The Birth of Maus

By Ray Schultz

It was a bizarre conversation even by the standards of 1969. Five underground comic artists—R. Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Kim Deitch, Gilbert Shelton and Art Spiegelman—met in New York to discuss their craft. Led by writer Dean Latimer, though, they spent more time talking about West Coast mating patterns.

One person held back from this raillery: 21 year-old Artie Spiegelman. And there’s no great mystery why. His mother, Holocaust survivor Anja Spiegelman, had committed suicide barely 18 months before this roundtable. Spiegelman had different concerns.

Just how different became clear when the collective comic book, Funny Aminals, appeared in 1972. The opener was an R. Crumb riff about two cats luring a bird into a pot. Then came Maus, a harrowing three-page strip about the Spiegelman family in Poland, in which the Nazis are portrayed as cats and the Jews as mice. “When I was a young mouse in Rego Park, New York, my poppa used to tell me bedtime stories about life in the old country during the war,” says the narrator named Mickey.

The patriarch describes life in the ghetto under “Die Katzen,” and recalls the moment when the family arrives at “Mauschwitz.” At this point, he says: “I can tell you no more…it’s time to go to sleep, Mickey!”

Hardly a typical underground comic, Maus was the first of two searingly personal strips Spiegelman did that year. In the other, Prisoner on the Hell Planet, he used human figures to document his mother’s suicide and his overwhelming guilt. “Now you cry!” a relative says: “Better you cried when your mother was still alive!”

He would do more than cry. In 1978, Spiegelman started a book-length version of Maus, based on interviews with his father Vladek.

A fellow underground press alumnus, I visited Spiegelman in his Soho loft that April. We caught up on things, and I met his new partner: a beautiful dark-haired French woman named Françoise Mouly. “We met in New York through a mutual friend,” Spiegelman explained. “Then Françoise went back to Paris, and I didn’t like the idea, so I went to Paris and Françoise came back. So it’s settled.”

The talk turned to what he was doing. Spiegelman had just published Breakdowns, a collection of his early work, including Maus and Prisoner on the Hell Planet. And he was a consultant for the Topps Bubble Gum Co., creating novelties like the Garbage Pail Kids and Wacky Packages. “I put on my company man disguise once a week,” he said. “I go out there with one part of my brain functioning and the other part completely asleep, and if it starts waking up, I have to club it back into submission.”

Then there was his new project: The expanded Maus. We went to his work table, and he showed me the opening pages. It was different from the first version—more dense with detail, less stylized, less focused on the mice as animals. In this work, the narrator is Artie instead of Mickey. If memory serves, Spiegelman had gotten as far as a scene in which Vladek and his in-laws are sitting at a dinner table in the days prior to World War II.

Why did he portray Jews as rodents, the very way the Nazis depicted them? He inferred that this was the point—the white gloves worn by cartoon mice and black-face minstrel characters were a symbol of oppression. Not everyone got it. One old-time cartoonist had said admiringly of Spiegelman, “He’s a good mouse man.”

I asked Spiegelman if he had seen the recent TV docudrama, The Holocaust. “I don’t watch too much television, but to me it just looked like more TV,” he said. “It was ‘One Life to Live—Auschwitz,’ or ‘As the Wermacht Turns.’ It’s just a soap opera.”

Riveted by the opening panels, I asked Spiegelman for an interview about the new Maus, and he agreed. We regrouped a few days later for the first of two sessions. An intense conversationalist, Spiegelman was generous with his time and patiently answered even dumb questions. Mouly, who was working on several projects, including a line of Soho street maps, joined us for part of it, and at one point we broke for coffee.

Little did they know that it would take eight more years for the first volume of Maus to be published, and another five for the second to appear. Nor could they have foreseen that Art Spiegelman would win the Pulitzer Prize and many other honors. It was enough on that spring day that he had started a monumental work, and that he had entered an enduring marriage, one in which there seemed to be little or no line between the creative and the personal.

“Do you two ever sleep? I asked.

“15 hours a day,” Spiegelman laughed. “All too much.”

RS: What are you trying to do with this longer version of Maus?

Spiegelman: I think it would be important not only to tell my father’s story, but also implicitly and explicitly to deal with my responses and my relationship to it. I can’t fully tell my father’s story, I can only tell my own. There’ll be a section where I’m specifically dealing with my responses in between sessions with my father. I’m using mice and cats—I didn’t have these experiences. I’m not going to do something removed like the Holocaust on TV.

RS: How does it differ from the first Maus?

Spiegelman: It takes place with more reality. Extending the metaphor would be too laborious, and would miss the point and create a false reality.

RS: I got the impression from the original version that your father would tell you these stories without your soliciting them.

Spiegelman: Well, I got some stories from my father and my mother when I was a kid. They would just crop up in conversation, like in the introduction, where my father says, ‘You think you have friends? Wait ‘till you’re locked in a room without food for several days.’ They would drop little time bombs on me like that, and they would tell me some stories. But if I pressed for too many details, they’d back away. The story I had in the first Maus was one I heard when I was a kid from my father. But he’d skirt certain things. He wouldn’t tell me too much about the death camps. He told me, ‘Well, they gassed people.’ But only recently did he tell me that when all these Hungarian Jews came into Auschwitz in 1944, there wasn’t even enough room in the gas chambers to deal with all these people—they were standing on line to go to the gas chamber. So they had them dig large trenches and get into them and gas was thrown in after them. Now this wasn’t very effective because the gas would escape into the air—as a result, a number of people were only half-suffocated, half-dead. What happened after that is that they tossed in hand grenades to kill more people who were in the trench. After that, there were still people alive, and they said, ‘The hell with them.’ They got more Hungarians to bury the first group of Hungarians, and they had those Hungarians dig their own trenches, and repeated the process. This was going on for days.

RS: How did your father survive all that?

Spiegelman: That’s essentially what this 200-page book is going to be about: the story of a survivor. In essence, he survived through a combination of good luck and exceptional present-mindedness. If somebody needed a carpenter, my father was a carpenter. If they needed a tin man, my father was a tin man.

RS: And he had all these skills?

Spiegelman: Only partially. (Laughter). He’d take an incredible crash course. To some extent, they all did this. He was able to pick up these skills pretty quickly. He was always very manually dexterous, and he was able to fake it as a shoe maker, as a carpenter, as a tinsmith. And that also kept him alive. As long as you could work, there was more of a chance at surviving than not.

RS: What did his family do in Poland?

Spiegelman: My father’s father had been involved in several businesses. The most long-term one was a seltzer-bottling business, and he actually got involved in bootlegging for awhile, since he had all the bottling equipment. You couldn’t sell booze without a government license and print it on the bottle. And my father’s father ended up getting involved in some kind of chicanery like this. And then my father was involved in textiles before the war. My mother’s family had been quite wealthy—they were textile manufacturers also.

RS: They lived in Warsaw?

Spiegelman: They lived in a place called Sosnowiec, which is in the part of Poland that was in question whether it was Germany or Poland. His father-in-law had a big textile factory, and he ended up working at that when he married my mother. And he had his own factory right before the war in another town.

RS: He was drafted into the Polish army when the war started?

Spiegelman: Yeah, he was one of the first. They called Jews up first. The Polish army didn’t last too long, and he was put in a prisoner-of-war camp for awhile. They were kept in very, very bad conditions, the Jews. Then they were given this offer where they could work and in exchange get better conditions. So my father was put in very hard labor, and got through the prisoner-of-war camp period that way. A lot of people who didn’t actually didn’t survive—they died of exposure to the cold and hunger. Then when he got back, this whole other period began—ghettoization and separating Jews from the rest of the population. The reason he was let out of the prisoner-of-war camp was that he was protected by International Red Cross sanctions relating to the military. As a civilian, they could treat him any way they wanted. As a soldier, they had to afford him some protection.

RS: Where was he when the war ended?

Spiegelman: He was in Dachau. When the Russians began approaching Auschwitz, they had all the people from Auschwitz evacuate the camp and march back to Germany. The Germans didn’t want to lose their Jews—they wanted to kill them. So what they did was they took all of the people in Eastern European concentration camps and were marching them back into Germany to retrench.

RS: To kill them there.

Spiegelman: Incredible but true. So my father was on this long march, and he ended up for a brief period in a camp called Gross-Rosen, and then he ended up in Dachau. And in Dachau I think he caught scarlet fever or typhus, I don’t remember which one. When he was liberated, he was dying of typhus.

RS: This will be portrayed.

Spiegelman: Yeah, the march will be portrayed. I think the book will take it all the way to his immigration to America. After the war, there was a reuniting with my mother. She started out in the same camp, Auschwitz-Birkinau. When they started retrenching to Germany, they were separated, but by that time my father had arranged a better position for my mother and she was safer. This is also in the book. These were fairly complicated maneuvers, but my father was able to bribe her way out of Birkinau, which was a death camp, and into Auschwitz, which was a work part of the camp. And she ended up finding a protector in this Czechoslovakian woman, who looked out for her, and was mistress of an SS man.

RS: Did you ever show Prisoner on the Hell Planet to your father?

Spiegelman: I never showed it to him, but he came across it. I was storing my originals at his house, never dreaming he would look at them—they were just sort of in a box. And one day, he went through the box and ended up reading that strip. When I did it, I really didn’t intend to show it to him, and I didn’t think that he would come across it. But I felt that if he did, that was his problem. My problem was to do it and not go out of my way to cause him any grief. My stepmother had seen it because a friend of hers had a son who read underground comics and showed it to him. My stepmother never showed it to my father.

RS: Was he hurt by it?

Spiegelman: No. He said it did make him cry because it made him relive everything, and it was very hard for him to take that way. But he wasn’t upset that I had done it. And I was very glad, because when I was working on Breakdowns, I was wondering whether to include Prisoner on the Hell Planet, or bind several copies—maybe a dozen—and just take the pages out and give him those copies. I thought that he’d be very hurt, first of all, to have it reenacted and relived, and I also thought it might be a problem for him that this was being made public because to him it’s a great shame. In the Jewish religion, committing suicide is a sin. In fact, at the funeral services, they specifically never mentioned that she killed herself.

Mouly: In society in general, it’s not considered a crime.

Spiegelman: If you succeed, they say that you committed a crime. If you don’t succeed, they say you’re mentally ill.

Mouly: But your father feels ashamed that your mother committed suicide?

Spiegelman: Among many other things. I don’t think I would be able to simplify what his reactions to her death were.

RS: Did you show him your other work?

Spiegelman: In the period I was rebelling, I showed him some of the pornographic stuff I had done, and I didn’t know what his reaction was going to be. I wanted to make him uncomfortable. But his only reaction was: ‘Huh! So from this you make a living?’


Art Spiegelman had just published Breakdowns, a collection of his early work, when this interview took place in 1978. Breakdowns Maus and Prisoner on the Hell Planet. Then there were pieces like Ace Hole Midget Detective, a purported detective comic.

In the latter, Ace Hole is hired by the art dealer Laurence Potato-Head to find Al Floogleman, “a bird who’d passed him some bum Picassos!” It seems to be a comment on the genre, but Picasso makes an appearance to say: “We artists are indestructible. Even in a prison or in a concentration camp, I would be almighty in my own world of art…even if I had to paint my pictures with my wet tongue on the dusty floor of my cell.”

What did it all mean? Here is what Spiegelman said about narrative and perception on that warm spring day:

RS: Except for Maus and Prisoner on the Hell Planet, most of the strips in Breakdowns seem to veer from straight narrative. What were you trying to do in Ace Hole Midget Detective?

Spiegelman: Here I was interested in narrative and the function that it performs in society. When people go to the movies and watch television, which is what most people do with their free time, what they’re really getting is a dream. You’re just going into this state where you’re passively pulling in this story, which is only a mild permutation of things you’ve heard or seen before. When you watch a TV series, one week’s episode is not very different from another week’s episode. You’re just going into this comfortable warm bath each time, essentially lulling yourself—it’s sort of a way of putting a thumb in your mouth and suckling. That’s the appeal of detective stories and all other popular fiction. What happens in a detective story is the detective ends up being like a father figure in the story—he’s the one who knows all the answers. He gets beaten up, but he’s tough. On one level, you think you’re reading this to see if you can outguess the detective and solve the murder. And you never can if it’s a well-written story because it’s this crazy roller coaster ride you’re going on. You’re trusting that the detective will solve it for you. Since these books are written in the first person, you end up getting right into the main character’s head—you feel like you’re the detective.

RS: And you experience all the great scenes and backdrops.

Spiegelman: All that’s really being changed is the character’s specific situations—the essential situation is always the same, story to story. I was more interested in dealing with the things that relate to detective stories rather than telling another detective story. On the other hand, I wanted it to work on a level of a detective story—if you read it, it would be a little haywire in a few places. At the same time, I ended up getting involved with the nature of the first-person narrative, what that does to you, and the nature of comic-strip panels and what that does to you. There are several things happening. On the first page, each character is drawn with a different tool. I never want people to forget that these are drawings, that these are lines on paper. So on the first page, you usually have the characters’ faces in these boxes. This would be Ace Hole, this would be Gretta, this would be Mr. Potato Head. Instead, I’m showing you the brush stroke. This is the brush I use to draw Ace Hole with, this is the curvical pen I use to draw the Picasso lady with, this is the rapidiograph that I use to draw Mr. Potato Head with. You’re being forced, I would hope, into looking at the fact that these are drawings rather than creatures that you can live with.

RS: What do these techniques have to with something more socially relevant like Maus?

Spiegelman: They’re not techniques. I’m dealing with something really fundamental, which is perception. And perception is fundamental to understanding Maus, to understanding Hell Planet, to understanding social change. It’s the way you take information in.

RS: You’re working this out for yourself?

Spiegelman: I’m not working it out for myself or anybody else any more than Hell Planet was for somebody else. I didn’t draw Hell Planet to amuse people or tell them an interesting anecdote from my life. Nor did I do it to warn people about suicide. Hell Planet was as much involved with my own interests and needs as these other strips are. It’s just that my needs are complex. I’m a complex person. Most people are, I would hope. And I don’t see them as that different or separate. I understand what makes some of my strips more difficult for people to understand than other strips, but for me these are all part of the same thing. The same needs of expression are at work in these strips as in Prisoner on the Hell Planet. Since one focuses more directly on content, it becomes easier to take in. That’s why I’m doing this Maus strip with the means of perception that are employed in reading Maus. I’m aware that what I have to do is very directly tell the story, and not get in the story’s way. Most of the time, I’m dealing with stories that are trivial. Most people are dealing with stories that are trivial. Therefore, I’m more interested in the way of telling the story, making people understand what they’re looking at when they’re looking at a story, rather than just telling them a story and lulling them to sleep one more time. I think it’s more important that people, myself included, be more aware (in a sensory way) of what they’re going through. When you’re looking at a movie, it’s important to know that it’s a movie. You can’t think you’re looking through a window at something that’s happening. You’re affected too greatly by what you see. Most people’s information comes to them from newspapers and from TV. That information is highly distorted by the medium that it’s coming across to them in. And unless you’re aware of those distortions, unless you’re aware of how they work, they have much greater effect on you. You’re much more capable of being controlled. You’re much more capable of being at the mercy of the people who have the power of the medium. And as a result, that may be the most important thing about the media is how they work. It’s important that when you’re watching the Holocaust, a Lysol ad comes on between segments.

RS: Lysol?

Spiegelman: Yeah, it really is, and it’s very significant, that you’re being shown something that broken up. Most of the people watching Holocaust on TV are not even aware of whether it’s a story or not. From what I understand, for television it was powerful. In terms of what actually happened in terms of life, it wasn’t powerful at all. And I’m told that for people who watch television, this was a significant event. That was close as they’ll come to understanding the Holocaust. I guess that’s good, but it’s also too bad that’s as far as it went.