Doug: Two weeks ago I reviewed Mail Order Mysteries; today we're looking at another holiday gift I received late last year -- Art Spiegelman's 25th Anniversary retrospective on all-things-Maus.
As I've remarked before, the Holocaust is one of the passions of my teaching. I've been using Maus in my classroom for over 15 years. That graphic novel has literally been life-changing for me as a professional, and as a human being. Believe it or not, Maus was my entry point to the Holocaust. When I was in high school, we did not have a world history course. I attended a small liberal arts college in central Illinois, and although I feel I got a decent breadth of study in world history and U.S. history (as a history education major), there was virtually no mention of the Holocaust. Truth -- a few years ago, not believing that my professors had ducked the topic, I opened my textbook for "2oth Century Europe"; there were no more than three paragraphs on the genocide, well tucked within the chapter on World War II.
I vividly recall the day my fiance' and I were walking around one of the bookstores at her university; it must have been the fall of 1986. There on the shelf was this odd looking book with two mice framed by a swastika. Picking it up, I was amazed to see that it was a black & white comic! Browsing it briefly, I knew I wanted it so bought it right away. About two days later I sat down and read "My Father Bleeds History" in one marathon. It was absolutely like nothing I'd ever seen. It was so personal, so painful, so suspenseful... I didn't know at the time that I actually knew of Art Spiegelman's work -- who among us didn't know Wacky Packages or the Garbage Pail Kids? But the world of underground comics? Not for me. I knew R. Crumb and I knew I preferred the relative safety of Marvel and DC.
I'd only recently begun my teaching career when the second volume, "And Here My Troubles Began", was released. I gobbled that one up as soon as it was released, and was just amazed at the details of the Spiegelmans' time in Auschwitz. As the years of my teaching career passed, I knew I wanted my world history students to go deeper on this subject. In Illinois (as in many other states) the Holocaust is a mandated subject throughout public schooling. It really wasn't difficult to convince our department chair to let me and a few other interested colleagues begin incorporating Maus into our curriculum.
In 2000 a co-worker and I attended a one-day seminar in Chicago entitled "Teaching the Holocaust". It was delivered by the education department of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I was floored. I hadn't been doing anything wrong over the years, but I'd been so incomplete! The methodologies, the anecdotes, the resources provided -- I was simply blown away. We were at Spertus College on Michigan Avenue -- a beautiful setting overlooking Grant Park and Buckingham Fountain. While there I noticed that they offered a distance-learning master's degree program. I signed up within weeks, and completed my Master of Science in Jewish Studies (I am Protestant, by the way -- people always ask when they hear about my degree...) with a concentration in Holocaust education in 2005.
But where this has really changed me professionally is in my involvement with the USHMM. In 2001 I applied for and was awarded a Museum Teacher Fellowship, which has forever changed how I teach. A few years later I was "promoted" to the Regional Education Corps. For the past five years I've gone around the country teaching teachers how to teach about the Holocaust. I've been to Chicago several times, to Des Moines, Indianapolis, Green Bay, Park City, and Washington, DC. In 2008 I was chosen to be in the inaugural group of teachers to go on a study tour of Poland, complements of the Polish Embassy. In October of that year we spent eight days in Warsaw and Krakow, with the culmination of the tour being a day spent at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Words cannot describe... Later, I served on the Educator Advisory Board for the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center (Skokie, IL), and was invited to its grand opening where Elie Wiesel and former President Clinton were among the speakers.
So, about this book. Should you own it, read it, skip it altogether? I'm sure you've already figured out where I'm coming from on it -- I love it. But why should you? Well, first off, if you haven't read Maus I think you should. If you enjoy any aspect of the humanities, from history to psychology, from sociology to biography, then Maus is for you. I am always reluctant to read outside of the superhero books; I'd be kicking myself if I'd never given Maus a try. MetaMaus is indeed a comprehensive retrospective on Spiegelman's masterpiece. Let me let him tell you about the premise of the book, from page 6:
"MetaMaus is built around a series of taped conversations with Hillary Chute. (She is currently Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of English at the university of Chicago and was previously a Junior Fellow in Literature in the Society of Fellows at Harvard University.)
In 2006, after reading her lucid takes on my work and that of others I gave her free access to my rat's nest of files, archives, artwork, notebooks, journals, books, and dirty laundry. She soon became my chief enabler and associate editor in a project I kept resisting. (It was hard to revisit Maus, the book that both "made" me and has haunted me ever since; hard to revisit the ghosts of my family, the death-stench of history, and my own past.) Her relentless enthusiasm, diligence, and intelligence allowed this project to happen." --a.s.
I've probably read Maus a dozen times -- I don't completely read it every year I teach it, but I generally read several pages at a time to refresh my memory for class discussions. That being said, when Spiegelman and Chute discuss certain vignettes and how and why Spiegelman chose his way of presenting the scene, I'm pretty in tune with them. So for me, or for any multiple reader or student of Maus, this book is simply fascinating. For you who might have read it once or just know of it, this is a window into the complete creative process. Maus was originally conceived as a three-page story; it was expanded to a 300-page graphic novel! Spiegelman takes us through his research, his struggles with panel lay-outs, the evolution of metaphor, struggles with how to accurately convey his father's broken English, etc. Along the way we are treated to seemingly endless examples of drafts for pages and even for specific panels.
But it goes beyond the creation of Maus and into the world of corporate big business -- of international translations, pressures for film and animation rights, and museum shows. One of the comments I found very interesting was Spiegelman's declaration that the original publication of Maus as a graphic novel of 6 1/2" x 9" is the only size at which he wants the art to be exhibited. He talks of being very unhappy one time when he entered an exhibit to see single panels from Maus blown up to poster size. He remarks that to do that is to lose all context of the page and what has come before and what is yet to be revealed. Later in the book he tells that working in the small, confined size limited him -- disciplined him -- to tell the story creatively yet not ornately. Spiegelman often calls himself a poor draftsman, an inferior artist, yet as we hear him soliloquize on his burdens of creativity, on the countless drafts and rejections of even specific figures within a given panel, we cannot but marvel at his brilliance in telling this story in the exact manner in which he wanted it told.
The table of contents goes like this:
- Introduction (8)
- Why the Holocaust (10)
- Family Album (83)
- The Early Maus (105)
- Why Mice? (110)
- Why Comics? (164)
- Family Tree (224)
- Vladek's Transcript (237)
- Memories of Anja (278)
- Chronology (290)
- Index (295)
At an MSRP of $35.00 for the hardcover edition, this would be welcome in your comic book library, or on the bookshelf in your family room, den, or study.