This Day in Jewish History

1948: Birthday of Graphic Artist Art Spiegelman

The Pulitzer Prize-winning artist is best known for his masterpiece 'Maus,' the graphic novel that depicts the Holocaust and its effect on survivors.

Wikimedia Commons

February 15, 1948, is the birth date of Avraham Yitzhak ben Zev Spiegelman – better known to the world as Art Spiegelman, comics artist and graphic designer.

Spiegelman was born in Stockholm, Sweden, where his Polish-born parents, Wladyslaw and Andzia, settled after surviving Auschwitz. The couple’s first child, Richieu, born in 1937, died in 1943 during the Holocaust. In 1951, the family emigrated from Sweden to the United States, where they ended up settling in Rego Park, Queens.

Spiegelman was fascinated by Mad magazine, comic books and trading cards while growing up. He attended New York’s High School of Art and Design, with the intention of becoming a cartoonist himself.  (His parents encouraged him to become a dentist.) He studied at, but did not graduate from, Harpur College (later State University of New York at Binghamton), and followed that with work at Topps, which produced the trading cards he so enjoyed. At the same time, he also began working on underground comics.

He served as a consultant with Topps for more than two decades; his creations there included a line of cards called “Garbage Pail Kids,” a response to the Cabbage Patch Kids doll craze of the mid-1980s.

In March 1968, Spiegelman had himself admitted to a mental hospital following a breakdown that he later attributed to “survivor’s guilt” and to heavy use of LSD. After a brief hospitalization, he then suffered the loss of his mother, who killed herself after the death of her brother, the only other remaining survivor of her family.

In the 1970s, he moved to San Francisco and then later back to New York, working extensively during this period on a wide variety of comics projects. In 1972, a friend asked if he had any unpublished work about animals. The resulting three-page comic strip served as the basis, a decade later, for his groundbreaking book “Maus.” In it, he told the story of his parents’ experience in the war, depicting them and the other Jews as mice, and the German Nazis who persecuted them as cats or, die Katzen.

Wikipedia

In 1975 and 1976, Spiegelman co-edited a serial comics anthology, Arcade; in 1977, he published a collection of his own work, “Breakdowns,” and in 1980 began publishing a new magazine called Raw, which was devoted to original work by unknown cartoonists.

His partner on Raw was Francoise Mouly, a French architectural student he had met and married several years earlier when she was on a break from her studies in New York. It was in Raw that Spiegelman began to serialize “Maus,” the story of his father in the Holocaust.

Spiegelman, in collaboration with Mouly, worked on “Maus” over the course of eight years, starting in 1978, when he began to interview his father about his Holocaust experiences. In 1986, the publisher Pantheon brought out the first six chapters as a graphic novel, with the title “Maus: My Father Bleeds History,” which sold over 150,000 copies. That was followed in 1991 by “Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began.” In 1992, he received a special Pulitzer Prize, the first time that a graphic novel was so honored, recognizing, despite its unorthodox form, that it was in effect a biography. In the book, the author’s character, called “Art Spiegelman,” who has been estranged from his father, Vladek, reconnects with him after he begins to interview him about the war years.     

“Maus” helped bring graphic novels into the mainstream and also served as a very accessible tool for describing both the Holocaust and its effects on the families of survivors. It has been translated into 30 languages.

Between 1992 and 2002, Spiegelman was a contributing artist at The New Yorker, leaving after September 11, 2001, partially in response to what he described as “the widespread conformism of the mass media in the Bush era.” He was also traumatized by the World Trade Center attacks, something that found expression in his 2004 book “In the Shadow of No Towers.”

Spiegelman, a secular Jew, calls himself an “a-Zionist,” meaning neither Zionist nor anti-Zionist, and has described Israel as a “sad, failed idea.” He continues to speak out on political issues, to work as a teacher, and to create cartoon art.