IT IS SO MUCH MORE than some cobbled-together anniversary hovel. As a floor plan for endless exploration, it is the Haus That “Maus” Built.
Today, Art Spiegelman delivers “MetaMaus” (Pantheon), a book and DVD package that not only marks the 25th birthday of the cartoonist’s landmark Holocaust tale “Maus”; it also offers a tour of the intellectual architecture and creative framework for what remains one of the world’s great graphic narratives.
Pick any page and gaze. The windows into these stories about the story are to be found at every turn, filling the space with insightful light.
The first volume of “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,” of course, altered the literary landscape upon its 1986 release (the second volume would land five years later). Suddenly, in a single word, even the oh-so-casual comics fan had a reference to understand the sober storytelling power of the “graphic novel,” of sequential art, in a way that not even the name “Eisner” quite elicited among the non-cognoscenti.
Born of a mere three-page underground comic in 1972, Spiegelman’s 13-year project is threaded through the intertwined narrative of a genetic double-helix: The cartoonist’s father, Vladek, recounts the family’s Holocaust history in interviews with Art, who himself shares stories of his contemporary family life in New York. All this is illustrated through the masks of anthropomorphism, as Nazi cats trap and exterminate the Jewish mice.
In 1992, “Maus” received the Pulitzer Prize and Spiegelman’s fame grew further. The cartoonist approached all his new celebrity with a certain ambivalence — “ ‘Maus’ was my giant cross, something I was both proud of and wished would go away,” he says — but he also knew that creatively, he could throw himself into other projects.
Until last September, that is. About four years after he agreed to do an anniversary book, he says he found himself working seven days a week on “MetaMaus” — aided by English professor and interviewer Hillary Chute — in order to hit his birthday-book deadline.
So just how difficult was it to birth this exhaustive book?
“It was a pretty hard labor,” Spiegelman tells Comic Riffs on Monday. ”I’m still suffering the stretch marks.”
“It was harrowing — even just trying to communicate with our Chinese printers ... ,” continues the cartoonist, while praising the work at Random House. “We kept trying to figure our how things were going wrong, and trying to get them reeled back in was a nightmare. Then someone said it was because it was the Year of the Rabbit. I was told that means many women in China are either pregnant, experiencing morning sickness or are on maternity leave.”
Yet that wasn’t all that pained Spiegelman while delivering this brainchild.
“For the first month or so, I was crying,” Spiegelman, 63, says of returning to the “Maus” hole. “I was devastated by the material — at having to climb back in. ...
“I’m not metaphoring — I was crying, because [revisiting] ‘Maus’ meant having to develop the emotional calluses again to move forward. My skin had gotten smooth again since 1991. ... It was like toughening-up to walk again over the hot coals.”
Spiegelman says he was blind-sided by the degree to which returning to the material — the thousands of sketches and photos and stories — affected him.
“I thought I had assimilated all this in a way,” the author tells Comic Riffs. “But reading about death camps is hard. Looking at your dead parents is hard.”
Plus, says the artist of “Breakdowns” and Wacky Packages and iconic New Yorker covers et al.: “One work dominates what I have done, so ... I really tried to make this worthy of the task. Whatever else, it’s a lot better than just an ‘anniversary book.’ “
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Spiegelman says the decision to have the book be definitive was pivotal. “ ‘Because you’re not going to outrun this [project],’ I thought, ‘Turn and look the damned rodent in the eye.’ ”
Another key decision was to include the DVD, which features not only a digital copy of “Maus” but also thousands of “sketches...photos...dream journals...almost nothing redacted,” the artist says.
In the ‘90s, a CD-ROM of “Maus” was made — yet given the high-speed rate of technological change, Spiegelman says, “by the year 2000, it might as well have been written in Aramaic.”
Now, he says, the DVD component gives “a really good look under the hood of ’Maus.’ “
“There will never be a ‘Maus 3,’ “ Spiegelman says. “So with words and pictures ... I tried with rigor to create a new book that has honesty and emotional resonance.”