Of Mice and Men

It's when the viewer finally arrives at the Maus-related pieces that the exhibit begins to pay off, with a detailed look at how Spiegelman went about his work. It's annoying, though, that this portion isn't chronological, either; the pieces apparently have been arranged according to their aesthetic qualities. This means that visitors unfamiliar with Maus and Maus II will have a hard time following the narrative content.

The first piece shown is an early one, a prospective cover illustration drawn in 1980 but later rejected by Spiegelman. In it, the artist places a huddled pair of mice--his father, Vladek, holding his mother, Anja--under a large heading that reads "Maus" in heavy black paint. Below the mice is a smaller caption that reads "A Survivor's Tale" (thankfully, Spiegelman resisted the temptation to use "tail" as a cartoonish pun). Next to this cover study is another from 1986, the year of the book's publication, in which a group of four mice in the striped prison uniforms of the concentration camps stare blankly out at the reader. This time the title lettering has been placed above their heads in blood-red acrylic. This piece, too, was rejected by the artist.

One nearby framed panel features no less than four other cover studies, revealing just how much trouble the cover gave Spiegelman. But even though he chose not to use these pieces in the final edition of Maus, it makes sense to include them here. They demonstrate the artist's perfectionism, along with his attention to detail.

Indeed, the tremendous amount of work--and thought--that Spiegelman put into Maus is revealed throughout the show. A case in point are the nine sketches drawn in 1985 and '86 in preparation for a single page called "Hiding in the Ghetto." Some of these sketches are in colored markers, some in black ink, and they provide an interesting insight into Spiegelman's creative process: His caption balloons are conceived as a prominent element of his picture design, penciled in even before he has written the narrative content.

Several of the drawings at the Singer demonstrate the historical research that was necessary to create Maus and its sequel. In a study for the title page for Maus II, a cat Nazi guard is seen in a watchtower that rises above a barbed-wire fence. The setting is eerily reminiscent of the actual Nazi death camps, and on the fence is a sign depicting a mouse skull and crossbones. The effect is chilling.

The show ends, oddly enough, with a display of the archival photographs and period maps that Spiegelman used as historical sources for his drawings. It would seem that this section should have come at the beginning of the Maus portion of the show; these source works should have been placed right where those out-of-place '90s graphics were displayed, and the graphics, in turn, should have closed out the exhibit.

The handsome if disjointed installation is only one reason that this show may be confusing for some to follow. Though attendance figures have been high, Art Spiegelman: Maus and Beyond is really an insiders' event that will appeal mostly to those who are already familiar with the material.

Art Spiegelman: Maus and Beyond, through February 1 at the Singer Gallery in the Mizel Family Cultural Arts Center, 350 South Dahlia Street, 399-2660.

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