‘MetaMaus’ revisits, expands upon Pulitzer-winning graphic novel

Art Spiegelman shattered the conventions of comic books and Holocaust literature with the publication of “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel

that depicts the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice.  Now, a quarter-century after the publication of “Maus,” Spiegelman allows us to glimpse the origins, making and enduring impact of his courageous masterpiece in “MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus” (Pantheon: $35). 

Spiegelman credits Hillary Chute, an English professor at the University of Chicago, with inspiring and “enabling” him to create “MetaMaus,” which draws on four years of interviews by Chute and what he calls “my rat’s nest of files, archives, artwork, notebooks, journals, books and dirty laundry.” The result is an eye-catching and highly kinetic book-and-DVD package of art and text, conversation and reminiscence, photos, drawings and audio clips, all of which add up to an intimate family memoir, a detailed account of how a great work of art and literature came into existence, and a lively version of the kind of literary deconstruction that is ordinarily conducted in the dry prose of academic journals.

“Why comics?” asks an unseen interlocutor in one cartoon panel. “Why mice?!”  “Why the Holocaust?!”  The author, depicting himself as a skeleton in a mouse mask, answers: “Yikes!” And then adds: “… Or to quote my forefathers: Oy!”

No intimate detail is left out.  Spiegelman reveals that he discovered the Holocaust at the age of 13 when he was searching out a copy of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” in his mother’s private collection of books and happened upon “Minister of Death: The Adolf Eichmann Story.” His parents only reluctantly revealed their own experiences as survivors of the Holocaust, and his mother later took her own life, but he succeeded in extracting the real-life story that is played out in “Maus.” The theme of his reminiscences is the restless search for a safe place in which to encounter his parents and their horrific experiences and, at the same time, a way to define himself as an artist and a writer.

“The irony is just that the safety zone in my relationship with my father took place in discussing the moments when he was least safe, and where there were just such high stakes and disaster everywhere,” Spiegelman explains. “My impulse to become a cartoonist had something to do with finding a zone that was not my parent’s zone. It was my assimilation into the American culture that was closed to my parents, and it gave me a zone of safety from them.”

Spiegelman is brave and candid about the risks he took in using the tools of the cartoonist to depict the events of the Holocaust and about his own motives in doing so. “I didn’t think in terms of making a text about the Holocaust,” he explains. “The book was a text about my … my struggle, ‘mein kampf.’ And, within that context, I was just trying to tell the story without falling into the two pits on either side of the project: either coming off as a cynical wisenheimer about something that had genuine enormity, or being sentimental, a form of trivialization on the other side of that road.”

The impact of “MetaMaus” owes much to the artifacts that are displayed on its pages — bar mitzvah photos, early sketches from “Maus,” and the source material he consulted in his research, among much else. For example, he reproduces the rejection letters he received from America’s most important agents and publishers, most of whom managed to miss the point of the book in ways that should embarrass them. “It was very clever and funny,” wrote one famous figure, then at Knopf, “but right now we are publishing several comic strip-cartoon books, and I think it is too soon to take on another one.” 

Spiegelman, by contrast, is an acute observer of the culture in which he lives and works, which helps to explain how he was able to navigate so deftly through the minefield of a comic book about the Holocaust.  His editor at Pantheon, for example, feared a backlash from the Jewish community and recommended that he “just move to the country for a while and lie low,” but it turned out that America — if not Israel — was ready for a Holocaust comic book.

“If anything, I guess my fellow American Diasporists could accept the self-deprecating image of Jews as cute, fuzzy rodents,” he observes. “But I think that one of the reasons Israelis were never quite comfortable with the book is that the image of mice contains the stereotype of Jews as pathetic and defenseless creatures.”

The author acknowledges that the critical and financial success of “Maus” changed his own life, but he also discloses the moral burden that came with the honors and the royalty checks: “I’d incurred an obligation to the dead.” In “MetaMaus,” he has discharged that obligation and, at the same time, he has enriched our experience of his important work in a rare and significant way.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at

Still Got ‘Game’

Like Budd Schulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run?” Phillip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” and other milestones of Jewish American literature, Will Eisner’s “Name of the Game” explores the depths of Jewish self-loathing and assimilation. But what separates “Name” — a tale chronicling two immigrant families that merge through marriage for social advancement and then suffer destructive consequences — from the others, is that Eisner’s work is a comic book.

Make that a “graphic novel” — the term attributed to ambitious comics with mature themes and a traditional bound format. Graphic novels have become a multimillion-dollar cash cow. Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” revolutionized comics in 1986 with its brooding, cynical interpretation of Batman. Art Spiegelman’s nonfiction Holocaust opus, “Maus,” won the Pulitzer Prize.

“I was frankly enthused when Spiegelman got the Pulitzer,” Eisner told The Journal from his Florida studio, “because it gave the medium the credit it deserves.”

Eisner’s latest is a 160-page saga in which the destinies of two social-climbing immigrant families collide. It’s a stunning study of disconnect, in which characters choose money over love, practice infidelity in the bedroom and in the boardroom, and embrace assimilation over identity. “Name” comments on the American Dream, and the lengths some will go to deny themselves in their quest to obtain and maintain it. It was inspired by folk tales, as channeled through the prism of Eisner’s Jewish American experience.

“Jewish and Russian folk literature, they had a similar thread to all of them,” said Eisner, married to wife Ann for 52 years. “Everybody succeeded in elevating themselves, and that’s through marriage — certainly in Yiddish folklore. Nobody succeeds in fairy tales unless they marry the prince or the princess.”

Eisner, who has been writing and drawing graphic novels since the 1970s, actually created this genre. The first graphic novel, his landmark “A Contract with God,” was originally published by Baronet Books in 1978. The Jewish-themed, Bronx-set story depicted protagonist Frimmer Hirsh’s relationship with his Maker.

Eisner also authored a seminal textbook, “Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling,” and taught popular cartoonists such as Drew Friedman and Pat McDonnnell at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Since 1988, the Eisner Awards, named in his honor and held annually in San Diego, have become the industry’s Academy Awards.

However, his major contribution to his industry is his classic strip “The Spirit.”

Conceived in 1939 for a newspaper comics supplement, “The Spirit” told the tale of Denny Colt, a policeman reborn as a Stetson-wearing masked detective superhero. Eisner used the strip to redefine the medium by employing cinematic compositions and pacing, noir design sensibilities and a cartoon realism unseen in comics back then. His storytelling style reflected the moviemaking of his day — Fritz Lang, Jacques Tourneur, bringing to comics what Orson Welles brought to movies with “Citizen Kane”: sophistication.

Both “The Spirit” and its creator were a product of what is now called the Golden Age of Comics — a time when New York Jews ruled an industry that was beneath most non-Jews; the same era explored in 2000 by Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” for which Eisner was a consultant.

Since 1978, Eisner has explored his most personal art through his graphic novel format, works that capture facets of his upbringing as the son of Jewish immigrants in 1920s-30s New York. “The Heart of the Storm,” for example, tells his parents’ story — his father was a fine artist from Vienna; his mother of Czech descent.

The Jewishness of Eisner’s tale was never an issue for his publisher.

“They were very supportive and never attempted to make editorial content,” Eisner said, singling out his longtime DC editor Dave Shriner.

Unlike DC’s flagship characters “Superman” and “Batman,” “The Spirit” never materialized in Hollywood, save for an unaired 1984 TV pilot produced by DC’s parent company, Warner Bros. Eisner doesn’t believe “The Spirit” translates to other mediums.

Nor does he even want to return to his iconic character in his own medium. His list of upcoming project ideas has grown too long for him to look back.

“There would only be two reasons I would revisit ‘The Spirit,'” Eisner said. “To prove that I could still run a quarter mile and to make money. I don’t need either.”

Learn more about Will Eisner at www.willeisner.com.

Lost Love

The French box office workers were decidedly underwhelmed when Jewish American playwright Donald Margulies arrived for the opening of his “Dinner With Friends” at the Comedie des Champs-Elysees in Paris last year. Impatient with his pidgin French, they brusquely shooed him aside to wait on native patrons. “It was just so French,” notes Margulies, who was once dubbed “my Jewish playwright” by impresario Joe Papp. “They knew who I was. They just didn’t have any time for me.”

Fortunately, the Pulitzer committee made time for Margulies, who won the coveted prize for “Friends” in April. The play, about the effect of divorce on a yuppie couple and their best friends, opens this week at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

“Dinner With Friends” began, as does all of Margulies’ work, with an observation that troubled him. The now 46-year-old playwright had arrived at midlife, married for 13 years to a physician he had been with almost half his life. They had a young son, Miles, a standard poodle named Beckett, a Burmese cat and a cozy home in New Haven, Conn. But all around them, relationships were crumbling.

“Couples I had thought were constant were suddenly combusting,” Margulies says, speaking by telephone from his New Haven study. The “succession of domestic catastrophes” led to a comedy-drama about what happens to relationships over time; the piece culminates with one character’s dream of two couples in her marital bed: herself and her husband in youth and in middle age.

“Dinner” may be the author’s least specifically Jewish play, but it’s vintage Margulies. “What it shares with all my work,” he says, “is an overriding sense of loss.”

The feeling, he suggests, stems from his childhood in the Jewish “high-rise ghettos” of Brooklyn and Coney Island, surrounded by Holocaust survivors who “instilled in me a kind of fatalism and morbid fascination for recent Jewish history.” At 5, Margulies asked about the concentration camp tattoo on his neighbor Ida’s arm; at 11, he read “Death of a Salesman” and felt “guilt and shame… for recognizing in the Lomans truths about my own family.” His father, then barely 40, was an overworked wallpaper salesman, “physically affectionate but prone to mysterious silences.” For decades, he lived in fear of losing a job he loathed.

It was only after Bob Margulies’ death at 62 in 1987 (“He basically died of malpractice,” the writer says), that the author was able to explore his feelings about father in “The Loman Family Picnic”. “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” was inspired by a nightmare Margulies had three weeks after his mother unexpectedly died of a heart attack in 1978. In the dream (and the play), the doorbell rings during the family’s shiva; the writer opens the door only to find his mother covered in mud from the grave. “I don’t even want to talk about it,” she snaps. “I just want to jump in the shower.”

Margulies believes losing his mother and father while still in his 20’s gave him a certain fearlessness as a writer. “There is something liberating,” he says, “in not feeling you have to earn the approval of your parents.” He continued to churn out plays haunted by Brooklyn and by “the legacy that parents inflict upon their children.” In “Found a Peanut,” adult actors portray New York kids circa 1962 (Margulies’ Burmese is named after Little Earl, the character who is “always in your face.”) “The Model Apartment” is “a sort of Frankenstein story” about two Holocaust survivors and their obese, schizophrenic daughter.

Nevertheless, success was so elusive for Margulies that he considered leaving the theater altogether after toiling for a decade to establish himself as a playwright. He even moved alone to L.A. for a time, leaving his wife back East while he tried his hand as a supervising producer on a TV series. “I hated it,” he recalls. “I quit after six days. I just thought I was having a breakdown.”

Then came “Sight Unseen,” Margulies’ black comedy about a painter, catapulted to superfame, who struggles with his identity as an artist and a Jew. The 1991 piece put the artist at a crossroads: “I’d put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the American theater, and I thought, ‘This is the best I can do,'” he recalls. “If people didn’t like the play, I was going to have to [quit].” Fortunately, life imitated art, and Margulies’ saga of a famous artist thrust him into the limelight.

The Pulitzer, he reflects, has come at just the right time in his career: “If I had won before I had a body of work, it might have disabled me,” admits Margulies, who has penned screenplays for Robin Williams and Spike Lee and whose recent piece, “God of Vengeance,” is an adaptation of the 1906 play by Yiddish writer Sholem Asch. “I’ve seen it derail people, because it brings with it a whole new set of expectations.”Margulies believes the Pulitzer acknowledges not just “Dinner With Friends” but his entire body of work. “It’s an awesome club to be a member of,” he says.

“Dinner With Friends” runs through Oct. 29 at the Geffen, (310) 208-5454.