The Unmistakable ‘Art’ of Mr. Spiegelman

Some writers and artists draw inspiration from seeing a beautiful landscape, staring at a statuesque model or listening to a well-crafted anecdote.

Not Art Spiegelman. Disaster is his muse.

In his most famous work, the graphic novel Maus, the disaster was the Holocaust. The story told of his parents' struggles throughout the Shoah, with Jews depicted as mice and the Germans as cats. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 in a special awards category.

In 2004, the author released In the Shadow of No Towers, which told of his personal experience being just 10 blocks away from the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I don't work when I'm feeling good," said the 60-year-old to a group of 100 people crammed tightly into two rooms at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania; a few classes off-site watched the artist via a live Web cast.

As he has been known to do in the past, Spiegelman chain-smoked throughout the hourlong presentation.

With many of his books dealing with tragic topics, how does Spiegelman handle the commercial consequences of his work, since ultimately his books and illustrations do put money into his pocket?

"I just figure it's all war reparations," quipped Spiegelman, specifically about Maus.

Shifting his attention to his 9/11 book — where he criticizes politicians who, he said, exploited the attacks — he remarked that he "feels no shame in having gotten royalties for a book."

"I think the nature of those pages was to ask questions and slow things down," said Spiegelman, who served for 10 years as a staff artist for The New Yorker.

Spiegelman later attempted to clarify his "disaster is my muse" comment further by saying that he was not necessarily referring to "world cataclysms" like Sept. 11 or the Holocaust. To him, a disaster could mean something small, like being late for a meeting or missing a train, which ultimately acts as an spur for his artwork.

"For me, it's really just trying to regain an equilibrium," he said, "whether it's something trivial — as part of my tiny bubble — or something more infamous that's part of a bigger bubble that I have to work my way through."

Spiegelman also touched upon his creative process during Maus, which entailed extensive interviews with his father. He told the crowd just how difficult it was to draw out information from his father so many years after the fact.

"Like everybody else, my father could tell the stories one told oneself or others before," said Spiegelman, "and the telling replaces the memory, and to a degree that's what happened." He explained that he had to dig deeper to get at the truth.

After the release of Maus, the graphic artist felt that he was being typecast as a Jewish or Holocaust thinker.

"I vowed not to become the Elie Wiesel of comics," he said, referring to the famous author of Night. "I tried not to weigh in on Holocaust issues — if I could keep my mouth shut."

He also used the Kelly Writers House lecture as an opportunity to clarify some comments he made in In the Shadow of No Towers, where he stated that running away from the cloud of smoke of the second tower made him finally understand what his father was talking about when he described the smell of death in the concentration camps.

"I wasn't trying to make something of equal proportion," said the writer, but because of his personal background, that idea popped into his head.

Spiegelman also told the audience that after the attacks, he realized that he felt an extraordinary connection to his home.

"The eight blocks around Canal Street," he said, "if they had a flag, I would fly it."


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