Art Spiegelman at the Miami Book Fair: “How to express the oxymoron of life in a death camp?”

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The author of “Maus” spoke with Hillary Chute about the conception of the only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize and told a curious story about the post involving Steven Spielberg

Art Spiegelman at the Miami Book Fair: “How How to express the oxymoron of life in a death camp?”


Gabriela EsquivadaFrom Miami

Art Spiegelman at the Miami Book Fair: “How to express the oxymoron of life in an extermination camp?”

Art Spiegelman talked about "Maus" at the Miami Book Fair, in dialogue with Hillary Chute. (REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni)

The Miami Book Fair included some of the best conversations from the 2022 edition on its website, including < b>Art Spiegelman with Hillary Chute. The author of Maus, winner of the first Pulitzer Prize for a graphic novel, soon to receive the National Book Award, talked about how he made and published his famous comic. “Pantheon publishing house took a big risk in publishing Maus ,” he said. “It was too sui generis. When the first volume came out there were no other graphic novels. That category didn't exist: it was history or maybe memoirs.”

Now the genre is no longer a rarity but a narrative form that has captivated the public. But when Maus began to be serialized in the Raw publication, in 1980, seemed like an anomaly: both a family memory and a historical document on the rise of Nazism and the concentration and extermination camps, it also described the investigation of a son who wants to understand his mother's suicide and reflected on the collective impact of the atrocities of World War II.

“My main purpose was to tell a clear and complex story of the most complex things that were going around my head,” he recalled. before Chute, author of the recent Maus Now, a compilation of the best academic and popular texts on the work of Spiegelman published from the eighties to the present throughout the world.

Art Spiegelman at the Miami Book Fair: “How to express the oxymoron of life in a death camp?”

The Miami Book Fair left the video call with Art Spiegelman on its website.

“For me it was really trying to understand how I was born, whether my parents could have died long before that,” he continued. “Understand it and make it clear: not only understand it as a kind of expressionist cry of pain, but as a narrative”. Since Breakdowns , his first book, he had been engaged in “a kind of formal investigation of what comics could be.”

And suddenly he saw the opportunity to do an experiment based on those studies: “With Maus I wanted to apply all that to a narrative.”

Maus came out as a book in 1986 followed by a sequel in 1991, and that division has a curious history that indirectly involves Steven Spielberg. In the mid-eighties, the filmmaker produced An American Tail, the animation directed by Don Bluthabout the Ratonovitzes, the Russian-Jewish family of mice whose town is attacked by ferocious cats—a representation of pogroms—and emigrates to the United States.

Art Spiegelman at the Miami Book Fair: “How to express the oxymoron of life in a death camp ?”

Maus Cartoon: A Survivor's Account (Art Spiegelman, 1991).

And Maus shows the young Spiegelman attempting to interview his father, Vladek, about his life in Europe, the Nazi persecution, his passage through Auschwitz and emigration to New York. Both have the heads of mice; the Poles in the novel look like pigs and the Germans look like cats.

Although the comic predated the film, the artist was nervous about the similarities. “He wanted Maus to get out at once, but it was impossible. It took me 13 years to do it. Then a friend suggested to me, 'Get the first part out as fast as you can. He discussed it with his editors, but since they didn't expect it to be a best-seller, they declined the suggestion, assuring him that he could take all the time he needed.

“Then this article by Ken Tucker came along., a cultural critic of 'Fresh Air'”, a famous program of the American public radio, NPR. “He had been invited to review for The New York Review of Books, and because he was very influential he allowed himself to do an extraordinary thing: an essay on a work still in progress.”

Tucker said that Maus was perhaps the first work of postmodernism. “I didn't even know the expression when I read it,” Spiegelman laughed. “And in the article it was mentioned that Pantheon was going to publish it.”

Art Spiegelman at the Miami Book Fair: “How to express the oxymoron of life in a death camp ?”

Art Spiegelman participated in the Miami Book Fair from his home in New York.

Pantheon's phones began to ring and did not stop: “Orders rained down on the publisher. Then, suddenly, my idea to put out a first volume seemed good to them. They did it in paperback so it would come out quickly. Spielberg's team had a strike and production was delayed, while the release of Maus was brought forward.”

When An American Tail, that same 1986, The Boston Globe published an article that suggested “don't watch this movie, read this book”, recalled the author.

But far from being relieved, the artist was faced with an additional problem: he had to do the second part. And the challenge was very different, since one thing was the ghetto and another the concentration camp. “How to express the oxymoron of life in a death camp?” He said.

Spiegleman participated in the talk at the Miami Book Fair from a warm room in his house in New York, with art on the walls, a flat screen in the background and a bookcase on the side with a rolling ladder to reach its upper shelves. His gray tweed jacket and her transparent glasses harmonized with the color of his hair, his beard and her mustache.

Art Spiegelman at the Miami Book Fair: “How to express the oxymoron of life in a death camp ?”


Chute asked about the reception the Jewish community gave Maus, and Spiegelman puffed on his e-cigarette.

< p class="paragraph">“When it came out as a book it was surprisingly benign. Before, on the other hand, it was horrible, ”he recounted. The panels were on Raw when he was invited to a museum in memory of the Shoahin southern california. “I only went because it was announced that there would be children of survivors and children of perpetrators in dialogue,” she continued. “When I was introduced and started speaking, the huge audience of children of survivors was outraged. I don't think they had ever read a comic book, they only knew them by reputation.” In any case, the spirit of the audience was negative: “Couldn't you wait for us to die to make fun of us?”, he summarized.

Of course, Maus does not make fun of the victims, or anyone else. If anything, only by its own author.

The talk also covered current affairs. After speaking about the concept of responsibility in Maus, Spiegelman jumped to the present: “Lately, anti-Semitism is on the rise. It is real. And I don't think we're on the front lines against this monstrous campaign that's unfolding in the United States.” Controversial as usual, he added: “I can almost imagine waking up a year from now and finding out that the Supreme Court said slavery is okay.”