This post is part of an ongoing series complementing the upcoming exhibition Altered States: Sex, Drugs, and Transcendence in the Ludlow-Santo Domingo Library on display in the Edison and Newman Room from September 5 – December 16, 2017.
Art Spiegelman is best known for Maus, his graphic novel based on interviews with his father, a Polish Jew and a Holocaust survivor. Serialized in Raw beginning in 1980, the first volume was published as a graphic novel in 1991.
Spiegelman was a part of the San Francisco underground comix scene in the 1970s. Through the Ludlow-Santo Domingo Library, Houghton holds a sizeable collection of underground comics. Among them are many featuring Spiegelman’s work. Some of these shed light on Spiegelman’s artistic path to the creation of Maus.
Spiegelman moved to San Francisco in 1971, where he quickly became active in the local counterculture movement and comics scene. He was a regular contributor to such underground publications as Bijou Funnies, Young Lust, and Bizarre Sex, often using various pseudonyms such as Joe Cutrate, Skeeter Grant, and Al Flooglebuckle. In 1975, with Bill Griffith, he co-found and co-edited Arcade: The comics review.
In 1972, he was asked by fellow comic artist Justin Green to contribute to a comic anthology Green was editing. The idea was that the artists would create stories featuring anthropomorphized animals. The comic was called Funny Aminals. Spiegelman struggled with a concept for his contribution. While visiting a friend in upstate New York, Spiegelman sat in on this friend’s film class. The class included a viewing of old cartoons. While showing Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie, Spiegelman’s friend spoke of Mickey Mouse as a form of minstrelsy, “just Al Jolson with funny round ears on top.” (Conan interview)
This sparked an idea for Spiegelman. He could do a comic about the black experience in America using cats and mice as characters, with Ku Klux Kats chasing after mice. After some thought, he feared he wouldn’t be able to do such work justice, that it might appear more like racist parody, akin to R. Crumb’s Angelfood McSpade character. In the end, he realized that his own familial background had in it an example of cat-mouse oppression.
The first Maus is a three-page comic in which an unnamed father tells his mouse son, Mickey, a bed-time story “about life in the old country during the war.” Not exactly the sort of tale to give sweet dreams, the story tells of hardships and hiding during the war and how the father was eventually captured and sent to a concentration camp. Like the later Maus, there are cats and there are mice, but no mention of Nazis or Jews. The armed cats are simply referred to as “Die Katzen.” The comic ends with a brutal image of “Mauschwitz” before the father sheds a tear and tucks his son into bed.
It would be years before Spiegelman began interviewing his father and doing the research for the longer form of Maus. However, he did not shy away from telling personal stories in comic form during that time. Prisoner on the Hell Planet first appeared in Short Order Comix #1, an anthology comic edited by Spiegelman and featuring cover art by him under his pseudonym Skeeter Grant. Many of the comics in Short Order #1 are by Spiegelman or Bill Griffith and mock the shallowness of the age with work commenting on false muses (“Just a Piece o’ Shit”), superficial fashion models (“Real Live Dolls”), and trivial people (“Randy and Cherisse in the 2nd Dimension”). The four-page Prisoner on the Hell Planet closes the issue. The German Expressionist style comic tells the story of Spiegelman’s mother’s suicide. His mother died only a handful of months after Spiegelman had been released from a state mental hospital, having suffered a nervous breakdown. In the comic he blames himself for her suicide and her for the destruction of his mental health.
Prisoner on a Hell Planet plays a part in the future Maus. Art Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, saw the comic and the event is mentioned in the interviews Art did with his father. It therefore makes its way into the graphic novel Maus, with the comic being reprinted entirely within its pages. Vladek did not normally read any of Art’s work, but when a friend showed him the comic, he noticed the picture of Anja, his wife and Art’s mother, in the first panel. Throughout Hell Planet, Art wears clothing that evokes hospital pajamas (from his recent breakdown), prison-garb, the clothing worn by the mice in “Mauschwitz”, and even the “Hassidic Hebra” Zebra in his strip from Bijou Funnies #2 (pictured above).
In 1992, Maus became the first, and so far only, graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. “Maus has had a far larger impact in the world than I ever expected,” Spiegelman wrote of his work. “I’d only hoped it might be discovered sometime after I died.” (Meta 8)
[Thanks to Susan Wyssen, Manuscript Cataloger, for contributing this post.]
Neal Conan interview with Art Spiegelman, NPR, 2011 October 5
MetaMaus. Art Spiegelman. Pantheon Books, 2011.
All images from the Ludlow-Santo Domingo underground comics collection.
A selection of other underground comix is on view in the exhibition Altered States: Sex, Drugs, and Transcendence in the Ludlow-Santo Domingo Library on display in the Edison and Newman Room from September 5 – December 16, 2017.