Of Mice and Men

New York-based artist and author Art Spiegelman is among the most important contemporary cartoonists in the world. And his considerable fame is based almost wholly on Maus, a sometimes hard-bound comic book first published in 1986 by Pantheon Books. It's no exaggeration to say that Maus is a masterpiece. The book tells the story of the Holocaust through the experiences of Spiegelman's parents, who were hunted down and captured by the Nazis. But what really makes it special is the disarming foil of having the Jews depicted as mice and the Nazis as cats.

Maus and its comic successor, Maus II, are the topics of the current exhibit in the Singer Gallery of the Mizel Family Cultural Arts Center, located in the Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center. Art Spiegelman: Maus and Beyond is the second show associated with "The Beautiful and the Banned," a series of events at the JCC intended to explore the cultural impact of the Holocaust. And though the presentation of the Spiegelman exhibit is confusing, the quality of the material more than makes up for this shortcoming.

The Singer is the traveling Spiegelman show's only stop in North America. "We're very lucky to have gotten it," says Mizel Center director Joanne Kauvar. Spiegelman had originally been invited to speak in Denver by the Holocaust Awareness Institute of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver. And when a gap opened up in the show's travel itinerary--it premiered in Basil, Switzerland, last year and is due next spring in Rio de Janeiro--the Mizel Center was able to book the exhibit at the same time Spiegelman was due to speak here.

Remodeling at the Singer was completed just in time for the Spiegelman show. New for this exhibit are a pair of walls that have been added to the center of the room, thus creating four spaces where there used to be one (it's all part of the revamping frenzy this winter on the local exhibition scene).

As the viewer enters, a small arrow indicates the beginning of the show immediately to the left. Here the earliest cartoons anticipating Maus are displayed, most notably "Prisoner on the Hell Planet," a four-page comic strip published in 1972 in which Spiegelman blames himself for his mother's suicide. "Prisoner" foreshadows the autobiographical approach of Maus but has a distinctly different literary and artistic style. Closer both stylistically and conceptually to Maus is another comic strip Spiegelman published in 1972, "Funny Aminals and Breakdowns." In this three-page strip, Spiegelman introduces the device of using mice for Jews and cats for Nazis.

Born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1948 to Polish Holocaust survivors, Spiegelman moved with his parents to Rego Park, Queens, when he was just three years old. (That New York City neighborhood, where Spiegelman grew up, would later appear as one of the principal settings in Maus.) Though he was only 24 at the time these comics first appeared, Spiegelman had already worked for ten years as a professional cartoonist, first for the Long Island Post and later in a long-term relationship with Topps Chewing Gum, for which he created the grotesque "Garbage Pail Kids" collectible cards.

"Prisoner on the Hell Planet" and "Funny Aminals" were created in the early 1970s, during the heyday of the underground-comics movement. Spiegelman was living in the San Francisco area, then a hothouse for comic-strip artists, and his work appeared alongside that of the legendary R. Crumb and Bill Griffith, creator of Zippy the Pinhead. With Griffith, Spiegelman, who had returned to New York in 1975, co-edited a pair of serious-minded comic-book compendiums, Arcade and The Comics Review. He has written that he thought of Arcade as "a lifeboat for the best of the San Francisco-based cartoonists." A Plexiglas showcase in the Singer exhibit includes examples of both Arcade and The Comics Review, but to help conserve the fragile paper that the books were printed on, only the covers are seen--and they weren't drawn by Spiegelman.

The showcase also displays copies of Raw magazine, another of Spiegelman's claims to fame. Founded in 1978 by Spiegelman and his French-born wife, Francoise Mouly, Raw presented handsomely bound comics carefully printed on fine paper. At the same time, Spiegelman began the long version of Maus. The first six chapters of the story appeared in Raw in 1980, and six subsequent chapters were issued in separate, soft-bound editions. All the Maus-related editions of Raw are included at Singer, but again, to preserve them, these slim volumes have been left closed, with only their covers visible. Unfortunately, they've also been crowded into the case, with some actually displayed lying on top of each other.

The section of the show devoted to Raw includes original cover art that Spiegelman created for the magazine. The most beautiful piece is a poster-sized study in mixed mediums from 1986 called "Raw, the Torn-Again Graphix Magazine." It reveals the face of a woman created from torn drawings of several different faces. The individual elements reflect a variety of contemporary comic-book illustration styles, but lumped together they call to mind fine-art styles ranging from cubism to pop art.

At this point, the viewer has been provided with all the background needed to begin an exploration of Maus and Maus II. And up to this point, the exhibit has been presented in a strictly chronological fashion, suggesting that Maus should be next. However, the chronological thread is sadly broken. Across the room from the Raw material is a display of Spiegelman's magazine covers and graphic designs from the 1990s--which should have been placed at the end of the show. Also in this section is a well-done CD-ROM display in which Spiegelman himself explains the genesis of Maus.

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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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia