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Maus | Study Guide

Art Spiegelman

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Maus | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Cartoonist Art Spiegelman began serializing the graphic novel Maus in 1980 and concluded it in 1991. Subtitled A Survivor's Tale, the graphic novel was put out in two volumes, with the first appearing in 1986. Using the frame story of Spiegelman interviewing his father, Vladek, the graphic novel depicts the elder Spiegelmans' experiences in World War II, through their incarceration and eventual release from Auschwitz concentration camp. The work also treats Spiegelman's tortured relationships with his parents; his father was difficult and distant, and his mother committed suicide.

Maus was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. The Pulitzer committee had trouble classifying it and decided to give it a prize in their "special awards and citations" category. The novel is drawn mostly in black and white, and the artwork is relatively simple. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive; the Independent called it a "book of a lifetime," and the New Yorker named it a "masterpiece." Maus has helped to change the concept of the comic genre from entertainment for children to serious work for adults.

1. Spiegelman's depiction of Jews as mice in Maus is based on Nazi propaganda.

Spiegelman explained that when he first began to do research for Maus, he found that the Nazis had frequently depicted Jews as "dirty and filth-covered vermin." A Nazi propaganda piece showed Jews as rats, and numerous cartoons did so as well. As essayist Richard de Angelis points out, the term vermin is not scientific but "socially constructed." Choosing to label "animals as vermin is the first step in justifying their eradication."

De Angelis continues by explaining how Spiegelman uses animal drawings to show how similar humans really are: "Spiegelman's visual mouse metaphor serves to expose the lie behind the artificial genetic hierarchy that Aryan anti-Semitism sought to establish within the human race." Spiegelman decided to invert Nazi propaganda and use it to tell his own family's story in Maus.

2. Spiegelman claimed Adolf Hitler was his "collaborator" on Maus.

The concept of Jews as rats or mice was extolled by Hitler as an attempt to dehumanize Jews and make it easier to carry out his plans to eradicate them. Spiegelman referred to Hitler as his "collaborator" because, as he explained, "Hitler used [the image] of the Jews as the vermin of mankind that had to be exterminated."

3. Maus was rejected by several big-name American publishers.

When Spiegelman's agent began sending Maus to publishers, they didn't quite know what to make of it. An editor at Henry Holt responded, "The idea behind it is brilliant, but it never, for me, quite gets on track." Penguin's editor called Maus not "completely successful," stating, "My passing has to do with the natural nervousness one has in publishing something so very new and possibly (to some people) off-putting." At St. Martin's Press, the editor wasn't sure "how to advance the thing into bookstores," while Knopf thought it was "clever and funny" but noted, "we are publishing several comic strip/cartoon type books and I think it is too soon to take on another one." Spiegelman didn't really blame them, saying he might have passed on it too: "It's a comic book! About the Holocaust! Oh, great. And there are mice in it!" Pantheon finally agreed to publish the graphic novel.

4. Laws forbidding the use of Nazi symbols complicated the publication of Maus in Germany.

Maus was offered to a German publisher that wanted to publish it, but because the cover shows a swastika, there was a problem. It was against the law to have swastikas on book covers in Germany. However, the head of the publishing house found a way around this: in the law there was an exception made for works of serious scholarly import. The publisher convinced the government to allow publication under this exception.

In Russia a law was passed in 2015 preventing Nazi propaganda from being displayed in retail shops, and booksellers began taking Maus out of their stores. In response, Spiegelman said: "I don't think Maus was the intended target for this." He cautioned against erasing memory by enforcing the law and said, "I think [the law] had an intentional effect of squelching freedom of expression in Russia."

5. A Polish journalist set up a publication company for the sole purpose of publishing Maus.

Much of Maus takes place in Poland, and the Poles in the graphic novel are depicted as pigs. The Polish government was disturbed by this; calling someone a pig is a strong insult in Poland. As a result, it was difficult to find a Polish publisher for Maus. A Polish journalist, Piotr Bikont, was so enthralled by the book that he established his own publishing house simply to publish it. After publication, Poles demonstrated and burned the book; Bikont responded by wearing a pig mask and waving to the protesters.

6. The Museum of Modern Art in New York held an exhibit dedicated to the making of Maus.

In late 1991 the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) held an exhibition of Spiegelman's work that was planned to coincide with the publication of the second volume of Maus. The exhibit included all the original artwork for both volumes, layouts, and source materials. According to Spiegelman, the exhibition came about because Spiegelman had criticized MoMA's exhibition "High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture" the year before.

7. Spiegelman convinced the New York Times to classify Maus as nonfiction rather than fiction.

After Maus II (the second volume) was published in 1991, it quickly made its way onto the New York Times best-seller list. However, it was listed in the fiction category. Spiegelman wrote a letter to the Times protesting its placement because it is factual: "As an author I believe I might have lopped several years off the 13 I devoted to my two-volume project if I could only have taken a novelist's license."

Spiegelman went on to acknowledge that "delineating people with animal heads" can cause problems for someone trying to categorize the work. He asked, "Could you consider adding a special 'nonfiction/mice' category to your list?" The Times responded by saying that because both the publisher and the Library of Congress classified Maus as nonfiction, they would as well.

8. Spiegelman's aunt poisoned his older brother to keep him from the Nazis.

Spiegelman was born in Sweden after World War II, but his brother Richieu was born in Poland several years earlier. When Richieu was five or six years old, Spiegelman's Polish Jewish parents were imprisoned at Auschwitz. His aunt took care of Richieu, but when they were hiding in a bunker, she poisoned herself, Richieu, and two other children to keep them from being taken to one of the Nazis' death camps.

9. In 1972 Spiegelman created a comic about his mother's suicide, which appears in Maus.

Spiegelman's mother, Anja, killed herself just as Spiegelman was recovering from a nervous breakdown. His comic Prisoner on the Hell Planet is a raw, painful attempt to process his anger at his mother and his own feelings of guilt and responsibility for her death. After publishing it in a small underground comic book in 1972, Spiegelman ended up including Prisoner on the Hell Planet as a comic within Maus. It ends, "You murdered me, Mommy, and you left me here to take the rap!"

10. In 2011 Spiegelman published Metamaus, which includes new information, interviews, and artwork.

In 2011, on the 25th anniversary of the publication of Maus, Spiegelman published MetaMaus, a new edition of his 2-volume work that includes a long interview between Spiegelman and Hillary Chute, a professor at the University of Chicago. It also included additional art, a DVD, and essays. The additional details helped to make Maus more accessible for readers and to explain the process Spiegelman used to create the graphic novel.

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