‘Islanders Read the Classics’ continues: Paul Karasik on ‘Maus’

Paul Karasik — Brittany Bowker

In 1991, Art Spiegelman’s breakout graphic novel “Maus” appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for both fiction and nonfiction. This list switch was not a James Frey–type scandal, in which a popular memoirist is exposed as a fiction writer. It was author-instigated. Spiegelman spent 13 years working on “Maus,” which tells the story in cartoon panels (Jews are drawn as mice and Nazis as cats) of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, Art, a cartoonist, who conducts a series of interviews with his father about his wartime experiences as he works on a book, in comic form, about his father’s story.

After “Maus,” which was released in two volumes, appeared for three weeks on the fiction list, Spiegelman wrote a letter to the Times objecting to their assessment that the book was a work of fiction. He ended his letter with these words: “I know that by delineating people with animal heads, I’ve raised problems of taxonomy for you. Could you consider adding a special ‘nonfiction/mice’ category to your list?”

The following week, “Maus” appeared on the nonfiction list with the following explanation: “Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus II’ (Pantheon) will move to the nonfiction category on Sunday. Mr. Spiegelman’s moving history of his family in Nazi Germany, told in a comic book whose protagonists are animals, confounded book reviewers and bookstore owners who had to classify it.

It is a biography, yet it’s a picture book. It’s history, but the events did not happen to mice and cats and dogs and pigs.”

“Maus” went on to become the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize, as well as a host of other awards, and is widely recognized as a seminal work that opened the door for storytellers to use the graphic-novel form. “‘Maus’ is an enduring classic. There’s no doubt about the book’s importance,” says cartoonist and West Tisbury resident Paul Karasik.

Mr. Karasik, whose cartoons have been published in the New Yorker, travels internationally to teach cartooning. He will be giving a talk about “Maus” on March 21 at 7 pm at the Oak Bluffs library. This event is part of the “Islanders Read the Classics” series of book talks.

Karasik first met Art Spiegelman in the early 1980s while taking a class on the history of comics at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. “I knew from the moment I stepped into his class that this was someone who spoke very directly and deeply to my interests,” he recalls. “I was pretty much up on the history of comics. Any book about the history of comics I had purchased — and I had thought about this stuff and looked at this stuff — but Spiegelman had gone so much farther down the road in terms of thinking about the sociopolitical history of the comics, and specifically for me, which was pivotal, was thinking about comics in a formal fashion. Comics having a specific language, a vocabulary, that could be manipulated to not only tell a story but also deliver subcontext and deeper meaning, and being thoughtful about it the way a novelist is thoughtful about it.”

Before long, Karasik found himself working with Spiegelman and his wife, Françoise Mouly, now the art editor of the New Yorker, on an underground anthology of comics for adults called Raw. “Maus,” which had originated as a short story in the underground comic Funny Aminals (sic), was serialized in Raw prior to being released as a book.

Karasik describes Spiegelman’s labor-intensive process as “a very studied approach to creating a final page of art,” which, he explains, “is to thumbnail an entire chapter out in teeny little sketches that can be easily manipulated. Just stick figures and basically picture notes to yourself. And then you begin to script it and simultaneously turn the thumbnails into deeper sketches.” In 1991, the Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition of work from the book.

“Maus” weaves a contemporary story of a cartoonist exploring his heritage through interviews with his father about his own experience during the Holocaust and the years leading up to it. “I’m really interested in structure and storytelling,” says Karasik. “So I’m intrigued by the way Art pulls off this very clever and extremely intentional balancing act of telling the story in the past and telling the story in the present, and shifting seamlessly between these two; he’s got wonderful ways, little tricks and hidden workings, to slide you back and forth.”

He adds, “And then on top of all of that, there’s this other layer of the whole project that makes it not merely a memoir, and not merely a history, and not merely a graphic novel, but it’s also embracing a postmodern sensibility. Because the book is also about making the book, and you don’t even realize that that’s like the third subject of the book, the making of the book.”
Paul Karasik’s discussion on Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” takes place on Tuesday, March 21, at 7 pm at the Oak Bluffs library. “Islanders Read the Classics” is sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Library Association and The Martha’s Vineyard Times.