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A great deal of the source material for Art Spiegelman’s ground-breaking, medium-defining, market-redefining Maus came from the cartoonist recording long conversations with his Holocaust-survivor father Vladek.
A great deal of the source material for MetaMaus, a book-length discussion of Maus that includes an astounding amount of reference, background and process-related material, comes from editor Hillary Chute recording long conversations with Art Spiegelman.
They didn’t put the word “Meta” in the title for nothing.
Less punchy, but also appropriate, might have been Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Maus and Probably Much More Besides, Including Things You Didn’t Know You Wanted to Know Until We Told You.
Pushing 300 pages and including a disc titled “The Complete Maus Files” that boasts the complete Maus and so much material about each page of it that it’s like a little Library of Mausandria, it might at first seem strange that the book about Maus seems to dwarf Maus itself, at least in terms of size. But part of the value of the project, beyond an admirable work of preservation of the astounding amount of research Spiegelman put into creating it and the family and cultural history that resulted and aside from creating an invaluable resource for future college kids writing papers on Maus, is what it reveals about Maus from a different perspective — inside out.
There’s a point in the Q&A during which Spiegelman discusses a change he had to make to several panels when Maus was being printed in Israel, as a descendant of one of the minor characters objected to the portrayal. Spiegelman shares what he said of the changes at the time:
What is being portrayed is, specifically, his [Vladek’s] story, based on his memories. This kind of reconstruction is fraught with dangers. My father could only remember/understand a part of what he lived through. He could only tell a part of that. I, in turn, could only understand a part of what he was able to tell, and could only communicated a part of that.
Spiegelman is saying that while Maus is a true story of something that really happened, it is only a very specific sliver of it. I was thinking in terms of icebergs as I read that, how only a small part of an iceberg is visible above the water, and the rest is submerged.
The way I understood Maus was a bit like seeing an iceberg, too. I only saw what was published, and occasional discussions of it since. But there’s a great deal more of it beneath the surface of the water, and MetaMaus is essentially Spiegelman and Chute taking a reader underwater to explore the rest.
As an American reader born just as Spiegelman was drawing his first attempts at Maus, I never comprehended how much research Spiegelman had to put into the book, and how difficult that was in the late seventies and early eighties, before “Holocaust” had become a sub-genre of Hollywood prestige pictures, and visual media depicting it was still so rare, for example. And it certainly never occurred to me that Spiegelman spent a great deal of effort making sure he got the toilets in the bathrooms at the death camps “right.”
I suppose that’s because I didn’t think of anyone but myself and the characters as I was reading Maus; I had no way of objecting to a toilet being drawn wrong, or the streets of a WWII-era Polish city being laid out incorrectly, because all I knew of such subjects was what I was reading here. But, because this is a real story that real people lived through (and so many other studied), Spiegelman wanted to make sure he got everything as right as possible. (Nor did I think of the toll it must have taken to essentially live with one of modern history’s greatest atrocities for decades.)
The book is divided into the three questions Spiegelman gets asked the most — Why the Holocaust? Why mice? And Why comics? — and it functions as a once-and-for-all answer to those questions. In the future, he can just point whoever asks them to MetaMaus (Heck, when they publish the paperback version, perhaps he can carry a few around with him to hand out to people who ask him those questions).
The section on mice devotes quite a bit of discussion to how Spiegelman chose the various species used, and some of the many problems that came up. One animal never discussed is the albatross, but that’s an animal I thought of repeatedly during the discussion, as Maus has become something of an albatross for the creator. He’s had a rich, varied and successful career—there are plenty of great, fun comics in here that aren’t really directly Maus related, like Spiegelman chronicling meetings with Maurice Sendak and Harvey Kurtzman, or a comics-format review of a book about Winsor McCay — but he’s always going to be the guy who did Maus. Obviously, that’s not a bad thing to be, but it can also be kind of tough, and Spiegelman gets into that a bit.
Also revelatory was what being the kids of the guy who did Maus was like as there are short interviews with Spiegelman’s now grown children Nadja and Dashiell, as well as with his wife Francoise .
It’s difficult to imagine someone seriously interested in the medium of comics and its history not being fascinated with Maus — there’s no avoiding it — but it’s worth noting that even if such readers exist who don’t care to read more about the book and how it came to be and what it’s gone on to be, there’s a great value in the book as simply a rigorous dissection of how a graphic novel came to be (that is, Spiegelman and Maus as a generic example) and, in the section “Why Comics?” plenty of interest in comics in general.
As I mentioned, I found myself repeatedly surprised, even shocked, by new information regarding a book I felt pretty confident I knew a lot about already, but more exciting still was reading sections like the one in which Spiegelman recounts an argument he had about Bernard Krigstein regarding the ideal form of comics.
If anyone wants to argue about the ideal form of books about comics, I think Chute and Spiegelman has offered a hell of an opening argument with MetaMaus.
MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus by Art Spiegelman and Hillary Chute, Pantheon, 300 pages, $35