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The 5,000-Pound Maus

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.

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.

Now that Schindler's List has lifted the lid off the Holocaust . . .

[Laughs] That's one way of putting it. I vowed to stay silent about these things, and then every once in a while somebody just pushes the wrong button and I end up saying something. I got a lot of flak for my responses to Schindler's List. I got roped into a panel discussion, published in the Village Voice, in which I said that the only thing the film conjured up for me was 6 million emaciated Oscar statuettes.

Many people have approached me about turning Maus into a film, and I've always resisted. I was offered one thing where I would have final cut, and I said, "I don't want final cut. I don't want to make a movie." And they said, "But if you did want to make a movie, how would you do it?" I said, "All right, I'd use real mice."

It took 13 years for the book to find its proper shape, and all I saw were almost insurmountable obstacles to making it work as a film. There's a kind of smoothing out of textures in trying to accommodate different aesthetics, psyches and personalities and needs that comes very naturally to the pyramid-building project of making a movie, compared to the papyrus-scrawling project of making a comic, where one can remain in God-like charge.

Out of all the critics writing about Maus, Lawrence Weschler wrote one really wonderful phrase that I've held on to - that Maus achieves "crystalline ambiguity." To not simplify that which cannot be simplified, and yet make things as lucidly complex as they are. And using the idiom of comics tends one toward that, because one works with a language that requires efficiency, both visual and verbal. It's an art of essentials.

And yet it's not reductive. There's so much going on.

Well, if you ask about what makes it appeal to people, I can now talk to you as a fellow critic, rather than as the person who made Maus, and say that many of the people reading Maus did not have parents who went through the Holocaust, but they all had parents. People would come rushing up to me, saying, "My father threw out my coat, too!" I think the fact that comics tend to fly below the critical radar allowed it to get through.

One of the reasons Maus is so powerful has to do with comic-book language. Comic books work on you the way you work inside yourself, much more so than almost any other medium. When you meet somebody and remember them, you tend not to remember them in the form of a hologram. You remember them in the form of a caricature - not necessarily a humorous caricature, but a fictionalized image. And that's exactly how you visualize in your head. It's a kind of streamlined iconography. When I think of what I'm going to say before I say it, I think of it as about seven words, and yet by the time I finish talking, you've got like a $10 phone call.

It has to do with the fact that we think in language, but we don't think in syntactical grammar. We think in essentialized verbal clusters. And by the time that unfurls, it's a lot more language. And this is wonderful for a novelist and not the way one can function as a cartoonist. Because even a densely loaded word balloon can only hold a burst of about 35 or 40 words. So one moves through these sets of signs that are actually articulations of something that echoes very deeply inside our head. And I think that's why it was found in various experiments - before comics began to be seen so negatively in the '50s - that comics were incredibly useful teaching tools. Superman DC Comics in the late '40s did a bunch of phonics workbooks. And the only problem the teachers had was getting the students not to do the entire phonics workbook in one day. That's awesome.

You mentioned that Maus is taught not only in history courses, but in courses on the dysfunctional family. How, as the therapists say, does that make you feel?

I believe that universities and museum cultures are necessary repositories that allow the work to become something other than a passing parade. So I'm very grateful for the various lenses which people bring to bear on it. I was told it was used in a course on the American Indian. Well, this is what moved some professor, and he found through that lens he was able to get at other things he wanted to teach. It's cool. It was used in autobiography courses, courses on postmodern literature. I can only be grateful. I must say that the thing that made me agree to come out to Los Angeles was a lecture called "Comics 101." And as long as I was out here, I figured I'd also try out this thing in talking to my fellow sufferers [at Second Generation] - something I rarely do because it feels like talking to the choir. On the other hand, the image I have in one strip I made a few years ago - it appeared in The New York Times Magazine - has me being chased by a 5,000-pound mouse. I can't live under this large mouse and keep moving forward with my life.

"Representation of the Shoah in Maus" will be presented Saturday, November 14, at 7:30 p.m. at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. For information, call (323) 852-1763. "Comics 101" will be presented Sunday, November 15, at 3 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center; call (310) 440-4500; for more information, see the Learning pick in the Calendar


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