obviously, with good intentions, which usually are paving stones for getting one place or another, sometimes to an Oscar.

You know, Benigni said something fairly interesting in some interview I just read, that it was important to banalize the Holocaust. That was kind of a shocking statement. I would bet that people who hear about Maus from the outside assume that it's more of the same. If I heard about the idea of this - "You know, somebody did this comic book. It's about the Holocaust. It uses animals. Oh, it's really amazing. I laughed, I cried" - I would shudder.

Did Benigni elaborate on why we should banalize the Holocaust?

So we could get on with our lives. I don't think this was sinister. I think this was actually part of those aforementioned paving stones of good intentions.

  • On the anniversary of Kristallnacht, Art Spiegelman revisits his legacy

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