Youth Programs

Art Spiegelman on “How Pearls Are Formed”

Roosevelt teacher Matt Boyer interviews Art Spiegelman

In the car on the way to Roosevelt High School, Art Spiegelman made a prediction: he anticipated that he would be asked three questions about his graphic narrative Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. Why mice? Why comics? Why the Holocaust? Spiegelman jokes about the frequency of these questions, but clearly recognizes their importance. These questions are so common, he says, that he’s publishing a companion to Maus, titled Meta Maus, just to answer them once and for all. True to his prediction, the first question from Roosevelt’s audience brought Spiegelman into familiar territory—“Why mice?”

In response, Spiegelman spoke emphatically about the creative elbow room he gained in using mice to represent Jews during the Holocaust. How this departure from realism freed him from the assiduous research and scrupulous authenticity that might hold him back creatively, or worse, might give the image a cartoonish texture. Sometimes, he said, when all the details are right, the feel is wrong. In other words, less can certainly be more. In the figures of Maus, like in Orphan Annie’s big blank eyes, “the reader provides the emotion. You have to climb onto the paper and decide what that Polish person looked like.”

When one student asked what inspired him to write about such delicate topics as the Holocaust and the 9/11 attacks, Spiegelman eloquently replied, “Disaster is my muse.” For Spiegelman, words and pictures together can be the hardest thing, and grappling with this illusive balance just isn’t possible when he’s feeling great. He says, “It’s a problem I need to solve—a way of reporting how I feel, how I understand things.” Spiegelman compares his process to an oyster with a bit of sand inside. The oyster, irritated and uncomfortable, covers the sand with layers of a protective substance until, one day, a pearl is formed.

Spiegelman spoke about his fear of having his work taught in schools, that it could have an alienating or inoculating effecton kids, like “Here’s a book, so you’ll never read another one.” But, on the way out of the building, a moment of connection spoke to the value of memorializing his work in this way. A Roosevelt community member approached Spiegelman and asked for a photo, saying, “My father was in Auschwitz too,” and Spiegelman candidly replied, “So you know.”

Thank you Roosevelt teacher Matt Boyer and Roosevelt High School students!

— Acacia, WITS intern

One thought on “Art Spiegelman on “How Pearls Are Formed”

  1. This was a fascinating discussion! Spiegelman is as verbose as he is neurotic. I was amazed that an international celebrity stopped by Roosevelt.

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