More than 400 students, educators and community members tuned in from around the world on March 7 to attend a Gratz College Zoom event with cartoonist Art Spiegelman.
As part of the biennial Arnold and Esther Tuzman Memorial Holocaust Teach-In, Spiegelman, creator of “Maus” and the first cartoonist to ever win the Pulitzer Prize, gave several talks to different groups over the course of the afternoon. For a few hours, viewers heard from the 73 year-old Spiegelman on topics like MAD magazine, American cartooning, Donald Trump, Zionism, Elie Wiesel, Charlie Hebdo, “Maus” and more.
“Maus,” Spiegelman’s graphic memoir for which he is best known, is both the story of his father’s experience of the Holocaust in Poland and Spiegelman’s own experience as the son of Holocaust survivors. It is based on recordings that Spiegelman made of his father’s testimony. The resulting work, published serially between 1980 and 1991, won praise and awards for Spiegelman from across the globe.
“Maus” is well-suited to the themes of the teach-in. The late Arnold and Esther Tuzman, the namesakes of the teach-in, were both Holocaust survivors. Their son, Marty Tuzman, and granddaughter, Kira Foley-Tuzman, described the experience of carrying on the legacy of their forebearers for the teach-in attendees, emphasizing the responsibility that they feel to honor their memory.
After leading VIP sponsors on a tour of his at-home studio, Spiegelman spoke to all attendees for close to an hour.
Puffing on a blue-ringed vape, Spiegelman said that he tried to avoid talking about “Maus” for many years, as the same questions came up repeatedly. He even wrote a companion book, “MetaMaus,” that sought to preempt many of them. But the Trump presidency, he said, compelled him to be more vocal.
“I just got more and more scared about the reality I was in,” Spiegelman said, “because it seemed to me that … well, I never quite thought I’d see fascism rear its head in America.”
When a commenter expressed dismay that Spiegelman’s discussion was focusing too much on politics, the cartoonist was indignant.
“This isn’t politics as some kind of abstraction. This is politics. The Holocaust was politics. And we’re living through politics now,” he said.
In conversation with Rabbi Lance J. Sussman of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, Spiegelman discussed the history of American cartooning and the publication of “Maus.” Mostly, he answered questions about particular choices he’d made in the creation of “Maus,” covering everything from his portrayal of Polish people as pigs to a shadow on the cover.
Preregistered participants then broke into two groups. One session, led by Gary Weissman, an adjunct professor at Gratz and an associate professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, was intended for educators at the high school and college levels. Weissman discussed the various ways in which “Maus” could be used to teach students about the interplay between literature, history and memory.
In the other session, Spiegelman addressed more than 40 Gratz students. He discussed his relationship to Israel, the difference between him and Elie Wiesel, and a new project he’d illustrated for the novelist Robert Coover; he talked about fascism, Plastic Man and the difference between the Republican and Democratic parties.
The work of Wiesel and some other survivors, Spiegelman said, felt “emotionally manipulative” to him; additionally, he had no intention of becoming a writer who would be called upon every time someone need a pronouncement on a matter of the Holocaust.
“I have no real problem with his work,” Spiegelman said of Wiesel. “But I certainly didn’t want to spend the rest of my life having to become a second generation explicator of something that I put everything I could know into this one 13-year-long project, and live only in that.”
Spiegelman recommended the work of younger cartoonists, and plugged Astra Quarterly, a new international literary magazine edited by his daughter, Nadja Spiegelman. He answered many questions regarding teaching techniques when it came to “Maus”; most were preceded by an outpouring of gratitude for Spiegelman’s work.
Spiegelman insisted that education wasn’t on his mind when he first put pencil to paper.
“I never made ‘Maus’ to teach anybody anything consciously. I didn’t think the world could learn,” he said. “I just knew this was a story that people at that time, which was 1972, barely knew.” (Spiegelman drew the first “Maus” strip in 1972.)
Spiegelman tried to situate “Maus” in the history of American cartooning, explaining that the genre wasn’t usually considered to have any literary merit for most of its history. It was his work and that of a few other cartoonists in the late ’80s, he said, that finally brought a more sympathetic critical eye.
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