MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic
by Art Spiegelman
Pantheon, 300 pp. and DVD, $35
Before Art Spiegelman was a serious graphic novelist, he was seriously funny. Many children of the 1970s remember Wacky Packages, a series of MAD magazine-inspired cards with peel-off stickers that satirized commercial products with cheerfully bad puns and goofy lurid illustrations. The cards were put out by Topps, the leading producer of sports and novelty cards. Wacky Packages were produced by a team of gag writers, cartoonists, and designers, including Spiegelman, who worked for the company from 1966 until 1989, three years after he published the first volume of Maus: A Survivor's Tale, his wrenching graphic novel about his father's experience in the Holocaust and their relationship in postwar America, in which Jews such as Art and his father Vladek are depicted as mice and Nazis as cats.
MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, the lavish book of interviews, early sketches, photos, and art related to Spiegelman's great graphic reconstruction of his family's experience in the Holocaust, includes some of Spiegelman's rough sketches for Wacky Packages ("Brandyland Game: More Fun than Hopscotch!") along with his avant-garde underground comics. In fact, it shows that if it weren't for his work creating lighthearted children's novelties, Spiegelman would never have dreamt up Maus. There is a direct line connecting his gags to his serious work. Thankfully, the lighter side of Spiegelman's cartooning output is addressed in MetaMaus, a sort of behind-the-scenes documentary on paper (okay, it's not all on paper—there's a DVD too) chronicling the making of Maus.
Its subject matter notwithstanding, Maus is also a celebration of (and formal experiment in) the medium of comics itself. This grows directly out of Spiegelman's beginnings as an underground cartoonist in the late 1960s, while he was still working as a commercial artist for Topps. The underground comics (or "comix") movement of that era was obsessed with reexamining the clichés and tropes of an earlier generation: old Disney cartoons, the Marx Brothers, Broadway musicals, pulp novels—it was all grist for the satirical mill.