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Book Review: MetaMaus

October 9, 2011

Art Spiegelman’s Maus was arguably the first “graphic novel” to achieve wide respectability as literature – and the only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer award.  Maus is an illustration of the Spiegelman’s father’s experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, with the Jewish characters (except in one chapter) represented as mice.  Maus is now freshly reissued in a 25th anniversary edition along with a remarkable book on the making, marketing, and after-life of Maus:  the new book MetaMaus.

Maus metamaus 

The majority of MetaMaus consists of a series of interviews of Spiegelman by Hillary Chute – in which Spiegelman presents his version of the history of Maus.  There is no shortage of surprising stories here:

In 1985, somebody showed me an interview with Steven Spielberg that indicated he was producing a feature-length animated cartoon about Jewish mice escaping anti-Semitic pogroms of Russia to set up a new life in America.  I believed that Don Bluth, the director, had seen the Maus chapters in RAW and I just imagined the story conference that led to An American Tale: “Okay.  The Holocaust is kind of a bummer, you know, but maybe if we do a Fiddler on the Room thing with cuter mice we can make a go of it.”  I was terrified that their movie would come out before my book was finished.  Fred Jordan of Grove Press tried to console me, saying, “Why are you so upset?  All they stole is your high concept and, frankly, your high concept stinks.”  But the confusion could have left me being perceived as somehow creating a kind of twisted and gnarled version a Spielberg production rather than what I’m quite sure was the case: An American Tail was a sanitized reworking launched from the Maus concept.  And just a few years ago my friend, [sic] Aline Kominsky told me that her mother had praised me:  “That Art Spiegelberg, he’s such a talented boy!  Not only did he do Maus, but he did E. T.!”

An artist friend, Bruno Richard, suggested I publish the first half right away.  But Pantheon had no interest in that until something unprecedented happened:  A critic named Ken Tucker wrote a glowing essay of [sic] Maus in the New York Times Book Review.  They almost never covered work in progress, certainly not work in progress being published in a small press magazine, and decidedly not a work in progress being published in comics format.  The review described Maus as probably the most important literary event of our times, or something like that, and the result was a deluge of letters to Pantheon asking when the book was coming out. Pantheon reconsidered and – fortunately for me – An American Tail ran into union problems with its animators … so Maus I came out first.

spiegelman chute

This excerpt has it all: Spiegelman’s overwhelming ego, his paranoia and neurosis, his insistence on name dropping (and the sloppy editing of the book).  And yet, it is full still interesting – the most celebrated graphic novel of our time was rushed into print to beat out a Spielberg cartoon – showing the strained relationship between art and comics that Spiegelman attempts to bridge.

Spiegelman only hints at the central moral issue facing a critic in evaluating Maus – did Spiegelman exploit the Shoah to promote his comic? 

Q:  Why do you think that Holokitsch, as you call it, is so prevalent, and has Maus ever been accused of being it?

A:  I coined the term quite a long back:  somebody must have accused me of it by now.  But why is it so prevalent?  There’s a kind of kitschification in our culture in general.  It’s that thing of trying to always go for the sentimental money shot whenever one can that informs our debates about abortion, informs our presidential races, informs much of our popular culture.  It’s all got to be reduced to Good Guys and Bad Guys.  After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Communists ceased to be as 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.  Maybe it’s convenient to have genocides displaced into the old country.

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.  Almost every year there’s another documentary or fiction film up for some Academy Award in this category.  Then there are lots of sentimentalized documentaries about life in the shtetl or World War II that keep appearing every time there’s a fundraiser on WNET to get the Jewish patron vote.  Ultimately it becomes ripe for horrific parody, like Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.  Nazis are fun.  But maybe now that history stopped ending we can have Russian villains again, and Arab terrorists can be the Nazis.

While portions of MetaMaus are tedious (I did not need to read so many pages on why Spiegelman chose to draw mice and his artistic influences for his depiction of mice), overall, it should interest anyone who follows American publishing, American mass media, graphic novels, or contemporary Jewish-American.  The most gripping part of the book is a transcript of Spiegelman’s interviews with his father over his concentration camp experiences.  The book also contains interviews with members of Spiegelman’s family.  Most of all, the book contains ample, ample illustrations, which keeps the entire presentation light – like an extended magazine article.

Physically, MetaMaus is quite handsome – its binding perfectly matches the new 25th anniversary edition of Maus.   (The 25th anniversary edition of Maus is superior to previous editions of Maus; the reproduction clearly shows the roughness and primitiveness of Spiegelman’s drawing style for this comic.)

I have left my favorite aspect of MetaMaus for the last section of this review – an amazing DVD-ROM included in the book.  In the 1990s, the Voyager Company produced a set of hyperlinked CD-ROMs and one of the best of those was  a CD-ROM version of Maus.  Unfortunately, these CD-ROMs were based on Apple’s Hypercard, and Steve Jobs personally killed the development of Hypercard.  As a result, the Voyager CD-ROMs no longer play on contemporary machines.  To celebrate the publication of MetaMaus, Pantheon commissioned a reconstruction of the Voyager CD-ROM on a DVD-ROM format (compatible with Windows and Apple operating systems) printed into the book.  Since a DVD-ROM can hold 8 times the content of a CD-ROM, the content of this version is considerably larger (and improved) over the content of the original Voyager production.  Among other items, the entire content of Maus is contained, hyperlinked to original sketches and audio content from Spiegelman, as well as the original recorded interviews between Spiegelman and his father.  This DVD-ROM alone justifies the purchase of the book. 

(Note:  two customer reviews on Amazon of MetaMaus suggest that those customers received defective copies of the DVD-ROM.  However, that was not my experience at all – in contrast, the DVD-ROM played perfectly.)

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2011 4:33 pm

    I see how the subtitle on the dust jacket is A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus.

    But on the video at the amazon.com page, this description appears: MetaMaus is a brilliant deconstruction of one of the twentieth century’s most important works of art and literature. That sentence appears right after Spiegelman, narrating the voiceover, says: “Maus is a comic about a father and a son trying to understand each other; I think it’s more directly that than it is about the Holocaust, you know.”

    It’s wonderful to have this sort of auto-criticism, as “deconstruction” of a “classic.” Is the author, nonetheless, responding (even indirectly) to Marianne Hirsch’s accusation that Spiegelman erases women (in her reads of Maus and Maus II, in her Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory): i.e., “The absence of the mother, the masculine collaboration between father and son, are curical to the power of Maus, and the mother-son photograph, a record of a ‘double dying,’ reinforces this gendered narration” (page 34). Hirsch does get much of the wordplay on “maus” – and the comix representations – as re-mediation of the Nazi’s German and images; but her critique is, more, a discussion of the father-son (not mother-son) impact of the graphic novel.

  2. October 10, 2011 6:11 pm

    That seems an unfair criticism given that Spiegelman’s mother Anja committed suicide in 1968 (at which time the 20-year old Art Spiegelman was in a mental hospital.) Anja does play a role in the stories, but given that she was no longer alive to tell her stories when Spiegelman conducted his interviews in 1972, it seems absurd to criticize Spiegelman for only telling the part of her stories that his father related.

  3. October 10, 2011 7:01 pm

    Ouch! Well, you’re right about that. I wonder if Spiegelman has confronted Hirsch, or if anyone else has? I do know that Michael Levine in The Belated Witness: Literature, Testimony, and the Question of Holocaust Survival rehearses many of the things Hirsch wrote. It just struck me, hearing Spiegleman so explicitly and pointedly address the understanding between himself and his father that he was after, that this might be the author’s way of fighting such critiques. (You are right that the criticism is entirely unfair!)

  4. October 11, 2011 7:30 pm

    Well, he wanted to include her side, after all–one of the issues between Art and his dad was that he had destroyed her journal after her suicide. And I see his point, though, in that while the Holocaust was the overwhelming story of the book, the story for the author has little to do with it. To Spiegelman, I get the feeling that the Holocaust was, to some extent, the back story needed to develop an appreciation and understanding of his parents.

    I’m glad you received a working DVD. I happened upon this site in searching as to a formal recall was taking place; I’ve had to tell my friends to hold off on buying this. I one of the critics on the Amazon page; I have had three different DVDs that did not work at all, I felt it necessary to point it out. Amazon sent me a message stating that they have had others report this issue; I wrote to Pantheon, and was told that yes, there were defective DVDs sent out, and they were going to insure I got a working copy of the DVD.

    So, you were one of the lucky ones, then! 🙂

  5. October 11, 2011 8:06 pm

    Joseph — thanks for sharing your insightful comments. I am glad that you are insisting on a working DVD-ROM — to my mind, the DVD-ROM is more interesting than the printed part of the book. I own the Criterion CD-ROM, but it has long since ceased to be playable on any contemporary computer. And, unless my memory is playing tricks with me, I recall paying more for the Criterion CD-ROM than I did for this book.

    However, I have already taken the precaution of (a) making a backup of the DVD-ROM, and (b) storing the DVD-ROM is a better container than the book’s cover.

    After you finally get a working DVD-ROM, I hope you’ll update your Amazon review with your impressions. I think you’ll like it.

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