Masters of comics: Art Spiegelman

Masters of comics: Art Spiegelman

Candido Romano Published on 5/18/2024

Itzhak Avraham ben Zeev Spiegelman, better known under his pen name Art Spiegelman, was born in 1948 in Stockholm, Sweden, to Jewish parents who survived the Holocaust.

One of the world’s most acclaimed cartoonists, he is best known for his autobiographical graphic novel Maus, a masterpiece that won him a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

Images from the works of Art Spiegelman. All rights reserved.

Initially split into two parts, Maus is a seminal work that helped spawn a whole new genre: the graphic novel. Yet its monumental status has cast a shadow over everything else Spiegelman has done in his long career.

Childhood and parents’ Holocaust experience

The tragic story of Art Spiegelman’s parents had a profound effect on his work. Before Art, the Spiegelmans had a son called Rysio (called “Richieu” in Maus) who was born in 1937, but died at the age of six: during the Holocaust, Rysio was sent to stay with an aunt, where it was though he would be safer. But in 1943, to avoid capture and deportation to a concentration camp by the Nazis, the aunt poisoned Rysio and her two sons, before taking her own life.

Images from the works of Art Spiegelman. All rights reserved.

At the end of the Second World War, Spiegelman’s parents, who had survived Auschwitz but lost all their relatives in the Holocaust, left Poland and headed first to Sweden, then to the United States in 1951. After a few years spent in Pennsylvania, they moved to Queens, New York, in 1957.

The wartime experiences of his parents left an indelible mark on Spiegelman, as did his perceived rivalry with his “ghost brother”, an “ideal” sibling with whom Art could not compete because he “never threw tantrums or got in any kind of trouble”.

Early work and underground comix

Spiegelman began drawing in 1960 and his biggest influences came from MAD magazine and Harvey Kurtzman in particular. His parents let him read anything, including genres like horror and thrillers, not knowing the slightest thing about the world of comics. Spiegelman loved MAD’s satirisation of politics, the media, advertising and American society, as well as the magazine’s constant experimentation with covers and layout. Other influences undoubtedly included Winsor McCay, Charles M. Schulz and Will Eisner.

Images from the works of Art Spiegelman. All rights reserved.

Spiegelman got his first work published in fanzines like Smudge and Blasé in 1963. At the time, he was also drawing posters, flyers and comic strips. He attended the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan and enrolled at Harpur College in 1965 to study art and philosophy. Spiegelman’s parents wanted him to pursue a career in dentistry, but Art continued down his own path. While at college, he got a job at Topps Chewing Gum Company, where he did the illustrations for the Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids series. He was in charge of the artwork for packaging, collectible cards and stickers. The income from this work, which he continued doing for the next 20 years, allowed him to keep making art.

Images from the works of Art Spiegelman. All rights reserved.

In the second half of the 1960s, Spiegelman became involved in underground comix: he began drawing and self-publishing his own work, which he started selling on the street in 1966. But life soon took a turn for the worse: in 1968, Spiegelman had a nervous breakdown that forced him to stop studying. At the time, just like fellow underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, he was using LSD heavily. He ended up spending a month in a psychiatric hospital in Binghamton, New York. Then, shortly after his release, his mother committed suicide. This tragic event would deeply influence the tone of his subsequent work.

In 1971, Spiegelman moved to San Francisco, the cradle of the counterculture movement and  underground comix. It was here that he began searching for his own voice and experimenting with genres, styles and narrative techniques. Noteworthy works from this period include the explicit comic The Compleat Mr. Infinity (1970) and the very violent The Viper Vicar of Vice (1972).

Images from the works of Art Spiegelman. All rights reserved.

Spiegelman’s stories were featured in many underground magazines, including Young Lust, Real Pulp and Bizarre Sex. But it wasn’t until 1971 that his first autobiographical story was published.

Called Prisoner on the Hell Planet, it was a four-page-long impressionistic piece published in Short Order Comix. An exploration of how his mother’s suicide affected him, it is drawn in an unsettling and oppressive style, with sad and creepy drawings that completely fill the few pages. It was a taster of things to come.

Images from the works of Art Spiegelman. All rights reserved.

The masterpieces: Maus and RAW

In 1972, friend and colleague Justin Green asked Art Spiegelman to draw a three-page piece for the first (and only) issue of Funny Animals magazine. Initially,  Spiegelman wanted to tell a story about racism in which African-Americans were depicted as mice and Ku Klux Klansmen as cats. But he knew little about the subject, so he decided to use the cat and mouse idea to tell his parents’ story of  surviving the Holocaust. He called the strip “Maus” and gave the narrator the ironic name “Mickey”. The pure cartoonish style of this embryo for what would become his most important work is very different from what followed in later years.

Images from the works of Art Spiegelman. All rights reserved.

Over the next few years, Spiegelman continued to publish his work in underground magazines like Short Order Comix which, in issue 2 of 1974, carried his story Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, a stream of consciousness piece about loneliness and isolation.

Images from the works of Art Spiegelman. All rights reserved.

He married a French woman, Françoise Mouly, in 1977 and the following year they opened a publishing house together. After working as a colourist at Marvel comics for a while, Mouly took some courses on offset printing before purchasing a printing press that she planned to use to produce a new magazine with Spiegelman. Called RAW and published from 1980 onwards, this alternative comics magazine was aimed at an educated readership and paved the way for graphic novels as we know them today.

The pages of RAW featured established names from the underground scene like Robert Crumb, as well as translations of work by foreign artists such as José Muñoz and Yoshiharu Tsuge. The magazine also showcased unconventional up-and-coming cartoonists who would otherwise have struggled to get published, including Charles Burns, Lynda Barry and Chris Ware.

Images from the works of Art Spiegelman. All rights reserved.

But the magazine is probably best known for carrying Spiegelman’s greatest work, or rather a second, much longer and more complex version of it. Spiegelman had shown his father the three pages of Maus published in Funny Animals, at which point Spiegelman senior began sharing more details about his time at Auschwitz. Art then decided to properly interview his father, recording everything, so he could piece together every detail of his story. He read up on the Holocaust, visited Auschwitz twice and interviewed people close to his father, including his wife at the time.

Spiegelman first published Maus in RAW, one chapter at a time, as a small staple-bound insert. It took him years to complete the story, which was published between 1980 and 1991: some 13 years’ work in all, given that the interviews with his father began in 1978.

Images from the works of Art Spiegelman. All rights reserved.

Maus is an extremely complex piece of work drawn in a seemingly raw style, but containing a surprisingly effective narrative. The first comic to talk about the Holocaust, it provides page after page of historical reportage. Spiegelman uses anthropomorphic mice to represent Jews and cats to represent Nazis, just as he did in the initial Funny Animals story. But this time the setting is far darker.

Images from the works of Art Spiegelman. All rights reserved.

At first, Spiegelman had serious misgivings about telling a story set amidst one of humanity’s darkest crimes through a medium associated at the time with children’s stories. However, it occurred to him that using animals to tell the story held a key advantage: it solved the problem of how to accurately depict the people described by his father, but whom Art had never met.

Finding the right drawing style for the animals and their surroundings took a lot of time and effort. Spiegelman would eventually take inspiration from anthropomorphic animals created by J.J. Grandville and Carl Barks. Barks’ Donald Duck stories were especially influential because his characters acted as if they were real people.

Images from the works of Art Spiegelman. All rights reserved.

Maus was eventually published as a two-volume book by Pantheon Books, after being turned down by at least 27 other publishers. The first volume is entitled Maus I: My Father Bleeds History, and tells the story of his parents, Vladek and Anja Spiegelman, before they were deported to Auschwitz. The second volume,  Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began, describes life inside the concentration camp.

It’s not just a tale of the Holocaust, but of a relationship between father and son, and what it means to be the son of two survivors of this atrocity.

Through his family’s story, Spiegelman explores universal themes such as loss, survival and the burden of memory, all of which gave Maus global resonance and confirmed the graphic novel as an art form that could take on the weightiest of subjects.

Images from the works of Art Spiegelman. All rights reserved.

Maus was a global bestseller and continues to sell thousands of copies worldwide to this day. Reflecting on this success, Spiegelman said:

I’m proud of Maus. I’m proud that I was able to make it, that it came through me. On the other hand, it inevitably shadows everything else I’ve done after and towers over what I’ve done before in ways that sometimes seems unjust to me”.

Covers for The New Yorker and post-9/11 work

Between 1991 and 2002, Spiegelman was a contributor to The New Yorker, creating comic strips and covers for the magazine, some of which proved highly controversial. He also published interviews with and essays on influential cartoonists like Harvey Kurtzman and Charles M. Schulz (“Abstract Thought is a Warm Puppy”, 2000). Some of his covers were changed or criticised because they were deemed too edgy. One such cover appeared on the Valentine’s Day issue in 1995, shortly after race riots had broken out between Jews and African-Americans in Crown Heights, New York City, and showed a rabbi kissing a Black woman. Spiegelman said that he had wanted to send a message of peace, but at the time it was interpreted by some as depicting a rabbi kissing a prostitute and condemned for being racist.

Images from the works of Art Spiegelman. All rights reserved.

Spiegelman also produced iconic work exploring post-9/11 trauma. He and his wife Françoise Mouly were actually in New York on that tragic day, as their children went to school not far from the World Trade Center. As always, Art Spiegelman decided to express how he felt through the medium of comics, confessing in one interview that: “I guess disaster is my muse”.  His comic In the Shadow of No Towers was first serialised in German newspaper Die Zeit from 2002 to 2004, before eventually being published as a book. On its striking cover, the shadow of the twin towers is depicted in black against a black background, making them only visible when turned towards the light.

Imágenes de las obras de Art Spiegelman. Todos los derechos reservados.

Art Spiegelman’s legacy

Innovative and provocative, Art Spiegelman’s work has left an indelible mark on the world of comics and visual literature. His stories interweaving deep personal reflections with historic events have pushed the boundaries of what comics can communicate, elevating the medium beyond mere entertainment for kids.

A important part of Spiegelman’s legacy lies in the graphic novels of dozens of artists inspired by Maus and his other work. The autobiographical approach pioneered by Spiegelman can also be found in the likes of Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Palestine by Joe Sacco and Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware, all milestones in the genre.

Photograph of Art Spiegelman

Much as Spiegelman has always feared being labelled as ‘the guy that did Maus‘, it’s undeniable that his most important work elevated comics to a legitimate art form with its own unique conventions and infinite potential.