MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus
(2011) is a non-fiction book by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman. A companion to Spiegelman’s groundbreaking graphic novel Maus
comprises a collage of materials relating to the composition and afterlife of the earlier work. At its center is an interview with Spiegelman conducted by academic Hillary Chute. MetaMaus
won the 2011 National Jewish Book Award for a Biography, Autobiography, or Memoir.
Threaded between the pages of the central interview is a wide range of materials, including Spiegelman’s draft sketches for Maus
, family photographs, and documents relating to the author’s family history (Maus
tells the story of his parents’ incarceration in Auschwitz). These documents include his parents’ arrest records. There are many photos of Spiegelman, at several different ages, but usually wearing a vest and smoking.
Other photographs accompany a detailed discussion of the tools and methods Spiegelman used in the composition of Maus
. He drew the novel on a scale slightly larger than print so that any errors would be scaled down and made “seamless.” He used specially modified Pelikan fountain pens to draw, correcting mistakes with typewriter correction fluid.
As well as the central interview with Spiegelman, the volume also contains interviews with his wife, son, and daughter, as well as transcripts of the interviews with his father on which Spiegelman based Maus
The central interview is conducted by Hillary Chute, a professor of English at the University of Chicago and an expert on graphic novels. She begins by drawing out of Spiegelman the story of Maus
’s conception. He recalls a friend showing him the early Disney movie Steamboat Willie
and pointing out that Mickey Mouse looks like “Al Jolson with funny round ears on top.” At that moment, Spiegelman decided that he wanted to use anthropomorphic animals to write about racism, but his initial idea was a story about the Ku Klux Klan. It wasn’t until he recalled Hitler’s image of the Jews as vermin that he decided to tell his father’s story using this method. Spiegelman jokes that Hitler was his “collaborator.”
Spiegelman discusses the composition process and his attitude to the book while he was working on it. Laboring with a conviction that the book would be successful, but probably not until after his own death, he “built it to last.” For a long time, Spiegelman expected to have to self-publish. The many rejection letters he received are printed alongside the interview, including rejections from major publishers like Knopf and Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The house which finally accepted it, Pantheon Books, offered Spiegelman only a small advance.
However, to the surprise of everyone, Spiegelman included, Maus
was a bestseller. Spiegelman recalls that he struggled terribly with success. A feeling of being unfairly overlooked had been a powerful motivator for him. He asserts that he spent “the next 20 years trying to wriggle out from under my own achievement.”
Spiegelman has given a great deal of thought to the novel’s reception, and he discusses it in detail. He recounts his fear of becoming the “Elie Wiesel of comic books,” and rails against critics who see Maus
as a book for young readers just because it is illustrated. Printed alongside these comments is one of Spiegelman’s New Yorker
cartoons, in which his avatar announces, “When parents give Maus
, my book about Auschwitz, to their little kids, I think it’s child abuse.”
Chute and Spiegelman discuss at length the author’s choice to depict Jews, Germans, and Poles as different anthropomorphized animals in Maus
. Spiegelman raises the critique, leveled by some Israeli readers, that portraying Jews as mice stereotypes Jewish people as “pathetic and defenseless.” He also discusses the possibility that portraying the Germans as cats essentializes German anti-Semitism, implying that it is as natural as cats’ treatment of mice. Spiegelman addresses the first criticism by pointing out that his novel aims to undermine Nazi stereotypes about Jews, turning them against themselves. The latter possibility, he argues, is an open question of the novel. Where, he asks, does racism come from? Spiegelman further defends the use of animals by suggesting that it allowed him to say “unsayable” things.
Reflecting on his deepest motivations for writing Maus
, Spiegelman compares the novel to a yahrzeit candle, a Jewish memorial candle burnt for the dead. He suggests that the central question of the novel is the question of how events reverberate through time. He argues that the comic-book format is uniquely well-structured to examine this theme, because its sequential panels allow past, present, and future to exist side-by-side.
The book is accompanied by a DVD, which includes an interactive version of Maus
, as well as filmed footage of interviews, and some home movies from Spiegelman’s family. This material includes film of Spiegelman’s father Vladek, on whom Maus
’s main character is based.