Art Spiegelman (1948-)
Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and author Art Spiegelman is best noted for his two-volume graphic novel series "Maus," whilch Dale Luciano described in the Comics Journal as "among the remarkable achievements in comics." An epic parable of the Holocaust that substitutes mice and cats for human Jews and Nazis, the work stands in contrast to much of Spiegelman's works, which have ranged from designing chewinggum cards to editing comic-book anthologies that include the "Little Lit" series for younger readers. Prior to creating "Maus" he was most well known in underground comics circles as publisher of the comix anthology Raw, which he produced with his wife, Françoise Mouly, beginning in the early 1980s. However, he has been a significant presence in graphic art since his teen years, when he wrote, printed, and distributed his own comics magazine. During his affiliation with the Topps Chewing Gum company Spiegelman also inspired the misguided enthusiasm of a generation of American children through his creation of the popular "Garbage Pail Kids" collectible cards.
Spiegelman was born in Stockholm, Sweden, to Vladek and Anja, two survivors of the Holocaust, Nazi Germany's massacre of six million Jews during World War II. As a young child, the Spiegelman family moved to the United States, where Art grew up in Rego Park, New York. "I think . . . that I learned to read from looking at comics," Spiegelman told Joey Cavalieri in Comics Journal, citing early exposure to the likes of Mad magazine and various superhero books. By the age of twelve, Spiegelman was drawing his own cartoons, and, as he told Cavalieri, "it became an obsession very quickly." By age thirteen, Spiegelman was illustrating for his school newspaper, and by age fourteen he had already made his first professional sale, a cover for the Long Island Post, for which he was paid fifteen dollars.
With his talent for art in evidence, Spiegelman entered New York City's High School of Art and Design where, as part of a cartoon course assignment, he wrote and illustrated a comic strip that attracted the interest of a New York publishing syndicate. The experience made Spiegelman aware that the parameters for conventional comics were too narrowly defined for his ideas. He sought and found a creative outlet with the burgeoning underground comics scene, including printing and distributing his own magazine, Blase—the title is French for 'apathetic' or 'world-weary.' While his actions appeared unusually enterprising for a teen, Spiegelman admitted to Cavalieri that he was still unsure what direction his talent would take him: "I just knew I wanted to do lines on paper and write at the same time."
Spiegelman was influenced by a number of artists working in the comics field, among them Mad magazine creator Harvey Kurtzman, Mad artist John Severin, and Jack Davis, who drew baseball cards for Topps Chewing Gum. Eager to get his hands on cards with original Davis art on them, Spiegelman sent a copy of Blase to Topps, hoping that they would send him some cards in return. The company responded by complimenting his work and inviting him out to Topps headquarters for lunch. Spiegelman visited the production studios and returned home with a handful of Jack Davis originals. A few years later, during his first year at Harpur College, Spiegelman received a phone call from Topps asking if he would consider taking a summer job with the company. Accepting their offer, he soon became "resident tinkerer" at Topps, creating various novelty items. He also streamlined Topps's production process from an inefficient circuit between conception and realization to a smooth idea-to-artist procedure. "I sort of created a job that hadn't been there before because I was able to both write a bit and draw a bit," Spiegelman told Cavalieri. By the summer's end Spiegelman was an integral part of Topps's production, and the company asked him to continue working with them. He maintained his affiliation with the company for twenty-five years.
Spiegelman's employment with Topps included writing and drawing various card series and other humorous items. His biggest contribution, however, came about in response to another product that the company was planning. An executive at Topps was interested in issuing a series of cards featuring the miniaturized labels of supermarket products. Spiegelman, seeing little curiosity value in commercial artwork that was not antiquated enough to be charming, decided to poke fun at the project. He drew up a parody version of a company's package art. Spiegelman's loopy version of the product label was a hit with Topps, and "Wacky Packages" were born. Marketed with a stick of gum like baseball cards, "Wacky Packages" soon became a fixture of the 1970s alongside such items as the lava lamp, the hula-hoop, and black-light posters.
"Wacky Packages" offered a humorous alternative to the ever increasing onslaught of advertised products. The small sticker-cards depicted such skewed and vaguely familiar products as "Fright Guard" deodorant, "Bustedfinger" candy bars, and "Koduck" film—"for ducks." Some adults found "Wacky Packages" crude and remotely offensive. Children, however, were delighted with a product that appealed to their sense of humor, and they gleefully displayed the stickers on their bedroom doors, lunchboxes, and school books. In the 1980s Spiegelman mounted a second wave of humorous stickers parodying the popular Cabbage Patch Kids dolls. His "Garbage Pail Kids" sticker cards featured drawings of slovenly children accompanied by information that cited each child's more unsavory attributes.
While Spiegelman was devoting time to Topps, he never lost touch with the comics scene. In 1975 he joined fellow artist Bill Griffith to form Arcade, a comics anthology that highlighted the work of some of the best underground artists and writers, including Kim Deitch, Robert Crumb, and Spiegelman himself. He continued with the periodical for only a short time, however, because he felt that the pressure of deadlines was at odds with his creative work habits. While compilations of his own comics, such as Breakdowns and Two-fisted Painters Action Adventure, were published, Spiegelman then joined his wife and partner Mouly in producing the first issue of Raw. Designed to have less-frequent deadlines than Arcade—once or twice a year—Raw also featured adult comics from around the world. The material in Raw often centers on the confusion and pathos of modern life; whereas underground comics had been associated with more graphic and often sexual humor, Raw used the medium of graphic art to make readers think.
Public demand prompted Spiegelman and Mouly to compile the first three issues of Raw in book form as Read Yourself Raw. The magazine's success reinforced Spiegelman's belief that comics could do more than merely entertain, and also allowed him a medium for his own artistic output. Beginning with the second issue of Raw, Spiegelman began serializing "Maus," the work that would change both his and the comics world's perception of graphic art. As he told Cavalieri: "All of a sudden, I found my own voice, my own needs, things that I wanted to do in comics."
Although work on "Maus" began in earnest in the 1980s, the comic actually had its genesis as a three-page strip begun in 1972. Creating a strip for a compilation titled Funny Aminals (sic), Spiegelman was inspired while watching old cartoons featuring cats and mice. As he told Cavalieri, "this cat and mouse thing was just a metaphor for some kind of oppression." Drawing from his family background, he decided to explore his mother and father's experience in, and survival of, a Nazi concentration camp.
"Maus" starts with Spiegelman, representing himself as a anthropomorphized mouse, going to his father, Vladek, for information about the Holocaust. As Vladek's tale begins, he and his wife, Anja, are living in Poland with their young child, Richieu, at the outset of World War II. The Nazis, as cats, have overrun much of Eastern Europe, and their oppression is felt by everyone, especially the Jews/mice. The story recalls Vladek's service in the Polish army and subsequent incarceration in a German war prison. As he returns to Anja and his home, the Nazi "Final Solution"—to exterminate the entire Jewish race—is well under way. There is much talk of Jews being rounded up and shipped off to the camps, where they are either put to strenuous work or put to death. Vladek and Anja's attempt to flee is thwarted and they are sent to Auschwitz, Poland, site of one of the most notorious camps. As the first book of "Maus" concludes, Richieu has been taken from his parents by the Nazis, never to be seen again, and Vladek and Anja are separated and put in crowded train cars for shipment to Auschwitz.
As the second volume, And Here My Troubles Began, opens, Spiegelman and and his wife are visiting Vladek at his summer home in the Catskills. During the visit son and father resume their discussion. Vladek recounts how he and Anja were put in separate camps, he at Auschwitz and she at neighboring Birkenau. The horrors and inhumanity of concentration-camp life are related in graphic detail. Vladek recalls the discomfort of cramming three or four men into a bunk that is only a few feet wide and the ignominy of scrounging for any scrap of food to sate his unending hunger. His existence at Auschwitz is marked by agonizing physical labor, severe abuse from the Nazis, and the ever present fear that he—or Anja—may be among the next sent to the gas chambers. Despite these overwhelming incentives to abandon hope, Vladek is bolstered by his clandestine meetings with Anja and the discovery of supportive allies among his fellow prisoners. He manages to hold on until the war ends, then joins several other prisoners in making his way to safety. He eventually finds Anja and their reunion marks a happy point in Vladek's tale. After a fruitless search for Richieu, they move to Sweden where Spiegelman is born, and then travel to America. The horrors of the war scar Anja permanently however, and in 1968 she commits suicide. The book concludes with Art visiting Vladek just before his death in 1982.
When "Maus" first appeared in Funny Aminals, Spiegelman made no mention of Jews or Nazis. The protagonists were mice, persecuted because they were "Maus." Likewise, the antagonists were cats, or "Die Katzen," and they chased the mice, although "chasing" the mice meant rounding them up in camps for work, torture, and extermination. The closest the strip comes to an outright identification with the Holocaust is in the name of the concentration camp, "Mauschwitz." As Spiegelman began the expanded version however, he found that he had to write in terms of Jews and Nazis, but continued to retain his animal characters. As he explained to Cavalieri, "To use these ciphers, the cats and mice, is actually a way to allow you past the cipher at the people who are experiencing it. So it's really a much more direct way of dealing with the material." As Lawrence Weschler described "Maus" in Rolling Stone: "Spiegelman's . . . characterizations are charming and disarming—the imagery leads us on, invitingly, reassuringly, until suddenly the horrible story has us gripped and pinioned. Midway through, we hardly notice how strange it is for us to be having such strong reactions to these animal doings." Dale Luciano noted in the Comics Journal: "By making the characters cats and mice, the result is that the characters' human qualities are highlighted all the more, to an inexplicably poignant effect."
Summarizing the importance of "Maus" for younger readers, School Library Journal contributor Rita G. Keeler called the first volume, A Survivor's Tale, "a complex book" that "relates events which young adults, as the future architects of society, must confront, and their interest is sure to be caught by the skillful graphics and suspenseful unfolding of the story." Patty Campbell, writing in the Wilson Library Bulletin, commented that the book is "supremely important and appropriate for young adults. Not only because teenagers have always found the comic strip congenial, not only because it is a story of the pain of parent-child conflict, not only because it is a superbly original piece of literature, but also because it is a stunning evocation of the terror of the Holocaust—and we dare not let the new generation forget."
In the wake of "Maus" Spiegelman continued to create adult-themed comics, and also joined the staff of the New Yorker magazine for several years. He enjoyed the magazine's creative atmosphere until the events of September 11, 2001, changed the climate of the nation. It also changed Spiegelman, who created the first post-9/11 cover for the New Yorker and reflects on his feelings following 9/11 in In the Shadow of No Towers. He witnesses the destruction of the World Trade Center first-hand, living only blocks away, and also experienced fear for his children, who were at a nearby school at the time.
As a father, as well as an American and a pacifist, Spiegelman's feelings on the issue were enormously strong, and were also deeply critical of the government's reaction to the terrorism and the subsequent war with Iraq. Featuring cardboard pages the size of oldfashioned comics broadsheets, In the Shadow of No Towers was described by Newsweek reviewer Malcolm Jones as "deeply funny, subversive, silly and profound.... Mark Twain and Thomas Nast would recognize that old incendiary American cocktail of humor and rage."
In a lighter vein, Spiegelman has also produced several book specifically with a younger readership in mind, although containing his characteristic subversive humor. His picture book I'm a Dog! is a puppy-sized book with an attached leash that proclaims itself a dog under the spell of a wizard's curse. "It's a winning conceit, with ingenuous tongue-in-cheek illustrations," noted a Kirkus Reviews commentator. Deborah Stevenson, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, noted that the author's "original approach and dorky humor will make many kids eager to get their paws on" the book.
In 2000 Spiegelman joined collaborator Mouly in beginning the "Little Lit" comic anthology series, collecting works by such noted cartoonists and illustrators of children's books as Ian Falconer, Jules Feiffer, Walt Kelly, Barbara McClintock, and Maurice Sendak. Folklore and Fairy Tale Funnies, the first book in the series, begins with Spiegelman's story of "Prince Rooster." Also included in this volume are renditions of the classic stories "Princess and the Pea" and "Jack and the Beanstalk" as well as the Japanese folktale "The Fisherman and the Sea Princess." The collection is rounded out by brainteasers and games created by noted graphic artists Bruce McCall, Charles Burns, and Chris Ware.
Strange Stories for Strange Kids features works by Sendak and Feiffer, among others, and also features jokes and activity pages. The second "Little Lit" collection also contains a 1942 episode of the classic comic strip "Barnaby," created by the late Crockett Johnson. The third volume of "Little Lit," It Was a Dark and Silly Night, features the results of fifteen contributors—including Lemony Snicket, Patrick McDonnell, William Joyce, Neil Gaiman, and Gahan Wilson—assigned by Spiegelman and Mouly with the task of beginning a story with the words "It was a dark and silly night...." Grace Oliff, writing in School Library Journal, praised the second "Little Lit" collection for its "sharp intelligence and unique imagination," while in a Horn Book review, Roger Sutton found the assembled cartoons and stories "purposeful . . . even when absurd." Reviewing the third volme for School Library Journal, Nancy Palmer wrote that "the variety of art and text, from the bizarre to the benign, offers a cast of cuckoos for just about every taste." Booklist contributor Gillian Engberg felt that Strange Stories for Strange Kids will excite readers of many ages," while a Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that It Was a Dark and Silly Night is an "alternately cute and creepy volume." Commenting on the series as a whole, Andrew D. Arnold wrote in Time: "Thanks to the intelligence of editors Spiegelman and Mouly, you can't be too old to appreciate Little Lit."
The "Little Lit" books have raised the controversy characteristic of much of Spiegelman's work. Appraising Folklore and Fairy Tale Funnies, a Horn Book review stated that "Many of the stories are illustrated with an affectionately retro flair," while according to Claude Lalumiere in January Online, the work is "a pretentious collection of misplaced nostalgia" geared more for adults than for children. "Spiegelman and Mouly's sophisticated collection . . . lingers at the crossroad between kids and adults, classics and parodies," commented a Publishers Weekly contributor, reflecting the opinion of several reviewers. In fact, creating a work that could be read on several levels was the ultimate aim of "Little Lit"'s editors. Talking with Booksense interviewer Christopher Monte Smith, Spiegelman explained why he and Mouly decided to focus on fairy tales: "The tales are kinetic, filled with transformations. There's a lot to draw and see. Fairy tales and folklore . . . offer archetypal themes and memorable situations. We wanted to do a book for all ages, that could hold the interest of very young children and grown-ups."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, December 15, 2001, Gillian Engberg, review of Little Lit: Strange Stories for Strange Kids, p. 726; October 1, 2004, Gordon Flagg, review of In the Shadow of No Towers, p. 320.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September, 1997, Deborah Stevenson, review of I'm a Dog!, p. 28; January, 2002, review of Little Lit, p. 185.
Christian Century, December 14, 2004, review of In the Shadow of No Towers, p. 20.
Comics Journal, August, 1981, Joey Cavalieri, "An Interview with Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly," pp. 98-125; December, 1986, Dale Luciano, "Trapped by Life," pp. 43-45; April, 1989, Michael Dooley, "Art for Art's Sake," pp. 110-117.
Entertainment Weekly, November 2, 2001, review of Little Lit, p. 70.
Five Owls, March-April, 1988, p. 61.
Horn Book, September, 2000, Roger Sutton, review of Little Lit, p. 590; January-February, 2002, Roger Sutton, review of Little Lit 2, p. 73.
Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 1997, review of I'm a Dog!, p. 880; July 1, 2003, review of Little Lit: It Was a Dark and Silly Night, p. 915.
Newsweek, August 30, 2004, Malcolm Jones, "High Art," p. 51.
New York Times Book Review, November 3, 1991, pp. 1, 35-36; December 21, 1997, p. 18; January 20, 2002, review of Little Lit 2, p. 14.
Publishers Weekly, April 26, 1991; October 10, 1994, p. 61, September 4, 2000, review of Little Lit, p. 106; September 3, 2001, review of Jack Cole and Plastic Man, p. 67; November 19, 2001, review of Little Lit 2, p. 66; August 4, 2003, review of Little Lit: It Was a Dark and Silly Night, p. 80.
Reform Judaism, spring, 1987, Aron Hirt-Manheimer, "The Art of Art Spiegelman," pp. 22-23, 32.
Rolling Stone, November 20, 1986, Lawrence Weschler, "Mighty 'Maus,'" pp. 103-106, 146-148.
School Library Journal, May, 1987, Rita G. Keeler, review of Maus: A Survivor's Tale, p. 124; March, 2002, Grace Oliff, review of Little Lit 2, p. 221; September, 2003, Nancy Palmer, review of Little Lit: It Was a Dark and Silly Night, p. 208.
Voice, June 6, 1989, Art Spiegelman, "Maus and Man," pp. 21-22.
Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1992, p. 133; October, 2001, review of Little Lit, p. 271.
Wilson Library Bulletin, February, 1987, Patty Campbell, "The Young Adult Perplex," pp. 50-51, 80.
Booksense.com, http://www.booksense.com/ (March 7, 2005), Christopher Monte Smith, interview with Spiegelman.
DC Comics Web site, http://www.dccomics.com/ (January 2, 2004), review of Jack Cole and Plastic Man.
January, http://www.januarymagazine.com/ (June 2, 2003), Claud Lalumiere, review of Little Lit.
Little Lit Web site, http://www.little-lit.com/ (March 7, 2005).
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Nate Smith Biography - Fought His Way into the Union to Theodosius II BiographyArt Spiegelman (1948-) Biography - Career, Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Member, Writings, Adaptations