Art Spiegelman Interviewed on Maus, Art and History, and his Missing GlassesBreaking News
tags: Tennessee, censorship, Art Spiegelman, Maus
Okay, so here’s the thing,” Art Spiegelman says into the phone as he paces his cavernous Soho studio, humming with anxiety. “I don’t know what happened. I’m almost positive I took them with me. I put them into a sleeve so they wouldn’t crush in my pocket. I thought I did.” On the other end of the line is his wife and collaborator of more than four decades, New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly, who is trying to help him find his glasses. He mined his past for clues: Yes, we had dined for nearly an hour at his beloved Fanelli’s, a 175-year-old pub around the corner — but we had already looked there. Then he’d returned to the studio: Nothing there, either. Yes, he says, he checked his coat pockets already. Could she check her office? “Try by where our coats are,” he suggests. This has been happening to him since the beginning of the pandemic: glasses, pens, notebooks, e-cigarettes vanish, and he’s useless until he finds or reluctantly replaces the lost item. When he loses something, “everything just tightens,” he says. Losing his glasses is especially difficult because of the amblyopia he’s had since childhood. “I attribute my abilities as a cartoonist in part to the glasses thing — I was terrible at baseball, obviously,” he says.
Spiegelman, a monumental creator of comic books, began drawing his seminal work Maus in the early 1970s. It tells the story of his father’s journey through the Holocaust and of his own struggle to piece that tale together with mice, cats, and pigs in the place of Jews, Germans, and Poles. It has become one of the most acclaimed nonfiction works about the Holocaust; in 1992, it was awarded a Pulitzer, the first — and, to date, only — given to a comic book. Sales have been spiking since late January, when the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee yanked Maus from an eighth-grade curriculum after a few parents objected to the nudity and use of profanity in it. As a result, Spiegelman has spent the past few weeks drenched in public exposure, his inbox inundated with messages of support and press requests. “I must have answered at least 50 emails in the past week, but not many more, because it’s like ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’: You answer one and three more come in,” he says. “My life went into a stasis. I’ve become cannon fodder in a culture war.”
But on this February afternoon, the glasses are the more pressing matter. Spiegelman and Mouly talk for about five more minutes until they realize there’s nothing to be done. “Damn,” he says after he hangs up. “I was always good at losing things. I had a Polish name my parents called me — Zguba — which means ‘loser.’ Not in the sense of what you’d say in English when you say ‘You’re a loser,’ but that I would always be bringing back one glove when I was in kindergarten, first grade, or beyond.”
It’s possible that this talent was a rebellion against his father, Vladek, a Jew from Poland who lost almost his entire family to the camps and subsequently became a hoarder — unwilling to lose anything more, even a glove. In 1968, Spiegelman’s mother, Anja, killed herself and left no note. Vladek found her dead in the bathtub and later burned her voluminous diaries, which were intended for Art to read someday. In Maus, Art depicts himself raging at his dead mother (“Mommy! Bitch!” he yells) and seemingly careless father (“Murderer!” Art calls him). The curse words and his dead mother’s barely visible breast are both sources of complaints from the McMinn parents. “A lot of the cussing had to do with the son cussing out the father, so I don’t know how that teaches our kids any kind of ethical stuff,” one of them, Mike Cochran, told the board, which later voted unanimously to ban Maus. “It’s just the opposite: Instead of treating his father with respect, he treated his father like he” — Art, that is — “was the victim.”
Although the incident hasn’t led to other calls to ban Maus, the book’s defenders suspected more sinister motives beyond discomfort with obscenities: anti-Semitism and hatred of so-called critical race theory. Spiegelman, on the other hand, isn’t so certain there’s any actual bigotry behind the parents’ complaints, which he stayed up until 4 a.m. reading. “I feel like this wasn’t an actual anti-Semitic incident. It was an incident created by somebody who probably knows very few Jews,” he says. “The thing that really upset them was me yelling at my father for burning the diaries. I guess it would’ve been better, for the school board, to say, ‘Gee whiz, Pop — I wish you hadn’t done it!’ But that would not have been accurate to my intensity of horror.”