Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The curse of the 5,000lb mouse

Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus was hailed as a masterpiece. He's still recovering. As his sketchbooks are published for the first time, he explains all to Angelique Chrisafis

Art Spiegelman, comics artist and editor"When you've been revealed in all your pathetic nakedness, there's nothing else to lose' ... Art Spiegelman.
'I want a blood test," Art Spiegelman shrugs when asked about his status as the father of the graphic novel. Twenty years ago, the wise-cracking New York cartoonist changed the history of comic books with the first installment of his Pulitzer prize-winning Maus: A Survivor's Tale - the story of how his parents survived Auschwitz, with Jews drawn as mice and Nazis as cats. It remains the defining work of graphic memoir, the book that elevated a pulp mass medium to high art and proved that comics didn't have to be comic. But, as one frame in Spiegelman's new exhibition in Paris says, ever since then he's felt he has "a 5,000 pound mouse breathing down my neck".
Spiegelman, 61, looks just as he draws himself - a waistcoat, a constant cigarette; he is self-mockingly neurotic but infinitely wise, still carrying the heavy burden of guilt that plagues survivors' children. His vast career has ranged from the grotesque Garbage Pail Kids, to In the Shadow of No Towers, his comic-strip journal about September 11, and last year's reissue of Breakdowns, a graphic memoir described as "the Citizen Kane of modern comics".

Despite the awful details of his life, Spiegelman's confessional style makes his works almost impossible to put down. His parents were forced into the Polish ghettos in 1941, reluctantly handing their eldest son - Spiegelman's brother - over to relatives to hide him. The little boy was poisoned to death by his aunt during a Nazi raid; she thought it better than letting him go to the camps, and killed herself, too. His grief-stricken parents ended up in Auschwitz, which they survived. Spiegelman was born after the war and raised in New York, an only child with a "ghost brother". His father was brutalized and damaged; his mother took her own life when Spiegelman was 20 and didn't leave a note. All this is laid bare in his work. To him, Maus, published in 1986 and 1992, was, "as a blues musician would say, my crossover hit"; but he sees all his work on a continuum, "made from the same fractured psyche".

Next week, three of Spiegelman's sketchbooks will be published for the first time.


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