'MetaMaus': The Story Behind Spiegelman's Classic Cartoonist Art Spiegelman's epic Holocaust graphic novel, Maus, was published 25 years ago. Spiegelman's new book, MetaMaus, explores that signature work through interviews, answers to persistent questions and examples of his early drawings.
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'MetaMaus': The Story Behind Spiegelman's Classic

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'MetaMaus': The Story Behind Spiegelman's Classic

'MetaMaus': The Story Behind Spiegelman's Classic

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan broadcasting today from the studios of WOSU in Columbus, Ohio. Twenty-five years ago, Art Spiegelman published a most unusual book. "Maus" told the story of his parents' experience during the Holocaust, as well as his own interaction with that story and how he decided to tell it.

"Maus" broke all kinds of literary rules, became a phenomenon and an instant classic. "Maus" was the first comic to bridge the gap between literature, memoir and cartooning. Art Spiegelman won a special Pulitzer Prize. His books have been translated into about 30 languages, and he still gets questions about them.

So he decided to produce another memoir - a memoir of the memoir, if you will - called "MetaMaus." Art Spiegelman joins us in just a moment. What are your unanswered "Maus" questions? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Connie Shultz, now a former columnist with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, but first, Art Spiegelman, a contributor and cover artist for the New Yorker. His books include "Maus" one and two and now "MetaMaus." He joins us from our bureau in New York. And nice to talk to you again.

ART SPIEGELMAN: Neal, it's nice to be back with you.

CONAN: So you took a book that was already a lot about process and wrote a book about process.

SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, it's getting too meta to live, I suppose. It's just piling it on.

CONAN: The - there is, however, quite a bit more that didn't fit into the first book.

SPIEGELMAN: Well, yeah, there was a kind of wanting to revisit and make certain kinds of things available because when you say it became an instant classic, I think what happened to "Maus" is it became somewhat canonical. It's now taught, like, between middle school and post-grad - it's taught.

And a project came out in the '90s, in 1994, called "The Complete Maus CD-ROM," a hyperlinked version of "Maus" that was made in that brief moment before the Internet took over the planet. And this was, like, the cutting-edge technology, and it allowed one to hear my father's audio - the interviews I did with him and let him have his own voice back, which was kind of an important thing to me.

Now, of course, that CD-ROM is written in a language more obscure than Aramaic, and it couldn't be reconstructed easily.


SPIEGELMAN: So this book concludes what had been that CD-ROM, reconstructed brilliantly by these people in Vancouver, 8 Leaf Digital, and it was a way of allowing people into and behind that mask, that "Maus" mask that I've been stuck with for the last 25 years or so.

CONAN: And one of the interesting parts of the book is the terror that descended upon your success as the first volume of "Maus" came out.

SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, me and my mice, we weren't dressed for success. It was actually traumatic. I got an - I know that sounds goofy, but so be it. It was a book - I wanted it to be read, but I - you know, originally we assumed we would self-publish "Maus," my wife and I, who were doing Raw magazine, an avant-garde comics magazine in 1980 and so on.

And the assumption was it could be read, but I didn't believe it would be read beyond the scale that Raw was read, which about 10,000, 15,000 people. And when it got bigger, I felt littler.


CONAN: I was among those reading it as it came out in that magazine. There were installments in the various chapters as they came out in Raw. And I have to say I thought it was terrific, but I was astounded that it took off.

SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, I mean, I suppose the zeitgeist was waiting for comics to grow up, and there was I offering that, to a degree, that - that was maybe just about ready to happen. But also it kind of disarmed everyone because they expected it to be about as stupid as anything could be, a comic book about the Holocaust using cats and mice.

Even my editor said, when I was worried that "American Tale" was swiping something basic from me, in that Spielberg movie about Russian mice, and my editor says: But Art, all Spielberg's stealing is your high concept, and frankly your high concept stinks.


CONAN: You write at various points in "MetaMaus" about being caught by your metaphor, your cats and mice, and you're having to come up with more animals. And somebody's saying if there were Italians, what animals would they be.

SPIEGELMAN: It usually would take me like six months to answer the snap question that would keep coming at me, like what animals would you make Israelis? And I polled all my friends. I thought about it for months and figured if anybody ever asks again, I would know that the answer is porcupines, which I was able to include in the book.


CONAN: There are three central questions that structure the book: Why comics? Why mice? And why the Holocaust? Why comics? It seems pretty simple: That's what you do.

SPIEGELMAN: Exactly. Yeah, I wouldn't have made a really great ballet about the Holocaust. It wasn't in my gene structure. So to me it was obvious, but I think that's what's hard to remember even going back to the early '80s, just what disrepute comics were held in, the dialogues that did and didn't take place about the Holocaust in the '70s and '80s because it's now become such a major trope in media, you know.

So it just was coming from someplace so uncharted, maybe, that people were taken off-balance and tried to figure out what it was that they were in, and what it was was something I'd kind of - because I believed it wouldn't be really read until after I was dead. I was young and believed in posterity then.

So what happened was I just built it to last, and people were able to kind of sense that in the work, maybe.

CONAN: And the next question: Why mice?



SPIEGELMAN: Can I just - you see, the whole point of this book was so that I wouldn't have to answer. I could just say if you turn to Page 123, class, we'll be able to, like, read the section where Spiegelman answers why mice as definitely as he can because there was a certain point where those questions just made me want to confess to anything.

You know, it felt like a kind of waterboarding. But gee, since you ask, and since I'm an NPR fan, I'll try to answer briefly. It grew out of just being invited into an underground comic I was working up in San Francisco as part of that wave of avant-garde comics of the '60s and '70s where the only requirement for this particular book was to use anthropomorphic characters.

And I was stuck until a friend of mine was showing films in his cinema class in upstate New York, Ken Jacobs, and he was showing these old racist animated cartoons, and he was showing Mickey Mouse "Steamboat Willie" when he's still a Jazz Age character rather than kind of square and then pointed out that Mickey Mouse is just Al Jolson will funny round ears on top, that it was kind of all a form of minstrelsy.

And then I thought I really had the answer to the question, which was just all right, I'll do something about racism in America with Ku Klux cats and mice. And I started climbing that black hole until I realized that I just didn't know enough to be able to do it properly.

And then a whole other flood of images came to my mind, ranging from "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folks," a story by Kafka in which there's a kind of way of reading it where it seems that the mouse folk are the Jews. There's the image more basically that Hitler used if the Jews as the vermin of mankind that had to be exterminated.

And all of a sudden, I was off and running with a metaphor, with my collaborator, Adolf Hitler.


SPIEGELMAN: And finding that his metaphor didn't hold up all that well. So my metaphor, as you just mentioned before, just kept collapsing. And that was good, the idea that it kept collapsing. That was part of what became the core of the project was let these mice masks be just that, masks, and animal masks that illogically would come into your consciousness and nod as you were reading, where for the most part it's just visual ciphers.

It's like I think after a few panels of reading Donald Duck, you're not aware that it's Donald Duck anymore, it's just Donald.

CONAN: And of course it was just going to take a couple years.

SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, I kept saying that for - I'm not good at the algorithm here, help me out. but I started by saying it would take 13 years, and I kept saying that for the next, what, eight years or whatever it is.


CONAN: Started out saying it would take two years, and you said that for the next eight, yeah.

SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, something like that.

CONAN: We're talking with Art Spiegelman about his new about his great comic classic "Maus." It's called "MetaMaus." 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email talk@npr.org. Let's go to April(ph), and April's calling us from here in Columbus.

APRIL: Hi, I am a recent grad from Ohio State University and actually took a comic book class as part of my English major. And one of the things that came up a lot was how new media, like the Kindles and the iPads, are going to affect comic books as far as paneling and how you read it and the literature that goes into that.

SPIEGELMAN: Well, yeah, I'm sure this is true. Incidentally, you went to a great school. I'm going out to Columbus in a couple of weeks, and I've been out there several times because OSU has probably the greatest comics library on the planet.

CONAN: I got to visit it a couple of years ago. It is absolutely fantastic.

SPIEGELMAN: It's amazing. And - but then to get specific to what you're asking about, about the new media, it's inevitable. And up until recently, the comic has been the history of printing. It starts, maybe you can go back to the Middle Ages and the wood cut, then to a certain kind of lithography, the color comics of the newspapers, high-speed, short-run Web presses that made my underground comics moment possible.

And now we're moving through one of these insane Gutenberg moments like where the entire world is going to change around this new technology and is changing. And I would say the same way comic books were related to comic strips but not identical, they had different qualities, and similarly when the underground comics came along, the possibility of working for a small mass medium rather than a big one, the nature of the content, as well as the form of it, changed.

And now big-time, things are changing. I feel what's weird to me is first while the world is turning to sludge - I'll use that word for public radio rather than the other.


SPIEGELMAN: While the world is turning to sludge, comics seem to be thriving, even in the bookstores, which are turning into sludge. It's one of the higher-frequented, higher-trafficked areas where people are happily gathered and borrowing graphic novels, as we're calling comic books these days, right?

And one of the things that's kind of amazing is it's because while other books can be Kindled, there's no reason not to read, I don't know, "The Catcher in the Rye" on a Kindle, it works, you can have it in whatever type size you want and change the font if you need to.

But comics are really sight-specific. They're made for a specific page size. They're made to have pages that hide and reveal. Like you lift them like curtains to get to the next page. You know where you are physically in it.

And I guess the way I'm sure about it is I met some authors, they had no idea what their binding was on their books under the covers and what paper stock they were printed on. Every cartoonist I know knows that. It's part of making a comic.

CONAN: April, thanks very much for the call. We're talking with Art Spiegelman about "MetaMaus," his new book about his great books, which started coming out 25 years ago. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Columbus today. Twenty-five years ago, Art Spiegelman published his epic "Maus," the two-part comic memoir of his parents' experience during the Holocaust. The book earned him a Guggenheim fellowship, a National Book Critic Circle Award and a special Pulitzer Prize.

His latest book tells the creation story of "Maus," it's called "MetaMaus." In it, he explains that his original book made both him and has haunted him ever since. To appreciate his work, you need to see it for yourself. We've posted a couple of pages from the book at our website. You can read about his visit to the former East Germany in 1992 at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Art Spiegelman is with us from our bureau in New York. What are your unanswered "Maus" questions? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at that aforementioned website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's go to Roger(ph), and Roger's with us from Commerce in Michigan.

ROGER: Yes, has "Maus" been translated into Arabic?

SPIEGELMAN: You know, there's a constant conversation about it, but so far, it has not. It's in about - gee, I don't even know anymore - like 30 languages or something. And I know it was translated into Farsi in a very small edition at some point. But so far, "Maus" easily lends itself to being yanked into that Holocaust-related debate about Israel and Palestine, and it's not my debate, but clearly the - it reverberates through the horrors of victims victimizing each other, as I think of the Middle East.

So no, the answer is no.


CONAN: In "MetaMaus," you say in part because it probably wouldn't sell very well.

SPIEGELMAN: I guess. I - you know, I'm just not a good Arab marketer or a good Israeli marketer, come to think of it. So I just don't know. Can I answer a little bit more to April's question right before the break?

CONAN: Certainly, I'll just say thank you to Roger.

SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, thanks, Roger, and if you know any Arab publishers, send them our way, I guess. But the thing is we're talking about the Kindle and the electronic thing, and I'm very proud of the fact that "Maus" is a beautiful physical object. You said take a look, and you're inviting people to the website, and one of the things about the book itself is it really is an attractively-made thing that could only be made in the late days of our computer technology.

The pictures relate so closely to the words that I'd never have been able to type-spec that back in 1985 or something, you know. And the book is seen through the DVD, which has an incredible amount of extra extra material in it. And that DVD is basically great 2002 technology because I'm afraid that everything being made right now for the Kindle and the iPad is sort of like performance art. It won't be legible in a few years. My experience with that CD-ROM that inspired this DVD proves it to me.

CONAN: Interesting conversation in "MetaMaus" about your decision to draw the panels in the same size in which they would appear. Tell us a little bit about that decision.

SPIEGELMAN: It's a little bit like what I was just saying about scale, you know. Usually cartoonists, myself included in other books I've done, like in "Breakdowns" and in "The Shadow of No Towns," I work larger than print size. And when it reduces down, it reduces the flaws, let's say. It looks more seamless. And I wanted all the flaws to be on a one-to-one relationship with the reader so that it would feel more like looking at a diary, although it's a forged diary, as you get to see when you're looking at all the sketches and preliminary work.

It wanted to have that feeling of handwriting. So I was working on stationary with a fountain pen and correction with typewriter correction fluid. And I wanted it to feel like a manuscript because that would allow a kind of intimacy to it, and it would keep me from frill and decoration in the drawing.

CONAN: Let's go next to Conrad(ph), Conrad calling from Denver.

CONRAD: Hi there.

CONAN: Hi, Conrad, go ahead.

SPIEGELMAN: Hello, Conrad.

CONRAD: I wanted to ask about the inclusion of the chapter in the book "The Prisoner on the Hell Planet" and why the decision to break away from the kind of cat and mouse characterization and then go to something that, you know, had the human characters and had a real more personal story involved.

SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, I realize that section really stands out because I'd done it a few years earlier. I'd done it in 1972, actually drawing larger scale and reducing down. And at first I was figuring, well, maybe I have to talk about my mother's suicide in some other way.

And finally I realized that the only way to do it - I'd done a very emotional comic strip. I needed to present it. And up until now, with the 25th anniversary edition, it always looked like crap. It was reduced too small and couldn't be printed well. In the brand new 25th anniversary edition, we went back and, thanks again to computer technology, could print it well.

But the main thing that it allows for psychologically is it's in a much more overheated, German-expressionist-inflected drawing style and, as you say, uses humans. And it calls everything else in the book into question. And I think of "Maus" as a book that keeps interrogating itself the same way that "MetaMaus" interrogates "Maus."

And it makes you understand that the other drawings in the other 270, 280, 290 pages was made with a conscious choice. Like in "MetaMaus," I'm able to show some of the other drawing styles I was thinking about when working on the "Maus" books because every project I took on, including that 13-year project and things I've done since, I have to find a drawing style appropriate to it. It's not the most - it's not a given.

I try to find something where the style of it reflects the tone of it. So the drawings in "Maus," as I was saying, were more simplified, had a little bit more of a handwriting, gestural quality to them. They allowed for a little bit of distance. And what I didn't have about my mother's suicide was distance. And again, it calls into question these mouse masks that everybody's running around with.

CONRAD: Yeah, just as a reader, I found myself going back to that section first when I went to go re-read. You know, to me, it stuck in my mind of maybe being a key to something larger that was going on, and certainly the fact that it stood out so drastically from the rest of the writing style really was why it was my point of attention when I went back to the book.

SPIEGELMAN: Well, it also has - you know, it has an immediate crackling emotional quality that I felt would be - it would be dishonest for me to overheat the other parts of "Maus," which are received memory from my father that I'm interacting with and giving visual voice to, let's say.

But I wouldn't have wanted to kind of amp it up and make it melodramatic. It's horrible enough without any amping, thank you, although there seems to be entire large genre of something I call holo-kitsch now that does exactly that in movies.

So here, the parts that have, like, obvious emotional tension are my father's story because he's telling it, and it's a potent story, and the situation is potent, and also the parts that have to do with my father and me are probably the other parts that come to that kind of more electric areas of the book because, again, I'm communicating something I experienced directly rather than receiving and trying to transmit.

CONAN: Conrad, thanks very much for the call.

SPIEGELMAN: Thanks. Good question.

CONAN: I was wondering, you write about this in "MetaMaus," you talk about it, and that is the question your - a lot of the book, the original book, is the conversations between you and your father, the received memory, and we go back and forth in time but that there is this character out there, this character called Art who has been around now for 25 years.

SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, and I can't get the damn mask off. You know, it's still there. Whenever I do other pieces of work, it's like hey, pretty interesting, but it ain't "Maus," you know...


SPIEGELMAN: I end up with this giant crossover hit, and understandably, because the subject is significant - and I didn't take on that subject, obviously, as a stunt, but it in a way kind of upped the ante in general for comics because if one could deal with the enormity of that in this medium, then all gates are open.

And yet if I had done something equally intricate and engaged, but it was about - I don't know - my daily life in Rego Park or a love story or an adventure story, no matter how intricately woven, it wouldn't have had that reverberation much wider. So that remains that no matter what I do, yes, I even start - when I'm doodling, I start doodling mice. It's become second nature.

CONAN: Your father was not an admirer of your chosen line of work, I think I can put it that way. Your mother, though, you say in "MetaMaus," in a way you are answering her call to you to tell her story. Do you - and you say you think she would have been proud of you.

SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, somehow I managed to, like, by walking backwards and doing three umbrella steps and twisted movements, I managed to fulfill her mandate while fulfilling my own. Both my parents were concerned about anything relating to an art career. They didn't know that no career would be good in the 21st century.

So that seemed beyond the pale, and my father wanted me to first be a doctor, then was going to settle for dentist and, a very good debater, he pointed out that I could always draw my cartoons at night, but I couldn't drill people's teeth at night. So I would still be able to pursue both if I wanted to.

It was mainly economic concern and the fact that he was clueless about comics, part of what drove me toward them.

CONAN: Art Spiegelman, night dentist, I think (unintelligible)...


SPIEGELMAN: We got a TV series here.

CONAN: Let's go next to John(ph), John with us from East Lansing in Michigan.

JOHN: Hello, Art. I was just wondering if you have any reservations regarding your comics being made into other forms of media as in like an animation or a film like other comic artists have expressed such as Alan Moore, his regrets of the tones that have been made in - of his comics.

SPIEGELMAN: Well, yeah. Also, if I take you to page 227 of the current (unintelligible), since that question does come up as a subset of my comics. The - I guess what it really comes down to is I worked for 13 years in a medium that I really do feel I understand and was able to control the elements. And comics, in their own way, are very intimate and have a great degree of abstraction. As soon as we move toward, like, animation or something else that moves, you have to - you're involved in a lot more uncontrolled variables: the voices, the way people walk, visual information that even as a cartoonist I have to inhabit, but will have to even be more dimensionalized for film. It made me very wary.

Aside from the fact that when people bring me proposals - and I've had many, many, many, many, many offers, you know, they try to like kind of soften it up a little bit, like the book has a lot of harsh etches in it. And they say, why don't we end the story with you with your father and mother's grave and with your children? And that's in the direction of what I was calling Holo-kitsch before. So I'm not against movies. I'm addicted to them. I love movies. But, A, I don't think I could do it myself without devoting 26 years rather than 13, at least.

And ultimately, my wife had the best line on this one. I'm feeling bummed out that people are more interested in my "Maus" work than anything else I could ever do, even though some of it's met with some success. She says, but no matter what, you have two great achievements: You've done "Maus," and you've managed to not get it made into a movie.


JOHN: Well, thank you for (unintelligible).

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. We're talking with Art Spiegelman. His new book about his classic "Maus" is called "MetaMaus." He's with us from our bureau in New York. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News. And I just wanted to pursue that idea, there is an aspect of comics, and there's a great description in "Kavalier and Clay" where they go see "Citizen Kane" and completely changed the way they draw comics. But I always thought that was something that we saw very much in "The Spirit." And there is some aspect of your work, and you describe it specifically in "MetaMaus," as consciously cinematic.

SPIEGELMAN: Huh. Well, I never thought of comics as storyboards for films. Some of my earlier work before "Maus" wasn't really directly inspired by Will Eisner's "The Spirit," but - and by "Citizen Kane." But what's more interesting now is to see what comics are in themselves, not as kind of a low budget way to make a movie or currently as a way to pitch a superhero film or something. But what has to do with these panels put together on a page? How do they juxtapose? What information are you getting as you look at that given? The page structure - that's an important part of how comics get told.

And as a result, some of the people I like the best right now - like one of the artists who just continues to floor me is Chris Ware, the author of "Jimmy Corrigan" and other works. And his thing looks more - his stuff looks more like maybe circuit diagrams and is often more inspired like the very earliest comics by a proscenium theater stage, rather by close-ups, overhead, under view - Orson Welles-like shots there. More about what happens on that surface. Are you looking at - how is your eye led through the panels. It's certainly an important part of how "Maus" itself functions as "MetaMaus" tries to open up in that section about comics.

CONAN: Here's an email from Czarina(ph) - great name. I found many people became disinterested about certain topics when read in lengthy essays or books. The "Maus" comic books allow a larger demographic to understand a complex historical event in simple terms and through easy flow of content. Was a simple narrative your approach? You think that's what you did?

SPIEGELMAN: No, I was actually kind of insulted when "Maus" got a young adult best book award until I realized how democratic a medium I'm working in again. But I suppose, you know, one of the ways that "Maus" has been able to stay alive is the fact that people are able to, like, just enter and then read without looking under the hood, let's say. "MetaMaus" is a way of letting people look under the hood if they want to or find out more about the history and the family that intersect with the medium in the story. But ultimately, I didn't think of it as simple. I just felt I had to, like, get things as clear as I could without screwing up. It wasn't a matter of over-clarifying. The idea was - as one of the writers from the essay about "Maus," Lawrence Weschler, said in a piece years ago, a phrase I hanged on to really tight because it was a perfect phrase, and I could never have thought of it. He said, "Maus" achieves a crystalline ambiguity, like it doesn't push past what I can know.

CONAN: In "MetaMaus," you describe "Maus" as a 300-page yahrzeit candle. First of all, tell us what a yahrzeit candle is, and tell us what you mean by that.

SPIEGELMAN: OK. I mean, a yahrzeit candle is a memorial candle lit for the dead, as I remember from the early Hebrew school classes I took before I became an apostate and taking a book tour through Rosh Hashanah, and New Year and Yom Kippur. But nevertheless, I remembered what a yahrzeit candle was, and it was my way of commemorating, of understanding and making a monument on paper with ink, but some kind of monument to what happened, not just to my parents, but by implication, beyond - without trying to charge that with the politics of other issues just as an urgent thing to try to understand, not so that we just don't burn Jews in the future, but just so that we don't burn up the planet, even, for the future. Like how does something happen, and what it - how does it reverberate through time? And that act of memory is important, and comics are great for memory. Like even when you have, like, a short comic, like a three-panel comic, you've got a past, a present and a future, as soon as you look at those three boxes. And that allows you to reflect and compare times.

CONAN: You write - at different points, you say that "Maus" was about different things. But one of the things you say it was about was about memory. Art Spiegelman, thank you so much for being with us here today.

SPIEGELMAN: Well, thanks. It was a memorable visit, Neal.

CONAN: "MetaMaus" is the new book by Art Spiegelman about his book published 25 years ago. Coming up: Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz. After 18 years with Cleveland's Plain Dealer, she's decided she can't be both a local columnist and a political wife. We'll also hear her memories of civil rights icon Fred Shuttlesworth. She joins us next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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