Art Spiegelman’s MetaMaus: A Look Inside A Modern Classic, MAUS, “is built around a series of taped conversations,” from 2006 to 2010, between Spiegelman and University of Chicago English professor Hillary Chute, whose “lucid takes on [Spiegelman’s] work” impressed him so, he “gave her free access to [his] rat’s nest of files, archives, artwork, notebooks, journals, books, and dirty laundry” and dubbed her “chief enabler and associate editor” in this project of, as Spiegelman puts it, revisiting Maus, the book that “made” him (6).
MetaMaus is a hardcover book with an insert in the endpaper on the inside of the front board in which nestles an accompanying DVD (the disc’s center hole serves as the cover-maus’s right eye, backed by a Nazi-cat Swastika showing through from the flyleaf). The book is organized into sections and chapters whose list alone in the Contents gives us a guided tour: “Introduction,” “Why the Holocaust?”, “Family Album,” “The Early Maus,” “Why Mice?”, “Why Comics?”, “Family Tree,” “Vladek’s Transcript,” “Memories of Anja,” “Chronology,” and “Index.” In the book and in the DVD (called “The Complete Maus Files”), we have Spiegelman’s “rat’s nest” beautifully organized with Chute’s interviews of Spiegelman that run throughout and illustrate what we’re seeing graphically on the page; and vice versa, as the graphics illustrate the interviews.
Chute: “It’s almost twenty-five years since the first volume of Maus appeared, and thirty or more years after you started working on it. How did Maus first get published?” This and its answer appear in a side bar superimposed over two facing pages of what amounts to a spray of 1983 rejections on letterheads of major publishers, as Spiegelman explains that Maus’s first chapters “appeared as a work-in-progress in RAW, the avant-garde comix magazine that [wife] Françoise and I started in 1980” (76). In 1985, while he was working on the book, backed by an advance from Pantheon, “somebody showed [him] an interview with Steven Spielberg that indicated he was producing a feature-length animated cartoon about Jewish mice escaping the anti-Semitic pogroms of Russia to set up a new life in America.” Spiegelman thought Spielberg’s director had seen Maus in RAW and says, “I was terrified their movie would come out before my book was finished” (78). Hence, volume I in 1986, and then the rest, II, in 1991.
When I was introduced to Maus in 1999, Art Spiegelman was famous to me from his New Yorker cartoons, but I somehow hadn’t heard of his Pulitzer Prize-winning comic book, documenting his interviews with father, Vladek, about surviving Hitler’s Europe and death camps, including Auschwitz, with Art’s future mother, Anja, deceased (by suicide). In Maus, cartoonist son illustrates his father’s narrative by depicting Jews as mice, Nazis as cats, Poles as pigs, Americans as dogs, French as frogs . . .
Maus offers a creative writer (and a secular Jew) like myself and any category of reader a lot to think about, including (for me) a funhouse of craft issues (how did he do that?). Intellectually, creatively, emotionally, I am grateful for Maus, which Chute rightly calls “a narrative framed by its own process” (208). And my only disappointment in MetaMaus is that I can’t hunker down with it and my beloved two-volume box set of Maus to examine issues brought to bear in MetaMaus, because its references, captions, and page numbers correspond to The Complete Maus, which finally put the two volumes together into Spiegelman’s initial vision of Maus as one book. I can instead hunker down, however, with the hardcover MetaMaus and my laptop, because the accompanying DVD includes The Complete Maus. I’m not completely mollified, but MetaMaus certainly is a good deal for anyone wanting to enjoy, examine, and/or reexamine Maus, no matter which edition one possesses.
MetaMaus is not only a Maus guidebook. It educates readers in its discussions about low and high art, about modernism, about history, about why people mistake comics, a medium—what Spiegelman calls a “delivery system”—for a genre (170). For instance, the superhero craze of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘60s, was a genre—the superhero genre—whose medium—delivery system—was comics (as opposed to the genre of superheroes delivered via the media of movies and TV). In these terms, we can place Maus in the genre of nonfiction—memoir—delivered through the medium of comics. Maus was Spiegelman’s attempt to see how he might structure a comic book story with “the beats and rhythms of a novel” (170).
Chute asks Spiegelman about his decision to draw himself in Maus II as a man wearing a mouse mask. Maus I had been a success. His father Vladek was dead. And, “starting again,” Spiegelman explains, implied the need for “a new present tense,” “a more up-to-date present” for a new time frame, which he decided to indicate with lower-case text balloons in conjunction with the “visual marker” of himself portrayed “as the human that had donned the mouse mask to make Maus” (146-148). Spiegelman describes this section of Maus II, “Time Flies,” as focusing “on how time moves through panels” (160-165). Maus’s present tense sections, Spiegelman tells us, were drawn mostly in simple boxes of the same size, and the past tense necessitated developing other approaches, “different visual strategies,” with a different, as Chute puts it, “visual vocabulary” (180-181, 187).
Spiegelman is generous in his answers and admits, “I like the idea of telling you how a magic trick is done and still making it seem like magic when you see it.” He says it’s “at the heart of what interests me” (171). He describes his “process for doing Maus” (174), first traced onto paper overlaying what he calls “a transparent grid” (172), which readers get to examine in MetaMaus, along with Spiegelman’s hand-drawn, color-coded templates and timelines. The process, Spiegelman says,
started with a thumbnail breakdown of my visual “paragraph,” then a direct sketch draft of the page—just a first stab at making the page. Then I’d refine each of the panels, [. . . ] doing study after study, building up layers of tracing paper with colored felt-tips.
All these pages were drawn over a grid that could use either three tiers or four tiers—or a combination of the two—and panels were initially divided in halves, thirds, or various increments in a relatively flexible but important-to-me set of possible layouts for each page. (174)
Spiegelman says about the grid,
I tried to keep to my grid because it made the beats and rhythms easier for me to find when planning the story. I worked with the metaphor that each panel was analogous to a word, and each row of panels was a sentence, and each page was a paragraph. It’s an imperfect metaphor, but OK, so is Maus. (175)
Maus’s narrative framing strikes me as cinematic—I see a director’s storyboard, and a film’s frames in an editor’s cutting room, and the strand of final cuts moving together on screen while I’m reading Vladek’s story within the story of Art drafting and assembling the story of Vladek. (And, in MetaMaus, we get from Spiegelman why Maus hasn’t yet gone to screen.)
Hillary Chute throughout MetaMaus asks adroit questions we could only hope to phrase better ourselves, and in answering, Art Spiegelman serves his readers hearty and delectable portions of show with his tell.