Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.
SALEM – Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist best known for his Holocaust “Maus” books, drew a sold-out crowd to the Peabody Essex Museum Tuesday night as part of the museum’s month-long look at artistic responses to another horrific event in history, Sept. 11, 2001.
Spiegelman, 57, was born in Stockholm, Sweden, not long after the end of World War II, the child of Holocaust survivors Vladek and Anja. His parents dreamed of him becoming a dentist, but when he discovered Mad magazine, the course of his life changed. “I studied Mad the way some kids studied the Talmud,” he told Tuesday’s audience.
For 20 years, he labored at the Topps trading card company, responsible for such emblems of youthful subversion as The Garbage Pail Kids. In 1979, he added an academic feather to his cap, teaching the history and aesthetics of comics at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
In the meantime, he met and married Françoise Mouly, with whom he founded the groundbreaking underground “comix” magazine Raw. (“Comix” is Spiegelman’s preferred term for the art form that co-mixes words and pictures.)
It was in the pages of Raw that Spiegelman first serialized his Holocaust epic. In 1985, that story was collected in book form, and a strange thing happened to Spiegelman’s comic book. Traditional bookstores started carrying it.
While “Maus” was somewhat ahead of the zeitgeist that has since brought “graphic novels” sections to bookstores around the country, Spiegelman’s effort, and the accolades it earned, is generally credited as opening the door.
Following the publication of “Maus,” Spiegelman took on a variety of projects, from children’s books to a three-year stint writing essays and illustrating covers for the New Yorker, where his wife is art editor. But for years he stayed away from another long-form comic. “Any career I’ve had was an accidental by-product,” he said. “It wasn’t so much a career as a calling.”
Spiegelman and his family live in Lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center. His experiences on the day of the attacks, as well as the long process of dealing with life in the aftermath, formed the basis of “In the Shadow of No Towers,” which marked his return to the comics shelves.
Spiegelman today looks comfortably disheveled, having only recently begun to consider that the world might not actually be ending. “Books require a belief that there might be a future,” he said. “I thought the rest of New York was going to blow up soon, so I might as well make my comics while I’m waiting.”
The “No Towers” book, published a year ago by Pantheon, collects and expands on a serious of broadside comics that originally ran in international newspapers during 2002 and 2003. “I was being a goodwill ambassador to Europe,” he said, “to tell them that not everyone in America was crazy.”
Few American newspapers chose to carry the strips, and only a New York-based Jewish weekly, The Forward, carried the entire series. Other American newspapers deemed Spiegelman’s work too provocative to run during such a sensitive time.
Although Spiegelman worried this work would not be “Jewish enough” for The Forward, his identity as both a Jew and the child of Holocaust survivors informs every page. One particularly resonant example involves Spiegelman’s realization that he felt more rooted in his post-Sept. 11 neighborhood than he had previously thought, saying, “I finally understand why some Jews didn’t leave Berlin right after Kristallnacht!”
Despite the political nature of his work, he resists the label of political cartoonist, saying, “The early pages weren’t trying to be political at all. I just thought I was describing reality.”
He seems genuinely befuddled that the entire country does not share his viewpoint, and he claims to have never met a Republican before attending the 2004 Republican National Convention as a member of the press. “The work [on the “No Towers” strips] wasn’t done to influence,” he insisted, “but to say what was being said among my friends but wasn’t getting said out loud.”
The book augments the original “In The Shadow of No Towers” strips with two essays and reproductions of 10 comics from the early-20th century. Spiegelman describes the book architecturally, with his work and the reprints forming their own two towers.
These strips are linked thematically, dealing with topics like the New York skyline and permanency. But they are also linked spiritually, having been born on Newspaper Row, the early headquarters of the New York newspaper industry, located in the same neighborhood where the twin towers would eventually stand and fall. “The past became very present for me,” he said, “not as a kind of nostalgia, but as something that happens when time stops.”
Spiegelman juxtaposes artwork intended to be ephemeral, but which has nonetheless lasted nearly 100 years, with the loss of the ostensibly permanent World Trade Center buildings. “We live in this world of things, of things like towers and governments and civilizations, and they’re all incredibly fragile,” he said in a Newsweek interview. “Somehow, that crumbling newsprint [these strips were originally printed on] made that clear to me. It’s about ephemera versus the apocalypse, about things that last and things that don’t.”