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Our Politics, Ourselves: The Millions Interviews James Sturm

Americans, young and old, of every race and gender, saw their lives upended in 2016. I’m referring to the at least 800,000 marriages that ended in divorce that year. Many of these divorces were amicable, and in time, everyone involved was better off for them. Others left behind emotional carnage from which no one involved—husbands, wives, and children—would ever recover. The election of a fascist to the most powerful position in the world was the least of these newly broken families’ problems.

But no one can ever completely ignore their political moment. James Sturm’s Off Season, set against the 2016 election, is a portrait of a middle-aged man—presented like all the book’s characters as an anthropomorphized dog—who sees his world shattered when his wife leaves him, forcing him to face his inadequacies as a lover, a father, and a contributor to the great U.S. economy. It’s not so much an American tragedy as it is an elegy for the myth of the Great American Male.

Off Season originally appeared in serial form in Slate. Drawn and Quarterly has released an expanded version of the story as a graphic novel. Sturm answered questions by email about his oeuvre, as well as the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, where he sits as director.

The Millions: You’ve written and drawn books set in the past: Market Day, The Golem’s Mighty Swing, and Unstable Molecules. How do your strategies differ when you write and draw a story set in the contemporary moment?

James Sturm: With historical fiction there is more of an element of excavation to the undertaking. Switching gears to contemporary fiction, I enjoyed being more attentive to the current moment and my immediate environment, especially because the story was set in a place similar to where I live. There were times while writing Off Season that it felt like I was working on a documentary.

TM: What do you mean by documentary? Do you see similarities between the methods you employ in Off Season and those employed by non-fiction comics creators?

JS: After working on the book a year, my characters felt real to me. With characters set in another era you have a sense of the history they are moving through. When I decided to set this book during the election season, I didn’t know what was going to happen, I had to let things unfold and record my character’s response.

TM: You began your career making books about non-Jewish themes, but you are best known for exploring Jewish culture. Referring to the books mentioned in the previous question, you have studied life in the “old country,” as well as Jewish-American life in the Midwest in the 1920s and in New York in the late 1950s. Why did you write a book about life during the 2016 election about non-Jews?

JS: I chose certain times and places for my stories that I thought would lend themselves to the themes I wanted to explore. I never saw the themes in those stories as being uniquely Jewish.

I started Off Season to help me process a rough stretch in my own life and I was working on the book a year before the 2016 election. There was no political dimension to it but as real-world events unfolded, given who my characters were, it would have been too great of an omission not to include the election.

TM: If you pay attention to politics—and not everyone does—it invariably becomes personal. Sometimes an angry disagreement about a major event simply illuminates what long lay underneath a troubled relationship. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of not wanting to associate with someone whose values are so repugnant you can’t stomach their company. I think Off Season explores this ambiguity.

JS: I’m glad to hear you say that. This is certainly something the book gets into. Our politics are often a projection of our deepest selves and this is also why it is rare that anyone’s political allegiances change even after they are given factual evidence to the contrary.

TM: You employ very few tricks in your composition of Off Season. The panels are the same size. The movements of the characters are expressed with relative subtlety. LSD plays a role in the narrative, but you don’t indulge any stereotypes of what “being on a trip” might look or feel like. Why the restraint?

JS: Off Season’s narrator, Mark, is all about restraint—he’s trying to hold it all together. I tried to make storytelling choices that seemed appropriate to the character. I trust the material and strived to present it without artifice or pretense. Regarding LSD, it’s such an intensely personal experience that for me trying to depict it literally would only cheapen it. I much prefer to create the space that the reader can fill in.

TM: Your sense of landscape in Off Season feels claustrophobic. I don’t want to live in this Vermont. Is this a function of your protagonist’s consciousness or a function of your city boy’s sense of your current home?

JS: I don’t think I ever state the book takes place in Vermont. It could also be New Hampshire or even Maine. But your question is well taken. I find New England winters incredibly beautiful. After the fall colors go away, what’s left is something bare and primal. They possess this haunting feel that I tried to capture. I love living in Vermont, winter and all.

TM: Why dogs?

JS: I’ve often drawn these type of dog/humans as a way to get me going in my sketchbook, it invites a certain playfulness. My intention was to turn everyone into a human but at some point during the project, the dog heads seemed to make sense. Maybe it was the idea that the even the strangest things can quickly become normal. Or this idea of doggedness as the essential quality that’s needed if we have any hope to cross the divides that separate us.

TM: Have there been any works of fiction—graphic novels, prose novels, or films—made in the last couple of years that have also overlapped with your work? Are there any that resonate with you in particular?

JS: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro really resonated with me. This older couple, following the death of King Arthur, take this mythic journey and their love is tested. It’s a meditation on trauma and memory and casts quite the spell. Though not recent, one of my all-time favorite movies is Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind. That too shows an estranged couple trying to find their way back to each other.

TM: As the founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, you potentially have a lot of influence on the future of comics art. If you decide that your students read and study Jules Feiffer’s work from the 1950s and ’60s, for example, Feiffer’s work may end up serving as the model for future cartoonists. There has long been a complaint that MFA fiction programs are designed to produce a very specific idea of fiction.  

JS: This is an issue that the entire CCS faculty engages with. What comics should emerging cartoonists be familiar with? Works like Krazy Kat, Fun Home, Maus, Love and Rockets, and One! Hundred! Demons! seem canonical. That said, each generation should challenge the previous generation’s canon. You see that happening now with artists like R. Crumb for example. This conversation is essential to keeping the medium vibrant.

A central part of the school’s historical survey class are students sharing their formative influences and what they are currently reading so a broader reading list is put forth from the ground up. The history of comics has traditionally been viewed from a patriarchal, industry-driven lens. That needs to change, and CCS is working to that end.

TM: A canon is never truly static. Are there any neglected comics creators you would want in a comics canon? Are there any that need to be kicked out? Which canonical artists do your students dislike the most?

JS: I’m much more interested in recognizing neglected cartoonists than trying to establish canons. There are so many truly amazing cartoonists who haven’t been given their due. I’d also like to see a broadening of our definition of cartoonists. I’d like to see Native American Ledgerbook artists, who began making graphic novels at least as far back as the 1860s, be recognized. Or Charlotte Salomon, who created a painted autobiographical graphic novel in the early 1940s that’s a masterpiece.

A Citizen of War: On Malik Sajad’s ‘Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir’

Antecedents to Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir, Malik Sajad’s graphic novel about the writhing valley of Kashmir are not numerous.  Born in 1987 in Srinagar, Sajad spent his formative years in Kashmir at the time of curfews and crackdowns, an experience documented in Munnu. This tumult was the result of the continuing political and cultural crisis that followed Partition, with both Pakistan and India claiming the Kashmir valley and thus dividing its citizens — some claim that Kashmir belongs to one of the two nations, while others demand its independence. This divide, also religious, was recalled by Salman Rushdie in The Paris Review:
When I was probably no older than twelve we went on a family trip to Kashmir…When we got to our rest house my mother discovered that the pony that should have been carrying all the food didn’t have the food on board. She had three fractious children with her, so she sent the pony guy off to the village to see what could be had, and he came back and said, There’s no food, there’s nothing to be had. They don’t have anything. And she said, What do you mean? There can’t be nothing. There must be some eggs — what do you mean nothing? He said, No, there’s nothing. And so she said, Well, we can’t have dinner, nobody’s going to eat. About an hour later we saw this procession of a half-dozen people coming up from the village, bringing food. The village headman came up to us and said, I want to apologise to you, because when we told the guy there wasn’t any food we thought you were a Hindu family. But, he said, when we heard it was a Muslim family we had to bring food. We won’t accept any payment, and we apologise for having been so discourteous.
In Munnu, Sajad negotiates the private identity with the public crisis that has gripped the valley. In the monochromatic tiles and anthropomorphism of Munnu, Sajad is unsettlingly blunt about the brutality of army personnel in Srinagar, doing away with the idealism that mars debates in suburban Indian homes, often shaped by news channels, where sensationalists run amok, and Bollywood, which would rather engage in melodrama and merrymaking, and delegate the realism to its estranged cousin, the Parallel Cinema. Both these media are ridiculed in a single speech balloon.

Comparisons to Art Spiegelman’s Maus are inevitable; in Munnu the Kashmiris, as endangered as their state animal, are drawn as Hangul deer, while their poachers or anyone beyond the valley’s limits, are humans. Spiegelman assigns an anthropomorphic quality to every nationality: the canine Americans, the porcine Poles. Sajad assigns, ironically, anyone not native to the valley a human form; the Hanguls — his  mother, father, siblings, neighbors, and mates — are pitted against the Homo Sapiens. The sentimentality in such a choice is difficult to overlook. Sajad remains steadfast in his Hangul identity, never flitting between species.

Munnu bursts forth with the sparkling clarity of a neo-Romantic novelistic autobiography, bringing to mind the chronology of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Of course, Sajad’s unique medium of imbibition and narration force a negotiation with oral traditions. The section titled “Footnotes” opens with a glorious collection of panels and it is appropriately titled — smack in the middle of the narration of the boy and his family, Sajad charts the history of the valley, from its folkloric origins involving a terrorizing demon and the monk who engorged himself to become the valley and displace a dragon, to the Indian Army landing in Kashmir on October 27, 1947, the drawing of the so-called Line of Control between India and Pakistan., and the intra-wars of the militant groups. It is not as much of an afterthought as an addendum.

Whilst Spiegelman’s “Prisoners on the Hell Planet” adds an after-aftereffect to the mass incarceration ordered by the Führer, “Footnotes” is more of a succinct recapitulation of the treatment of Hanguls by the various waves of visitors to the valley. The prosperity of the valley as it thrived upon the Silk Route is on full display on the left supplemented by words from Abhinavagupta and Sheikh Noor-ud-din Noorani.

On the right, the famous declaration of love by Amir Khusrau is cruelly borrowed first by the Mughals, then the Afghans, and then the Sikhs. “If there is a Paradise on Earth” paints the invaders in the guise of marauders as they are perched gloriously upon their horses while at their feet lie the Hanguls, first in their military garb, then their arrow-pierced corpses, then with their skulls and ribs laid bare. The decomposition is complete with each “It is here,” reminding one of Walt Whitman’s “heart, heart, heart” that imitates, gloriously, audibly, the “bleeding drops of red.”

The nuanced bildungsroman that is Munnu, the steady metamorphosis of the naive primary schoolchild to the blood-boiling political cartoonist, employed in his adolescence, is some distant cousin of Marjane Satrapi’s Marji in Persepolis. United by their experiences, both play a daily game of hopscotch with armed personnel which is an early entry into disenchantment with their lands: as a rectification for his physical abuse, Munnu’s father takes him on a tour of the old city on his bicycle while the conclusion of the novel contains a shady episode involving two men and a woman in a guarded auto rickshaw. An adjustment to curfews and crackdowns — to avoid being whisked away by armed men, at least — is the plight of the Spiegelmans, the Satrapis, and Munnu’s family. However it would be elementary to homogenize their experiences, just as it is elementary to conflate together the experiences of the North-East Indian states, Kashmir with Assam or Nagaland (the Naga experience, specifically, documented by Temsula Ao in These Hills Called Home and Laburnum for My Head).

The tools Sajad uses to contain his experiences into tiles is inspired partly by observing his father who etched patterns into wood and metal. Whilst Spiegelman conforms with an inky aesthetic with a consistent cross-hatching, and Satrapi a monolithic chiaroscuro, it seems that individual lines never crossing paths might as well have been a recreation of the texture of un-veneered wood. The Hanguls are as angular as matchsticks or the faces Munnu carves into pieces of chalk and fashions out of nibs of pencils to impress his schoolmates. The melting frames of the humans might as well be a Munch-ian nod or an homage to “Prisoners on the Hell Planet.” Sajad is acutely aware of the history of the genre: in the text he fawns over Joe Sacco’s fine hair detail, a DVD of Ivan’s Childhood is fodder for empathy, and R.K. Laxman’s Common Man is out of place and out of character in a fateful Delhi cyber café. Although the Laxman jab might have been a little foolhardy, Sajad has produced a probing visual memoir that translates anger and shame, perhaps incites it, too. More importantly, it delights with its recklessness; the strokes, sometimes practiced like an established language system as rich as Urdu, sometimes unshackled, flip the bird to censors.

Ismat Chughtai’s 1942 story “Lihaaf” challenged heteronormative relations and landed its author in court. There was the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Arundhati Roy too is a guest at the party. It is noteworthy that all this subjugation is for pieces of what we call fiction. Munnu is a revelatory testimony, resplendent with observation and direct, uninhibited interrogation of a state that makes Munnu a citizen of war who cannot meekly submit and cannot wildly revolt and must therefore compromise for a state somewhere in-between, a state that has characterized his own nation.

Citizen Ack: On Whimsy, Trump, and ‘Bloom County’

It’s not hard to see the newspaper comic strip is dying. While the superhero comic eats Hollywood, and the Maus-like graphic novel wins awards that used to go to straight fiction, the unfussy, once-a-day comic strip wastes away in pop cultural exile. Partly, this is due to the sad state of newsprint, which checked into hospice a long time ago. Partly it’s a consequence of old strips being available for free. Yet if comic books and graphic novels were somehow able to adapt — even though up until recently they were just as tied to the page — it stands to reason that comic strips can do the same thing. For a while it seemed that webcomics might revive their ubiquity. But in spite of their successes, no one has figured out how to replicate the security of the old syndicates.

For me, as a guy whose vocabulary came largely from Calvin and Hobbes, it’s been painful to watch comic books, graphic novels, and video games —  all of which were once seen as mainly for teenagers and children — accrue new popular relevance while comic strips wither away. In the ’80s and early-’90s, comic strips went through a renaissance, showing their readers what was possible at seemingly the last time they could do so. Iconic series like Doonesbury, formerly unique in their roles, got real competition in the sphere of political satire, while offbeat peers like The Far Side netted fans like Robin Williams and Jane Goodall. I can still remember hearing jokes about academics who needed cutouts on their doors to get tenure. In line with new free-market ethics, licensing multiplied tenfold, inundating America with stuffed animals, calendars, and toys. You saw just as much comic strip fandom as you did more traditional geekery. The nation, it seemed, could not get enough of the funny pages.

So when I found out, via coverage in The Times, that all-new Bloom County strips had suddenly popped up on Facebook, I felt ecstatic in a manner best associated with lost sleds. On the first new post, old fans like me got nigh-messianic in the comments, implying through over-the-top praise that reviving Bloom County is a public service. In its last couple of years in the papers, you see, the strip featured lots of Donald Trump, which has led many people to suggest that creator Berkeley Breathed is a psychic. I can’t say I endorse this theory (though I do think it can’t be ruled out). What I can say is that it feels necessary in a way its competitors don’t. Regardless of how interesting Doonesbury can be at its best, its impact has always been curbed by a bone-deep Yalie dryness. Only Bloom County offered real succor from the garbage in the news.

Why is Bloom County so loved in comparison to its peers? Why is it immune to the decades-old baggage of its medium? I believe the answer has to do with its treatment of whimsy. In the marketer’s argot, “whimsy” is a vague, weaselly term, one that hints at a childish quality adults are expected to pine for. In its normal, most common form, it means a brand (or at least a person operating like one) is attempting, ironically or not, to reproduce in a subject a time of structured ignorance, to co-opt a memory of trust and naiveté. Because it’s usually easy to spot when someone does this, most of us find it jarring to see, for example, cartoons in SSRI ads, or to hear great songs from our childhood repurposed to sell expensive cars. Few react well to the knowledge that someone wants you to know less. Because of that, it’s easy to think of whimsy as inherently patronizing, as a quality that drains whatever it touches of all value.

That’s a shame, because there’s no reason an artist can’t use it effectively. To get whimsy right — to harness its mood as an asset — an artist must accomplish two things: one, make sure her aesthetic is appealing, and two, show respect for her audience. She needs to conjure up a sense of basic silliness while never treating her readers like easy marks. To strike this balance with any degree of consistency, every joke or moment of humor — no matter how dumb or juvenile it appears on the surface — must clearly rest on a bedrock of genuine gravity. The artist cannot be childish without bringing some pathos into the mix.

I can’t think of a better example of success in this regard than Bloom County. Although it took zaniness to new heights, it always showed that political madness has consequences, and it never left its readers in the dark about the stakes. In what may have foreshadowed certain recent White House Correspondents Dinners, it showed its worth, again and again, by angering the right people at the right times.

You see this clearly in a plot line aimed at televangelism. When the slobbering, mute Bill the Cat — a character designed as an outright spoof of Garfield — suddenly finds himself infused with born-again fervor, he transforms into the clean-cut pastor Oral Bill. He gets a show on national TV, develops a large local following, and soon infuses the residents of the town with odd, fake smiles and canned lines. Then, with no impetus apart from divine revelation, Oral Bill takes issue with the presence of penguins in Bloom County. He declares that “penguin lust” is a threat to the morals of the nation. In the space of a few days, Opus discovers that he’s been abandoned by his friends, and that, amongst his new enemies, most want to send him into exile. He leaves town on a Greyhound bus with no destination in mind. The fallout of bigotry is palpable here — Opus wouldn’t come back for months. Anyone who reads this understands immediately what a person like Jim Bakker was selling.

Throughout its run, Bloom County stayed abreast of petty, Washingtonian scandals, and there were even a few times when its critics bolstered its own points. The most well-known example of this was a 1987 brouhaha in which the Miami Herald pulled a strip with the phrase “Reagan sucks!” In the eyes of many readers, Bloom County diehards or no, the Herald’s unpopular decision was a form of Pravda-like censorship, a view the paper rebutted in a long back-and-forth on its letters page. Yet few people now remember the in-strip context of the quote. In the ’80s, New Deal labor was going the way of New Coke, and the characters in Bloom County illustrated this by going on strike for a pay raise. The in-world publisher, W.A. Thornhump, brings in ersatz replacements, one of whom goes on to crassly denigrate the President. The in-world reason why “Reagan sucks!” happened is that the country’s unions were dying.

Which brings us (inevitably) to Trump. It’s not just that Bloom County was prescient in seeing his trajectory. Nor is it just that it sussed out the void in his soul. No, what’s so frightening to see now, 30 years after Trump’s turn as Bill the Cat’s brain, is just how precisely it pegged why he shouldn’t have power. The Donald gets into an accident — of a kind that no person would ever survive in real life — and his brain gets transplanted and stuck in his feline host. Without his fortune, business, or wives, Trump has to learn to live humbly, and the strip gives him opportunities to redeem himself which all fail. His final act is to buy out the strip and immediately fire all the characters. The firing supplied Berkeley Breathed with an in-world reason to retire it. Yet what’s notable about this now — beyond how well it captured Trump’s essential robber baron nature — is how it displayed his cruelty in terms of the apocalypse. In its last few weeks in existence, in other words, Bloom County had Trump end the world.

That makes his plot line frankly uncanny these days. But I think it also shows why the strip is worth reading. Although its gags were occasionally silly to a fault, its caricatures made clear why its targets were honestly worrying. In Trump, Bloom County saw a crass, nigh-psychopathic loon, as likely in his way to cause mayhem as a capitalist in Soviet propaganda. When Oliver North went on trial, he showed up in the strip as an alien puppy, whose big, soft eyes and grand rhetoric scuttled his conviction for war crimes. All this metastasizing weirdness bolstered the insight at its core. At heart, Bloom County was not an escape, and that’s why so many felt they needed it.

I can’t think of a better way to spend a weekend than reading it all. Failing that, you can just go on Facebook and start reading the new version for free. As with anything that’s whimsical in the way I’ve laid out, it may strike you as off-puttingly juvenile at first glance. It may seem no different than its fellow classic funnies. But if you keep reading, you’ll come across its takes on devastating scandals, or else its many references to the specter of nuclear war. You’ll see a comic strip that isn’t afraid to show genuine horror at its edges. Based on the number of people who cheered its revival, I think it’s obvious it offered something worth saving.

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