He’s best known for his Holocaust story “Maus.” The critically acclaimed comic book artist Art Spiegelman also had a brother he never met, who was poisoned by a family member to avoid being captured by the Nazis. During his career, the Pulitzer Prize winner has created some controversial covers for The New Yorker. John Seigenthaler spoke to Spiegelman at the Jewish Museum in New York, where “Co-Mix,” a retrospective on his work, is on display until March 23.
John Seigenthaler: The centerpiece of this program is "Maus." What led you to "Maus"?
Art Spiegelman: I have this crossover hit, which is "Maus." But in order to understand "Maus," it really is imperative to understand some of the comics "experiments" that came before in my underground-comics years in San Francisco and New York. Those were like trying to figure out what's under the hood that makes the comics page understandable for someone, and what are its potentials when it's not devoted primarily to, like, eliciting a laugh or a cheap thrill. At a certain point, I realized just how insanely noncommercial most of this was, and that if I wanted to continue as a comics artist, I'd have to deal with narrative more directly or find a gallery to represent me, and I didn't want that. So the answer to that question that you asked about 10 minutes back is just, what led me to make "Maus" was seeing how difficult it was for people to understand what I was up to in the more nonnarrative work, and if I was going to deal with a narrative, considering how difficult it was for me to draw and make the things I want to make, was to find a narrative worth telling. And in 1978, "Maus" was that.
The topic is so personal for you. Is it the stories your parents told?
First, it was just the stories that I would eavesdrop on and understand, with my very bad, passive Polish, when they were talking amongst themselves.
Your parents were Holocaust survivors.
Yes, from Poland. Both of them lived through Auschwitz. And I'd hear stories that had no context. You know, they would just be like these horrifying, intense nightmare images but without any place to put them.
A comic about the Holocaust.
Yes, it sounds like an oxymoron, but for me, comics are just a medium, and now the world is catching up to me. It didn't seem to me that comics were a lesser form. They were the highest form that I could imagine. For the most part, it was used stupidly, but so is most paint.
Let me go deeper on your parents. I mean, what was their life like?
I don't know how to answer, because in a way, that's the story that's inside those 300 pages. I can tell you that they were not well assimilated in America. They'd made too many moves prior to that. And they didn't quite understand the culture that they were in. And I think that with the kinds of displacement that involved losing a son — they lost what would have been my older brother in the war — and losing most of their relatives, their parents, brothers, sisters, and both from large families, it doesn't leave you very comfortably rooted in the world. So both of them were wrecks of a certain kind. Different kinds from each other, but both wrecks.
When did you learn the story of your brother?
Well, you know, in some ways, I think kids know everything before they know that they know anything, even. I knew some of this, just by the fact that there was always a photograph of this 3-year-old boy blown up from a small photograph in their bedroom, like a kind of out-of-focus shrine. So that was just always present. I got some sense there was a ... They had a son that didn't survive into the present, so my phantom brother. I knew that there was this kind of boy who, on the one hand, was my sibling and, on the other hand, some kind of pristine and perfect rival that I would never be able to live up to, because he wouldn't mouth off, and I was constantly.
You've been asked what lesson the Holocaust teaches us, and you've said that it's kind of a cheap shot, that, you know, to answer a question like that diminishes the Holocaust.
Well, it's not even anything as sanctimonious as that. You know, it's more like it's not about ... It's not like suffering ennobles. That's certainly not the takeaway. And it's certainly not the idea that "never again," because we've been doing it ever since. These genocidal reductions of the other into the nonhuman, and thereby worthy of extermination, are just an ongoing process in many wars that have happened since and are still, potentially, present. So I don't think there's any value to the Holocaust, except it's a good idea to avoid such things.
When you were mentioning the diary that your mother gave you, I've read that you also had pictures or drawings that were done by survivors. How did that help you in your research?
Very important. That was really important, because one thing they didn't have much of in Auschwitz, among everything else, was cameras. So there was no way to visually witness what was happening. And in fact, by the end of the war, a lot of it was being destroyed as evidence, you know, by the retreating Germans. So the only real visual witness tended to be people drawing, usually at great personal risk, where sometimes the drawings would survive and they wouldn't, or they'd be buried and found later. And those provided a way to visualize the oxymoron of life inside a death camp.
You have had an incredible career, but part of that career was working for The New Yorker.
The New Yorker is singular in the sense that their covers are not usually connected to stories inside. They're freestanding statements. In the heyday of The New Yorker, the postwar New Yorker especially, the idea was to give respite, a moment of calm, on the honking, blaring, tawdry passing parade. So they'd be images of Connecticut scenes or of the city at dawn or a whimsical cartoon drawing. That was the environment into which Tina (Brown) came and was charged with blowing the place up, basically, and I seemed to her like a likely terrorist. I was a likely person to bring into that mix. I didn't know what it meant, but she had no special, I thought, reverence — or she said — for the magazine as it was constructed at the time. And for me, The New Yorker was a class thing. I was much more likely to read underground newspapers and comic books and other things than The New Yorker on a week-to-week basis. I was enlisted in the end of '92, and my wife, Françoise (Mouly), was actually brought in as a cover editor a few months later.
After 9/11, did David Remnick ask you to do a cover?
When Françoise and I got back from Ground Zero, with our daughter safely in tow, which is the subject of a ...
You lived around Ground Zero.
I lived about 10 blocks north of Ground Zero, and my daughter had just started going to school at Stuyvesant, right in the eye of the storm. We saw the plane go into the building. We went running downtown, managed to extricate our daughter and start walking up along the West Side esplanade — highway — just as the other tower fell. So, as soon as we were back in any kind of phone contact, there was a message for Françoise, saying, "Get up here. We're putting out a special issue." At that point I didn't know what to do. But after we got ourselves settled, I began trying to figure out what a cover might be. And then somewhere between Françoise and me, we conjured up that black-on-black cover in a course of five or six days. The cover was a black-on-black cover that looked pretty much just blank until you saw it in a certain light, at which point you could see the phantom limb — the ghost — of the towers that had just fallen. And the only clue is a pierced black area in part of the logo of The New Yorker.
What did you want to say with that? Was there something you were trying to say?
Well, in a moment where most — any imagery would be too much, it seemed like pulling back toward minimalism was a good idea to say what needed to be said, which is what I just described as the phantom limb. I'd go from my house to my studio and I'd have to keep turning around to make sure the towers were still not there. They seemed like they'd still be there, and it's not like I'd had a lot of affection for them as architecture. I don't especially love my nose, but I don't want anybody poking their fist into it. You know? So there was that. But the only thing that could be said is that feeling of loss, mourning and eerie twilight of not understanding the way reality was now reconfigured, that all was implicit in this thing that would flash only in certain lights into being manifest. Otherwise, it was just a total blackness. So that seemed appropriate to the spirit and mood of what was happening in New York in the week following Sept. 11.
One of the other memorable covers that you did for The New Yorker is the kiss (“Valentine’s Day”).
That was the first one.
The picture of a black West Indian woman with a Hasidic man. And what's behind that?
It was in the beginnings of my life at The New Yorker, and I was trying to figure out what I might do. At that time, I was looking at Eustace Tilley, the guy with the monocle and the top hat — the dandy, the fop — and just doodling him, then going, "Wonder what he'd look like if he was Jewish." And that began to turn into that image. And what was on my mind still were the, for months and months before, the violence that erupted in Crown Heights (in Brooklyn) between the Hasidic community and the black community — the kind of race riot that happened. I was thinking, "You know, they should just kiss and make up." And the fact that it dealt with something charged was explosive at that moment. It was so different than what had come before in the magazine's history.
You left The New Yorker. Why?
Well, at the time, I left because I really needed to do this book that became "In the Shadow of No Towers."
But it sounded controversial, when the quotes that I read sounded as if you left because you were upset with the magazine. Is that not fair?
It's not fair. And, like, it came from one Italian journalist, who I've tried to avoid ever since, because she was putting words in my mouth. And ever since, it's come back to haunt me that I left in protest. It would be such a dopey protest, in the sense that The New Yorker was more open than most, politically, so it didn't seem like this would be the most effective place to protest.
Did you get tired of doing covers? You'd had success at it.
Maybe. But, you know, I wished I hadn't "left in protest," so I couldn't leave in protest when there was an editorial endorsing the notion that we should have a war with Iraq, where there's a piece in the front section of the magazine that doesn't usually have op-ed-like pieces, in which a reluctant Talk (of the Town) statement was made by a man I respect, David Remnick. And at that point, I thought, "Well, gee, maybe. Oh, I left already. It's hard to leave in protest now."
This interview has been condensed and edited.