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Books: Spiegelman's comics come to MoMA

Maus, the highly successful re-telling of the Holocaust, uses mice, cats and pigs as the protagonists

As a young cartoonist more than twenty years ago, Art Spiegelman approached the Museum of Modern Art for an artist’s pass that would allow him to visit the museum without paying. He was asked to provide reviews from his gallery shows. Spiegelman explained that he hadn’t shown his work in galleries. “What kind of work do you?” he was asked. “Comics”, Spiegelman answered. He was told that the museum did not give passes to that kind of artist.

Spiegelman was also rebuffed when, after the publication of the first volume of his Holocaust survivor’s memoir in comics, Maus, A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, he was asked to speak before a Los Angeles audience consisting largely of Holocaust survivors. “Couldn’t you wait until we were dead before you made fun of us?” one of them asked. Spiegelman’s days as a misunderstood outsider may be over now, however, even though his medium remains as misunderstood as ever. The Museum of Modern Art has just completed an exhibition of sketches and original panels from Maus, presented along with drawings made by prisoners at Auschwitz. Almost immediately after the second volume of Maus, subtitled “And Here My Troubles Began”, appeared in autumn, it landed on the New York Times best-seller list.

Maus is the story of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, a Polish Jew who survived years in Auschwitz and then settled into a quarrelsome, miserly life in an ordinary corner of Queens. All the characters in the books are depicted as racially-denominated animals. Spiegelman chose to make Jews mice to evoke their helplessness and their depiction in Nazi propaganda as verminous rodents. Germans are cats, for the Nazi’s cold savagery, and as representatives of the refined culture that produced Goethe and Beethoven. Poles are pigs, non-kosher animals doomed to slavery. Drawn in an unadorned black-and-white, based on tape recordings Spiegelman made before his father’s death in 1982, Maus is also the story of a son, raised in an America of comics and rock-and-roll, coming to terms with the legacy of a stern, uncompromising father, and with the words and images (along with much of the unintentional humour) of the father’s life story.

Initially, editors spurned the project as commercially implausible. It took Spiegelman years to find a publisher. Readers in sixteen languages, however, have been seduced into Maus’s fable of animals telling a tale of tragedy. The book’s sheer success makes its visual appeal and emotional power hard to deny.

At MOMA, more than a thousand panels from the books were mounted on the walls, drawn in the same scale in which they had been published, forcing visitors to view the drawings the way they would look at any manuscript: from less than a foot away.

Comics have figured in earlier MOMA exhibitions, most notably in “High and Low” (October 1990 - January 1991), which showed how subject matter and visual styles “ascended” into the work of Roy Lichtenstein, Philip Guston and others. But whereas illustration or even painting is a kind of visual distillation, Spiegelman argues that comics are a way of using images to create a narrative, closer to writing than to drawing, best appreciated when read rather than viewed.

As a result, comics inhabit a no-man’s land between writing and the visual arts, lacking a commercial base either in publishing or in art galleries, where contemporary prints by comics artists can bring around $1,000. Spiegelman’s own career reflects how marginal that field is. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he drew “underground comics”, celebrations of sex, drugs and satire, made famous by the San Francisco comic artist Robert Crumb. In one of these publications, he published an early four-page version of Maus. Since then, Spiegelman has brought together comics artists like himself in a magazine called Raw. One recent issue, called “High Culture for Lowbrows”, sold around 35,000 copies. If one can’t get respectability, why not at least visibility?

It would be too hasty to claim that the successes of Maus and Raw (both of them Spiegelman efforts) are moving adult comics into the American mainstream. (Comics do, however, account for more than twenty per cent of French publishing.) According to Bernd Metz of Catalan Communications, a Manhattan firm that distributes Raw through the mail and publishes “graphic novels” by dozens of other comics artists, an acceptable sale for a book is only 5,000 copies. Metz says the US readership of adult comics remains small (and overwhelmingly male) because comics have been stigmatised as cheap genre fiction or pornography, and even the best comics are ignored by reviewers in the press, Spiegelman being the notable exception.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Take cartoons seriously now — MoMA does'