Art Spiegelman’s Maus is a nearly 300-page-long, autobiographical comic about both surviving the Holocaust and surviving being the child of survivors of the Holocaust—where the Jews are depicted as mice, the Nazis as cats, the Poles as pigs and the Americans as dogs. When it was published in 1991, Maus became a surprise bestseller and was awarded a sui generis Pulitzer Prize. It also brought into popular parlance the term “graphic novel,” which had been deployed more than a decade earlier by the cartoonist Will Eisner to designate serious, literate, long-form comics without bringing along the baggage attached to the word “comics.”
Comics have never held much prestige. Full-color newspaper comics in the 1890s were the equivalent of today’s Angry Birds or FarmVille—a newfangled, hyperactive form of entertainment meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator: to kids, to immigrants, to the uneducated working class. In fact, the phrase “yellow journalism” can be traced back to a character called the Yellow Kid who appeared in the newspaper comic strips that both William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were publishing as part of their Gilded Age circulation wars. After World War II, the massive popularity of comic books (which had evolved out of the newspaper comic strip) led a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham to warn that they were depraving the youth of America. His book Seduction of the Innocent (1954) inspired public burnings of comic books and the creation of the Comics Code, which stiffened and sterilized the medium just as the Hays Code had sterilized Hollywood.
The underground, self-published comics of the Sixties and Seventies—those of R. Crumb or Gilbert Shelton or Bill Griffith, or of Spiegelman himself—attempted to make comics seem daring and edgy and intended for an older reader. (The admonition on Zap Comix No. 1 is “Fair warning: for adult intellectuals only!”) But these comics had a reputation of being tawdry and crude, populated with characters who were exaggerated and grotesque and therefore still “cartoonish.” A breakthrough came in 1972, when a cartoonist named Justin Green, in a fugue of guilt-stricken catharsis, created a 44-page-long autobiographical comic book called Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. The story is about Green’s childhood as a tortured Catholic, and how his religion-induced scrupulosity turned into full-on OCD. (At one point, he imagines his fingers and toes have sprouted penises, all of which emit a beam of unholy sexual energy that he can’t let intersect with or shine upon any sort of Catholic iconography). With Binky Brown, comics entered the mirror stage: they could all of a sudden be used for self-reflection and self-analysis, for an author to have an illustrated conversation with himself through the panels on the page. The ground was cleared for a new kind of comic: complex, self-conscious and demanding. “Without Binky Brown, there would be no Maus,” Spiegelman once wrote.
Maus was so successful that it crippled Spiegelman artistically.*
*This is an excerpt of a review published in Issue 9 of The Point. Subscribe to read the full article in print.
Photo credit: Chicago Maroon, “Wordless!” at the University of Chicago