In 1986, a big deal was made about a graphic novel featuring mice. The story was titled Maus and the book and its author, Art Spiegelman, were about to break out of the underground comics world they had previously inhabited.
Spiegelman had his first experience with mainstream success with the gross-out Topps chewing gum and card series, the Garbage Pail Kids. The series became an international success and the cards, an irreverent staple of ‘80s-era childhoods.
After decades with Topps, Spiegelman traded bubble gum cards for the four colored panel style he loved, and with it an intense and personal story: Maus. Maus told the real-life stories of his parents’ experiences surviving the Holocaust, and the stories of the Spiegelman family after the war. But instead of harrowing hand-drawn portraits of survivors, Maus told its story using anthropomorphic animals. It wasn’t quite Walt Disney meets the Holocaust, but it wasn’t far off. The effect was unsettling at first, for some.
That shock wore off once people encountered the intensity of Spiegelman’s stories.
“People were surprised that a Holocaust story could be told effectively—or a Holocaust story could be told at all—in a comic book,” says Rick Chess, associate professor at UNCA and leader of an upcoming book discussion about Maus at the Pack Library. Still, he says, “Once they encountered the book they were blown away by how effective that medium was and is, and it was able to tell this personal and traumatic story.”
Spiegelman’s story—where Jews are portrayed as mice, Germans as cats and Americans as dogs—earned critical acclaim, and in 1992 won a Pulitzer Prize. The reason? Its approach was earnest, and unique.
“As more and more books, films, visual art and drama are created in response to the Holocaust … certain clichés about the Holocaust start to emerge,” Chess says. “What happens for audiences is that they have an automatic knee-jerk response when they encounter Holocaust art or a Holocaust story.”
With In the Shadow of No Towers and its critical praise, Spiegelman again showed the effectiveness of his approach to tackling tragedy.
Spiegelman proved through Maus and its subsequent inclusion in college curriculums that comics can be respectable, powerful and honest, and brought a genre once relegated to basements around the world into acclaim and recognition.
Spiegelman worked for a decade as artist for The New Yorker and most recently, published In the Shadow of No Towers, a graphic novel dealing with the September 11th attacks and the aftereffects.
“Since discovering his work in the mid ‘70s, I have been convinced that Art Spiegelman is perhaps the single most important comic creator working within the field and in my opinion,” says writer Alan Moore, superstar comic writer and author of such praised works as V for Vendetta and Watchmen in an interview with Escape magazine.
He’s known as someone who pushed comics past their men-in-tights stereotypes.
“[Comics] are Spiegelman’s art form, and he had this story that he wanted to tell and it seems the most natural way to go about it,” says Chess.
[Jason Bugg is a Sylva-based freelance writer.]