Beyond Holokitsch: Spiegelman Goes Meta

November 22, 2011 | 2 books mentioned 1 8 min read

The class met on weekends – three hours on Saturday, three hours on Sunday – and was filled with working people: grocery store clerks, UPS delivery guys, off-duty cops, all trying to squeeze a few extra community college credits into their overstuffed lives. A giggle ran through the room when I showed the class Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the first book on our syllabus. At the time, fifteen years ago, Maus was still fairly new, and “graphic novel” wasn’t yet a term you saw on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. My students couldn’t believe they were actually going to read a comic book for an English class, much less one that told the story of the Holocaust as a kind of Tom & Jerry cartoon with the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice.

coverThe students were mostly Asian and Latino immigrants, and they came to the class knowing next to nothing about Nazi Germany. In some ways, that was the most startling part of the class for me. How do you explain the slaughter of six million Jews to a group of people who couldn’t find Germany on a map? It was like describing ice cream to room full of Martians. They just couldn’t get it. Why were the Germans so mad at the Jews? Why didn’t the Jews fight back? Why didn’t the Americans just bomb the bejesus out of the camps and set all the Jews free? Finally, on the last day, when we were deep into the Auschwitz section of the book, one of the younger students, a tall, skinny Vietnamese gangbanger kid named Loc raised his hand. “It just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “They’re all white people.”

Whatever lesson plan I’d written for the day sailed out the window and for the next hour we talked about how racism works. To one degree or another, nearly every student in the class had suffered discrimination at the hands of white people, but to them, wise to the ways of the American melting pot, racism was largely a matter of skin color. To be dark was bad; to be lighter, even the tiniest bit lighter, was a gift. But what if racism wasn’t based on skin color? What if it had no fixed basis whatever? What if two groups of equally white people could hate each other to the degree that one group would try to wipe the other off the face of the earth?

The stories began to pour out. Loc, my lanky young gangbanger, talked about how much he’d hated members of a rival Vietnamese gang, even though to most Americans the two groups looked identical. Other, older students talked of Mexican-on-Mexican violence in Chiapas, Catholic-against-Communist violence in Vietnam. What made the conversation so electric was that they had moved out of their comfort zone of talking about their victimhood. Now, in many of these stories, they were the aggressors. They were the cats and other people who looked just like them were the mice. When we returned to the book, and to the stories of the Nazis’ brutal treatment of Spiegelman’s parents, Anja and Vladek, in the camps, Auschwitz was real to them in a way that no documentary film or historical lecture could have ever hoped to achieve.

I was reminded of that electrifying class session recently when I read Spiegelman’s new book, MetaMaus. Timed for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Maus, the new book is built around a series of interviews University of Chicago professor Hillary Chute conducted with Spiegelman and his family. Sprinkled between the interviews are dozens of old family photos, early drafts of certain pages of Maus, reproductions of cartoons and other art work that influenced Spiegelman, and, just for a bit of mean-spirited fun, copies of the many rejection letters he received, with the names of the editors, whose cluelessness cost their companies untold millions after Maus became a hit, there for all to see. Appendices include a full transcript of Spiegelman’s taped interviews with his father and a DVD containing hours of original audio recordings, along with more family photos and early drafts of Maus.

The book is thus little more than an artfully curated culling of Art Spiegelman’s attic, and yet for those of us who have come to regard Maus as one of the half dozen or so truly indispensable works of post-World War II American literature, it is a treasure trove of background material and historical context. More than that, though, MetaMaus is a loose, rambling treatise on the alchemical process of transforming the raw material of one’s own experience into a work of art capable of reaching – and teaching – millions.

covercoverSome may chuckle at the notion of Maus as one of a handful of truly indispensable works of post-World War II American literature. American literature since 1945 encompasses Nobel laureates Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison, along with Philip Roth, who if anybody ever listened to me, would already have his Nobel by now. The period also includes the likes of John Updike, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, and Thomas Pynchon, to say nothing of more recent authors such as Tim O’Brien, David Foster Wallace, and Louise Erdrich. Do I seriously mean to compare modern classics like Beloved or Gravity’s Rainbow to a comic book?

coverIn fact I do, and to explain why I need to go back to that community college classroom fifteen years ago. The students in that class were by no means stupid. They weren’t in the least intellectually lazy, either. I find myself annoyed by teachers like the mysterious Professor X, author of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, who depict their students as lazy, ill-mannered lunks who have no business being in college. This view has no relationship to the reality I encountered in my years teaching in community colleges. After all, those students were giving up their weekends to take an introductory English course. They weren’t saints – I busted a plagiarist in that class, as I recall – but they understood, probably better than the kids in my classes at Fordham University today, that the American dream is built upon education, and they struck me as hungry to get started.

Still, no one in that class was ready for Saul Bellow or, God forbid, Thomas Pynchon. One of the first lessons of teaching literature in the real world is that you have to meet your students where they are, not where you want them to be. In academic jargon, this is called finding your students’ “zone of proximal development,” the sweet spot between what they already know and what they couldn’t possibly comprehend even if you were there to help them. The wonder of Maus is that it fits into everyone’s zone of proximal development. I taught it to those working-class immigrants in California fifteen years ago; I taught it at a third-rate night school in Virginia; and just last month, I taught it in an advanced writing class at Fordham, a prestigious, four-year private university. Every time, in every context, students told me they’d stayed up half the night finishing the book, and then when we discussed it in class, it took the tops of their heads off all over again. Maus is that rare work of literature that speaks to everyone while pandering to no one.

MetaMaus is a record of how Spiegelman pulled off this magic trick. The first, and perhaps most important piece of the puzzle, has to do with the form itself, the fact that Spiegelman chose to tell one of the most horrific tales of the twentieth century in the form of a barnyard comic book. In Maus, not only are the Germans cats and the Jews mice, but the Poles are pigs, the Americans are dogs, the French are frogs, and for a few antic pages late in the book, the Swedes are reindeer. But at the same time, they aren’t. In Spiegelman’s comic book, the characters have animal heads, but the rest of their bodies are human, and so far as the story is concerned, they are human. Even more perversely, the animals can wear masks to pass themselves off as other kinds of animals. Thus, when Spiegelman’s father wishes to pass as a non-Jewish Pole, in the comic his mouse character wears a pig mask, tied with a string visibly knotted in the back.

It’s a simple conceit, stolen from a million superhero comics, but set here in the middle of a story of Nazified Europe, the image makes a startlingly modern argument. Or, rather, it offers a series of startling arguments that intertwine and contradict each other in ways that only literature can do. On the one hand, Spiegelman’s central visual metaphor answers the question, in a chillingly deterministic fashion, why the Germans killed the Jews. They did it for the same reason cats chase mice: because it’s in their nature. On the other hand, if a mouse can become a pig, or even a cat, merely by behaving like one, then racial categories aren’t fixed in biology and are instead artifacts of performance. And if race is rooted in behavior, not biology, then it is essentially meaningless, and Hitler’s racial ideology is a murderous sham.

This is just one example of how Maus takes on the knottiest of historical questions in the simplest of terms, without losing any of the underlying complexity. For the dedicated reader of Maus, what is fascinating about MetaMaus is how carefully Spiegelman thought through all this complexity. MetaMaus functions as a sort of public scrapbook of the twenty-year process from Spiegelman’s first fumbling attempts to draw his parents’ story in comic book form in the early 1970s to the finished book, the second volume of which was published in 1991. At the same time, the book works at the atomic level, walking the reader through Spiegelman’s agonizingly slow process of creating individual panels, layering in his taped interviews with his father and his historical research with his encyclopedic knowledge of the comic-book genre, and then using his skill as an artist to tie it all together into an arresting visual image. Panel by painstaking panel, Spiegelman’s images serve to answer a basic question that hangs mutely over the entire project: Did this terrible thing really happen?

The Holocaust, after all, didn’t just strike Spiegelman’s family. It is a vast and controversial war crime that has inspired an enormous range of responses from outright denial to what Spiegelman calls “Holokitsch,” his term for the numbing stream of books and movies that use the backdrop of the camps to lend weight to the unbearable slightness of their premises:

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Communists ceased to be attractive as villains. I guess interest in the Holocaust really metastasized at that point: “This is the perfect hero/villain paradigm for movies.” It’s replaced cowboys and Indians… The Holocaust has become a trope, sometimes used admirably, as in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, or sometimes meretriciously, like in Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.

In MetaMaus, it becomes clear that Spiegelman spent almost two decades creating Maus because it took him that long to figure out how to force his readers to tune out the blaring cultural noise of Holokitsch and actually see what had happened to his parents.

To help American readers up to their eyeballs in Holokitsch see this oft-told tale anew, Spiegelman conceived of a great, overarching metaphor structure, and then, masterfully, set about getting the reader to ignore it. What we see when we open up Maus is a work of head-spinning surrealism – a bunch of people walking around with animal heads – but its power as literature lies in the fact that it presents itself as documentary realism. The very unreality of the imagery allows viewers who might never be able to sit through a realistic documentary about Auschwitz that showed dead bodies stacked like cordwood in the snow to follow Vladek and Anja Spiegelman through six long years of Nazi terror. At the same time, the humanity of their interactions, the way they talk and scheme and love one another, forces us to in effect draw faces on their mouse heads, to enter the story in our imagination. As Spiegelman puts it: “In other words, you’ve got to do the work the same way you do when you’re reading prose, and Maus retains that attribute of prose.”

It is this liminal state – part comic book, part family saga, part war documentary – that explains the book’s staying power as a teaching tool and as a work of literature a quarter century after the first volume appeared. Maus is, like the comic books that inspired it, a profoundly democratic text, accessible to anyone who has ever sat in front of a TV on a Saturday morning. Yet unlike its many imitators, it doesn’t stop there. The book demands that its readers “do the work,” look closely and follow its many telling details, and in doing so, readers melt into the story, becoming not just the mice, but also, terrifyingly, the cats and pigs that torment them.

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022

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