Pulitzer Prize Winner Art Spiegelman On The Legacy Of 'Maus' And Cartooning Today

Oct 19, 2017

The enormity and horror of the Holocaust has been chronicled soberly in newsreels, in history books, in documentaries and Hollywood films. And yet one of the most revered depictions of the 20th century's greatest atrocity is communicated in a medium too often dismissed as a frivolous diversion: cartoons.

In 1992 the graphic novel Maus won the Pulitzer Prize for offering readers a simple but brilliant and relatable distillation of the Holocaust by rendering comic book versions of Nazis drawn as cats and the Jews they slaughtered as mice. A sequel told of survivors struggling to make a new life in the U.S.

What would follow, along with many other books using comics to tell epic horrific true life stories, include In The Shadow of No Towers, a personal reminiscence of what it was like to be a New Yorker when the World Trade Center came down on 9/11. The artist and writer who brought us these stories is Art Spiegelman and he'll be speaking at the University of Vermont Thursday night about the medium that he chose to make his life's work.

Spiegelman once had a job working with Topps, the bubble gum company, making Wacky Packages.  These were the satirical alterations of popular products. He says MAD, the satirical magazine, made him want to be a cartoonist.

"MAD acted sort of as a codex to the world around me since my parents were both refugees bringing me into the country when I was almost three years old. They weren't that familiar with the bedrock of American culture. So it was through MAD that I discovered what America was all about at this moment before we had TV in our home lives. And so I came to think of MAD as an acronym for 'mom and dad," Spiegelman said.  

By the time Maus won the Pulitzer in 1992, that graphic novel was starting to gain a lot of ground. But it was still a stretch to get it published.

"I never pitched it. I assumed it was un-publishable. There was a three page version that appeared in underground comics - underground comics having the exemption of anything publishable. But when my wife Francoise Mouly and I started the magazine called Raw, that had as an insert this ambitious project. I posited a 300-page comic book that needed a bookmark and could be re-read. We just assumed, like Raw itself, that eventually we'd publish it ourselves," he said. "Everybody including my publisher was astonished when it became a classic of sorts because when I did Maus it was kind of an anomaly, like a comic book's not an expected medium for this. And now it's - I won't curse on the air -  it's a blankety-blank genre. 'Holocaust comics? We've got 30 of them. Which one do you want?'"

Click listen to hear the entire interview.

Art Spiegelman will be speaking at UVM Recital Hall Thursday night at 7:00 p.m. and will engage in a Q&A with audience members. The event is free and open to the public.