No Mickey in This ‘Maus’
Posted on Jan 20, 2012
By Mr. Fish
Included midway through “MetaMaus” are the many rejection notes that Spiegelman received when first attempting to publish “Maus” in the early ’80s. What is remarkable is how logically they are able to argue against carrying the book. Congdon & Weed complained that, “Once one becomes accustomed to the characters having been done in animal visage, then the book becomes simply a holocaust tale.” Penguin said, “… I don’t think ‘Maus’ is a completely successful work. … In putting such charged personal material into comic strip form, one would expect something very new, and that doesn’t really happen.” What publishers seemed to find troubling about “Maus” was its tendency to come across more like a found object than a malleable blob of sculptor’s clay.
“There’s a phrase Ren Weschler used in a beautifully written essay about ‘Maus,’ ” Spiegelman remembers in “MetaMaus.” “The phrase delighted me as a concise acknowledgment of what I strived so hard for in telling the story. He talked about the book’s ‘crystalline ambiguity.’ If I couldn’t determine a character’s motives, it wouldn’t have been correct to imply those motives, but rather to just explain what happened and allow one to make one’s own determination.”
Instead of something that could be tweaked by the marketing department and made exciting to the consumer class, publishing houses were presented with something that, thanks to Spiegelman’s archeologically sound excavation of his subject matter, was capable of breathing outside the bombastic publicity and royalty racket of the literary industry. It was a “Maus” without a Mickey. It was a cartoon that allowed the ruthlessness of physics and mortality to threaten its participants.
If “Maus” hoped to reveal certain truths about our species through an examination of Spiegelman’s relationship with his survivor father, then “MetaMaus,” by examining Spiegelman’s relationship with his own artistry, gives further credibility to the artist’s oeuvre by demonstrating both the soundness of his technique and the suitability of the instruments used in the extraction of truth and beauty, the warts and the wares, from our common experience of existence. Spiegelman writes in “MetaMaus”:
The simplicity and precision of Chute’s questions contribute to the success of “MetaMaus.” At times, they resound with a therapist’s keen ear for honesty and, yes, psychological relevance to the health and well-being of her subject. There are many comics about the Holocaust now. … How does that make you feel? Did you feel beleaguered doing publicity for “Maus”? Are you sad about [your parents having missed your worldwide success]? Was your anger at Vladek about burning your mother’s notebooks something that affected your interview process with him? These are questions typically addressed to a person lying down with easy access to a box of Kleenex. They are intimate questions that demand that a person give public voice to his or her most private thoughts. They are certainly not questions that inflate an artist’s celebrity or maintain a respectful and disserviceable distance between audience and writer.
Add brainier questions such as, “People often confuse comics for a genre, instead of a medium—why?” and “Did an awareness of modernism inform how you structured the book?” and the result is a dialogue so rich in emotional color and intellectual detail that it succeeds in becoming, not just a journey into one man’s creative process, but art in itself.
“Look, suffering doesn’t make you better, it just makes you suffer!” Spiegelman tells us in “MetaMaus,” reminding us that the Holocaust should never be misconstrued as a lesson in humanitarianism and that mass slaughter, particularly the sort perpetrated by stoking the fires inside Germanic ovens, in no way increases our collective wisdom as a species. At the end of “MetaMaus,” he describes “Maus” as a “three-hundred-page yahrzeit candle,” which, in Hebrew, is a soul candle lit in memory of the dead.
Everything in “MetaMaus,” whether through brilliant conversation, personal essay, historic documentation or stunning artwork, is thoughtful instruction on the handling of matches, our fascination with fire and our troubled relationship with the light it casts.
Mr. Fish lives in Philadelphia. He never asked to be born. Occasionally, he laughs his head off. His mother has no idea what he’s up to. She cries very easily. For more information, date him.
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