Robot 6

Katz v. Maus: Counterfeit or critique? [Updated]

An odd little remix of Art Spiegelman’s Maus caused a bit of a stir at this year’s Angouleme International Comics Festival (of which Spiegelman was the honorary president), and now it looks like the remaining copies of the book will be destroyed at the behest of Spiegelman’s publisher.

In Maus, which is based on Spiegelman’s parents’ experiences in the Holocaust, the Jews are drawn as mice, the Nazis as cats, and the Poles as pigs. The remix, Katz, is an exact reproduction of Maus except that all the characters are cats. The Comics Reporter Bart Beaty was given a copy of the book at Angouleme and reports that it was for sale at a number of booths there, including that of the publisher, the Belgian house Cinquieme Couche. Mysteriously (or maybe not) Katz bears the name of no author or publisher on the cover, but Spiegelman’s French publisher, Flammarion, figured it out and took the publisher to court, seeking an injunction against them. The Paris tribunal has granted a delay so the two parties could work it out. [UPDATE: The author has since been revealed to be Xavier Löwenthal, who has posted a comment below.]

According to the Belgian website Le Vif, the creator of Katz is both making a point about freedom of expression and protesting the fatalism of Maus. Maus showed the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice, their natural prey; changing all the characters to cats, the anonymous author argues, makes the point that no such natural division exists among humans. Flammarion doesn’t see it that way and argues that this is a straight-up copyright violation (contrefaçon).

Despite the conviction that they are in the right, Cinquieme Couche doesn’t have the means to fight the case and has agreed to destroy all the books it has left. If I’m reading the Belgian article right, only 800 copies of the book were printed, so this doesn’t amount to a lot of physical stock, but of course there is the principle of the thing, and in this case, there is plenty of scope for argument on either side. The case goes back to court on March 13.

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“Maus showed the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice, their natural prey; changing all the characters to cats, the anonymous author argues, makes the point that no such natural division exists among humans.”

A point which the original work already quite clearly and unambiguously makes, I thought. Was the absurdity of mice having to put on pig masks to pass as Poles not self-evident enough?

Nonetheless, there’s an interesting argument to be made for remixes like this as having something distinct to say rather than just being straight copies of the original work, and there’s something I find inherently distasteful about destroying books even if there’s a legal justification for doing so.

(Remember, Nosferatu was clearly and transparently an infringing work, but if all copies had really been destroyed as the courts ordered, we would have lost a classic film and an important piece of history.)

Brigid Alverson

March 8, 2012 at 9:41 am

Yes, Beaty pretty much discounts the fatalism argument, as would I; I was just passing along the publisher’s argument. It works better as a defense of Katz than as a critique of Maus, IMHO.

When I saw the headline I thought someone had used Maus to critique the Israeli/Palestinian conflict/Apartheid/occupation (depending on your POV) where the Israeli’s are mice, but killing cats. My next thought was: “Oh No! Here go the Sharks and the Jets again…”

@Brigid: Ah. The link to TCJ is broken, BTW.

@Marc: A compelling idea, anyway. The observation that the oppressed become the oppressors isn’t a new one, but it could be interesting if it were handled well.

Of course one more reason that the “natural division” argument is silly is that, throughout, the book shows malleability and ambiguity of these divisions — the mouse in the concentration camp who swears that he’s a German and this is all a mistake, and briefly “changes into” a cat, or indeed the conversation with Francois about her transformation from a frog into a mouse.

So, the mice transforming into cats? Obviously the situation in the West Bank is rather a lot more complex than that. But certainly there are innocent Palestinians suffering.

@Marc C
I actually did that with my comic “Old Abdullah Had a Farm” but I made them all mice.
Because they are all human. Screw you for a racist, Art Speigelman!*

*No, but really, I like Art Spiegelman’s work quite a lot.

Brigid Alverson

March 8, 2012 at 10:45 am

@Thad: Fixed it. Thanks!

After looking at the above comments, I wonder why it is so difficult to have an unmoderated general discussion that references the Holocaust without people seguing into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Also, to agree with Thad: there are several instances in Maus (particularly in the second volume) where Spiegelman deconstructs the animal motif: He shows himself as a human wearing a Maus mask, he has an extended discussion on how Françoise Mouly (who is ethnically French but converted to Judaism) ought be represented, Art’s psychiatrist is epresented as keeping cats as pets, et cetera. So, just from the description, Katz doesn’t really say anything that Maus doesn’t already address in a far more nuanced manner– since it really is about subverting Nazi racial theories.

I just wanted to make clear that we where not making any “intention trial” to Mr Spiegelman. We are questioning the interpretations that are made from any artwork, and proposing a new interpretation of Maus, like there are so many interpretations of any theatre works or music pieces. Everything get wasted if there are no questions. Of course, in this case, we where questioning an essential conception of being (as a victim, as a tormentor, as a saver…) that has been made already from the Holocaust, and that is just awful and prejudicial.
Then we where questioning the liberty of creation and its judicial limits (I apologize for my awful English.)

Brigid Alverson

March 9, 2012 at 5:03 am

Thank you for commenting, Xavier! It’s good to hear straight from the source.

@Ian Thal, you have identified something that is done by both sides–I am more familiar with the book, The Holocaust Industry regarding such an argument.

Anna Freud had a rather interesting thought regarding a psychological defense known as “identifying with the aggressor” that I think sheds light on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

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