ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Art Spiegelman's prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, "Maus," has some very memorable cover art - a pair of mice, representing Jews, huddled beneath a catlike caricature of Adolf Hitler and behind the feline Hitler is a large swastika. And therein lies the problem for "Maus" in Moscow this spring. For Russian observances of Victory Day - commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany - Moscow has been purged of swastikas. And "Maus," the very antithesis of Nazi propaganda, has been swept up in the purge. Art Spiegelman joins us from New York. Welcome to the program once again.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Oh, thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: And the bookstores in Moscow have evidently taken "Maus" off the shelves. What do you make of this?
SPIEGELMAN: Well, I think it's rather well-intentioned stupidity on many levels. I'm afraid that this is a harbinger of the new arbitrariness of rules in Russia. And the result will be like what happened in the obscenity rulings that closed down a lot of theater plays. It's arbitrary rulings that make playwrights and theater owners afraid to put anything on that has an obscenity in it. So this is now extended to include - you know, you want to put a swastika on a book; you really shouldn't do that on the cover ever because you might get nailed. And well beyond that, be very careful if you're writing about anything else we decide is the red line this week. So this is a way in which I fear that "Maus" has been instrumentalized to ends I don't approve of.
SIEGEL: Is this the first objection you've heard to the swastika on the cover?
SPIEGELMAN: No. That's interesting because the first time this reared its head was way back when "Maus" was not a known entity. The word graphic novel would never pass my or your or anyone's lips. When "Maus" was offered to a German publisher, the head of Rowohlt publishing said we have a problem. It's against the law to show swastikas on the covers of books in Germany. I said, well, we've got a problem. What are we going to do? He said I'm not sure. I'll get back to you. He then found a loophole that says for works of serious scholarly import, it's possible to do it and convinced the government to make an exception for "Maus." And the amazing thing is he then went on to become the minister of culture under Schroder (laughter) left his publishing post, but he obviously had the diplomatic skills that the job might have called for.
SIEGEL: But tell me, since this is - this is a graphic novel. How important is the cover? As we all know, you can't judge a book by its cover, but the cover art is - you would find it integral to this project.
SPIEGELMAN: Well, the whole point of what we're calling graphic novels is the melding of visual and verbal information - to sound professorial for a second. And part of that information starts with the first thing you see. It's not - it's why when Pantheon didn't want to give me the right to do the cover back in 1986 when the first volume was published by them and there was no such thing as a graphic novel that anybody had heard of. I was sputtering. Like, how can you do that? The cover's part of the book, of course. And then my friend up at Pantheon, Louise Fili, the superstar art director of Pantheon at the time, said shut up and don't worry about it. You'll do the cover. It goes through me. So I did. I got a separate paycheck on top of the relatively small advance. And when the second book came out, they insisted that I do the cover so I don't get any extra money.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) You've gotten to the core there of the principle of cover art.
SPIEGELMAN: (Laughter) I guess it's all economics. I don't know. We'll have to ask Karl Marx and have him consult with Putin and we'll figure it out.
SIEGEL: Art Spiegelman, thanks for talking with us.
SPIEGELMAN: Thank you, man.
SIEGEL: Art Spiegelman, whose graphic novel is "Maus," "Maus II" and "The Complete "Maus" - it's spelled M-A-U-S - tells the story of the Holocaust.
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