Great Lives from History: Jewish Americans
Swedish-born graphic artist and writer
Spiegelman created a new kind of graphic novel with Maus, a work that uses the commonplace cartoon to relate the haunting memoir of his father's survival during the Holocaust.
Born: February 15, 1948; Stockholm, Sweden
Also Known As: Joe Cutrate; Skeeter Grant; Al Flooglebuckle;
Artie Spiegelman; Arthur Spiegelman (full name)
Areas of Achievement: Art; literature; social issues
Art Spiegelman (SPEE-guhl-muhn), the second son of Vladek and Anja Zylberberg Spiegelman, was born on February 15, 1948, in Stockholm, Sweden. His parents, Polish Jewish refugees, survived the horrors of the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps, but they lost most of their family, including their firstborn son, Richieu. Devastated by their losses, Spiegelman's parents decided to relocate to the United States.
They settled in the Rego Park section of Queens, New York, in 1951. As a child, Spiegelman immersed himself in the world of comic books. He loved Harvey Kurtzman's MAD Magazine and found comfort in its humor, peppered with such Yiddish slang words as "ferschlugginer" ("damned") and "feh" (an expression of disgust). He also treasured the Topps Chewing Gum baseball cards drawn by graphic artist Jack Davis. Although Spiegelman's first professional sale was creating a cover for The Long Island Post, he was prouder of his own parody magazine, Blasé, inspired by MAD.
Spiegelman enrolled in the High School of Art and Design in New York City, hoping to become a professional cartoonist. His work soon attracted the attention of a scout for United Features Syndicate, but Spiegelman realized that a syndicated comic strip would only stifle his creativity. He was more attracted to underground comics and, by the time he entered Harpur College (later the State University of New York in Binghamton) in the fall of 1965, he had already begun illustrating alternative magazines, such as The Village Other.
As he grew older, Spiegelman found his life with his emotionally scarred parents to be increasingly unbearable. Like other children of Holocaust survivors, Spiegelman bore his own "survivor's guilt," and, in March of 1968, he committed himself to a mental hospital in upstate New York. Although he came to a better understanding of his father's compulsions, Spiegelman's commitment did not improve his relationship with his parents. Discharged after only a month, he returned home to face even more chaos. A maternal uncle had passed away, leaving Spiegelman's mother depressed and needy. When she committed suicide in May, Spiegelman's grief forced him to leave home.
Leaving college in 1970, Spiegelman moved as far away from New York as he could. In San Francisco, using pseudonyms such as Skeeter Grant, Spiegelman published cartoons for magazines such as Bizarre Sex. He also created more personal works, such as Prisoner on the Hell Planet (1972), an account of his mother's suicide. The same year, a friend asked Spiegelman if he had any unpublished work about animals. The resulting three-page comic strip, the basis for Spiegelman's later work, Maus (1986, 1991), was included in a collection called Funny Aminals [sic] (1972).
In 1975, Spiegelman returned to New York to edit Arcade: The Comics Revue. In 1976, he met Françoise Mouly and married her on July 12, 1977. She encouraged him to publish a volume of his collected works, Breakdowns (1977) and to coedit a new magazine, Raw, dedicated to promoting new cartoonists. Mouly became Spiegelman's most ardent supporter, converting to Judaism in the early 1980's. Partners in every sense of the word, Spiegelman and Mouly had two children; a daughter, Nadja Rachel, in 1987, and then a son, Dashiell Alan, in 1992.
Spiegelman and Mouly spent eight years developing Maus. By 1985, Spiegelman had serialized enough of his father's story to show his idea to prospective publishers. Pantheon Books extended an offer to publish what material he had. Thus, 1986 saw the release of Maus I: My Father Bleeds History followed by Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began in 1991. Both volumes were a critical success (the first edition alone sold more than 150,000 copies) and inspired the creation of an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Spiegelman was given a Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992, recognizing that Maus was, in fact, a biography. Spiegelman was offered a job as contributing editor for The New Yorker, although his art was often controversial, and he started to write children's books: Open Me . . . I'm a Dog! in 1996 and Little Lit: Folklore and Fairy Tale Funnies in 2000.
Spiegelman's life was disrupted by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC). On the morning of September 11, 2001, Spiegelman and his wife were at their home in lower Manhattan when the first plane collided with the North Tower of the WTC. Their fear led to the creation of a stunning cover for the September 24 issue of The New Yorker; it depicted a black-on-black silhouette of the two WTC buildings, and it was widely praised for its beauty and symbolism.
Afterward, Spiegelman's political views became increasingly at odds with his colleagues, and he reluctantly resigned his post on September 11, 2003. In the Shadow of No Towers relates his difficulties, both professional and personal, in the years after 2001, but it was too controversial for the American publishing community until Pantheon reluctantly released it on September 7, 2004. Another series, begun in 2005, Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! anthologizes much of Spiegelman's art since Maus.
In 2005, Spiegelman was named, appropriately, one of Time magazine's "Top One Hundred Most Influential People." One of a generation of idealistic Jewish comic artists, Spiegelman is a staunch supporter of nontraditional media and nontraditional subject matter. Since 2001, Spiegelman has also frequently traveled the country lecturing about freedom of speech and censorship in the field of comic strips. His lecture "Comix 101: Forbidden Images and the Art of Outrage" has dealt openly with the controversy over an artist's depiction of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, in 2005. Even when his pictures have drawn sharp criticism from viewers, he has never wavered from his belief that protecting the freedom of speech is more important than preserving the status quo.
Julia M. MeyersFurther Reading
Cavalieri, Joey. "An Interview with Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly." Comics Journal, August, 1981, 98-125. This extensive interview with Spiegelman and his wife, Mouly, is essential reading for an understanding of the history and development of Maus. Spiegelman discusses the controversial aspects of his treatment of his father's memoirs and emphasizes what he sees as the role of biography for the author.
Kaplan, Arie. "Kings of Comics: How Jews Transformed the Comic Book Industry, The Silver Age (1956-1978)." Reform Judaism 32, no. 2 (Winter, 2003): 32-33. This article, the second in a three-part series describing the pivotal role Jewish artists played in the development of American comic arts, is a fascinating analysis of the subtle influence that Judaism had on the characterization of comic characters and plot lines.
_______. "Kings of Comics: How Jews Transformed the Comic Book Industry, The Bronze Age (1979- )." Reform Judaism 32, no. 3 (Spring, 2004): 46-48. This is the third of three articles that study the influence of Jewish culture and history on comic book characters and plot lines.
Witek, Joseph. Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. Witek puts the graphic novels of Spiegelman in the context of biographical and historical literature.
Al Capp; Jules Feiffer; Rube Goldberg; Roy Lichtenstein; Ben Shahn.
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