Art in America: MetaMaus

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Pantheon's MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic is a kind of "making of" Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiographical comic memoir, Maus. The 300-page full-color hardback and companion DVD abound with source materials—interviews with the author, photographs, letters, art—presented in parallel with a conversation between editor Hillary Chute and Spiegelman. The title transcends footnote: MetaMaus is a work of criticism in itself, providing not only notes on process and sources, but considering the entirety of a family, and the thinking of influences of an artist now and at the time the work was created.

The two volumes of Maus (Pantheon, 1986 and 1992) realized and revised a conceit Spiegelman had been publishing since 1972, in the magazines and journals of the burgeoning Underground Comix scene. Spiegelman was known if not established, and undergoing a creative education via his day job at Topps Bubble Gum (where he invented the cartoons Garbage Candy and Wacky Packaged, which featured the Garbage Pail Kids). Spiegelman's narrative project remembered his father and his family's survival during the Holocaust. The story is euphemized and dramatized by a simple but powerful personification: the Jews are mice; the Nazis are cats. In Maus, Spiegelman reworked the earlier publications, fashioning the piecemeal recollections into a complete narrative.

The common assumption that comics are for kids results from two significant historical events: first, the printing press, which eased production but marginalized art, always intrinsic to books but now limited by mechanical processes. Second: the U.S. Comics Code Authority, a kind of creative "red scare" that, in 1954, mandated that comics be child appropriate, and therefore of interest only to children. By 1986, when Vol. 1 of Maus was published, readers had forgotten the long history—the Illuminated Manuscripts of previous millennia, the illustrated books of the 19th century, the illustrated journals and magazines of the early 20th century. The critical and retail market had come to presume comics were for children. But an influx of Japanese illustrated narratives—Keiji Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen, for example-an autobiographical account of the bombing of Hiroshima—was opening American thinking, and Maus entered a misconceived market that was ready to right itself.

That Maus was a book about assimilation into American culture, about becoming an American while struggling with tradition and international tragedy, was in keeping with an '80s inclination to stories about the "American journey" (The Accidental Tourist, by Ann Tyler, or Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club are two other examples from that time period) As Spiegelman remembers, "My impulse to become a cartoonist had something to do with finding a zone that was not my parents' zone. It was my assimilation into the American culture in ways that were closed to my parents, and it gave me a zone of safety from them."

The voyage to America, whether from post-War Europe, Africa or the Middle East, is part blessing and part curse. Blessing, in that America may well be a better place to live; curse, in that it isn't always, and American avarice has much to contribute to the global catastrophe.

In 2010's A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, Ruth Franklin writes, "The literary representation of horror has an inherent falsity, in that it requires the writer to impose a coherent pattern or form where in reality that was only chaos." In MetaMaus, Spiegelman's neat packaging falls away, and we are confronted with the chaos-reminded of the human tendency to streamline complexities, that fallibility at the heart of greatness, of "great epics," "great artists" and great lies. ...

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