METAMAUS

METAMAUS
By Art Spiegelman
Published by Pantheon


Reviewed by Marc Mason

What do you get for the classic graphic novel that has everything? METAMAUS is the answer, although I’m not sure how many people will have asked the question. The comics art form was rocked by the release of Art Spiegelman’s MAUS back in the 80s- no one had ever seen anything quite like it, and it displayed the power of sequential art to an audience that reached beyond comics shops. Based upon interviews the author had done with his father about living through the Holocaust, the book’s depiction of Jews as mice and Nazis as cats captured readers’ imaginations and gave them a new way of understanding and interpreting one of the most horrific events in the planet’s history. Spiegelman took home a Pulitzer prize for his work, and the notoriety of the book has stayed with him since. In a sense, METAMAUS is a way for him to work out some lingering questions, offer some answers to questions he has been getting for decades, and deal with personal issues surrounding it all in a public forum.

Certainly, the book is impressive. A large chunk of it consists of Spiegelman being interviewed by Professor Hillary Chute, and her questions do a nice job of leading the author into places where he can really spew his thoughts out and get emotions into the open. It also grants us an interesting historical look at the genesis of the work and the struggle to get it a major publisher- one fascinating two-page spread shows a number of rejection letters from publishers that didn’t get the work or that didn’t think they could sell it, a reminder that greatness takes its time in finding a place to appear.

The DVD attached to the book has the COMPLETE MAUS on it, along with the ability to access audio files of the author discussing particular pages, sketches of early drafts of the pages, and more. It’s an amazing package, one certainly worthy of awards consideration.

Yet, ironically, I have to wonder who the audience is for the book. MAUS isn’t exactly a “fun” book, nor is it something that inspires a great deal of re-reading. It sticks with you quite well on its own. People that own the book already don’t need the DVD, and those that do might find the amount of information contained here rather overwhelming. Thus, I can’t help but feel like the primary audience for this book is academics- professors teaching the work in their classes. That’s not exactly a large demo to target. That’s not a reflection on the work itself, which is extraordinary- but I see this collecting a lot of dust in comic shops.

BREAKDOWNS

BREAKDOWNS
Written and Drawn by Art Spiegelman
Published by
Pantheon Books

In 1978, a young cartoonist named Art Spiegelman put together a collection of his work to date to little or no acclaim. In fact, after the book was printed, it almost didn’t make it to shelves as it was; the original publisher was too broke to pay the printing bill. But it was rescued, and the book sort of became an unusual curio, as its creator became a name. Spiegelman would go on to elaborate on the first tale in the book, “Maus”, and the history of cartooning and the graphic novel were changed forever. Amazing what a Pulitzer Prize will do.

Thirty years later, Pantheon has created a new version of BREAKDOWNS; the first half of the book presents new Spiegelman material, and terrific material it is. From observances about his relationship with his father and how it affects his relationship with his son to a quietly stunning piece about having to live in the shadow of his own masterwork, it’s quite a compelling introduction to Spiegelman as an artist and as a human being. After that lengthy section of new work, we get a full reprint of the original BREAKDOWNS, and it honestly comes as a bit of a letdown.

His early work has a lot of passion and verve, no question. And his willingness to experiment is quite bravura. But the majority of the tales fall flat, save an early “Maus” short and “Prisoner on the Hell Planet”, a look at his mother’s suicide that grips the heart (and makes you wonder if Spalding Gray had read it and was taking bitter, unfortunate notes). Both of those stories are wonderful work, but had you bought the 1978 edition of this book, you’d have felt short-changed.

Finally, we also get a closing essay from Spiegelman which illuminates his life as a cartoonist and the genesis for many of his themes and concepts. It’s a fantastic look inside the man’s head. So while the reprints aren’t necessarily much to look at, the book as a whole has plenty to interest the reader looking at the intellectual roots of an artist who has become a legend.

Marc Mason

MO AND JO/STINKY/JACK AND THE BOX

MO AND JO/STINKY/JACK AND THE BOX
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by
Toon Books

Most publishers at least try and pay lip service to the idea: we need to get younger readers picking up and enjoying comics. But few actually follow through. However, Francoise Mouly, art editor of the NEW YORKER, has done just that with the Toon Books line. These short hardcover editions are the very definition of solid kid-reader material, presenting solid stories and art aimed directly at those 4-years old and above. And the accolades have followed- the state of Maryland has incorporated the line into its “Comics in the Classroom” initiative.

This second wave of books features a diverse set of tales. First up is MO AND JO, written by Jay Lynch and drawn by Dean Haspiel. Bickering siblings Mona and Joey find themselves in possession of superhero The Mighty Mojo’s costume and promptly rip it in half fighting over it. Repaired into two suits, each one gives one of the kids a superpower- Mona gets the ability to stretch her limbs and Joey gains the ability to use his boots as magnets. With a supervillain on the loose and threatening the peace, the pair quickly decides they can outdo each other, but there’s a greater lesson to be learned. This book is really very good; the script is witty, but still speaks to the younger reader, and Haspiel’s art is simple but ornate. Solid stuff.

STINKY is written and drawn by Eleanor Davis, and is the best of this second series of releases. Stinky is a swamp-dweller that loves his smelly, unpleasant environment, his friend Wartbelly (a toad), and he’s nothing short of pleased that humans avoid his area like the plague. But one day a young boy wanders into the swamp, determined to build a treehouse. This sits poorly with Stinky, who sets out to discourage the boy by any means necessary. That leads to a terrific comedy of misunderstandings and silliness, setting up Stinky to finally get over his own fears about how he will be received by others. Davis’ work is amazing, from her wonderfully colored panels to her razor sharp script. This has the broadest appeal of any youth-oriented graphic novel I’ve seen in a while.

Strangely enough, the weakest link in this trio is Pulitzer-prize winner Art Spiegelman’s JACK AND THE BOX. Artistically and script-wise, this story of a young boy who receives a jack-in-the-box that has more personality than most feels… too simple. There really isn’t a story here, per se, only a succession of events, and at thirteen bucks cover price, I’d ant and expect more than what’s here. This will only appeal to the very bottom age end, as even kids at age 6 or higher will find this unchallenging.

Overall, this series of books looks really good. I was impressed by the production value and by most of the work between the covers themselves, and I’d definitely recommend two of the three. That always plays as a “win” in my book.

Marc Mason