Okay, so here’s the thing,” Art Spiegelman says into the phone as he paces his cavernous Soho studio, humming with anxiety. “I don’t know what happened. I’m almost positive I took them with me. I put them into a sleeve so they wouldn’t crush in my pocket. I thought I did.” On the other end of the line is his wife and collaborator of more than four decades, New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly, who is trying to help him find his glasses. He mined his past for clues: Yes, we had dined for nearly an hour at his beloved Fanelli’s, a 175-year-old pub around the corner — but we had already looked there. Then he’d returned to the studio: Nothing there, either. Yes, he says, he checked his coat pockets already. Could she check her office? “Try by where our coats are,” he suggests. This has been happening to him since the beginning of the pandemic: glasses, pens, notebooks, e-cigarettes vanish, and he’s useless until he finds or reluctantly replaces the lost item. When he loses something, “everything just tightens,” he says. Losing his glasses is especially difficult because of the amblyopia he’s had since childhood. “I attribute my abilities as a cartoonist in part to the glasses thing — I was terrible at baseball, obviously,” he says.
Spiegelman, a monumental creator of comic books, began drawing his seminal work Maus in the early 1970s. It tells the story of his father’s journey through the Holocaust and of his own struggle to piece that tale together with mice, cats, and pigs in the place of Jews, Germans, and Poles. It has become one of the most acclaimed nonfiction works about the Holocaust; in 1992, it was awarded a Pulitzer, the first — and, to date, only — given to a comic book. Sales have been spiking since late January, when the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee yanked Maus from an eighth-grade curriculum after a few parents objected to the nudity and use of profanity in it. As a result, Spiegelman has spent the past few weeks drenched in public exposure, his inbox inundated with messages of support and press requests. “I must have answered at least 50 emails in the past week, but not many more, because it’s like ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’: You answer one and three more come in,” he says. “My life went into a stasis. I’ve become cannon fodder in a culture war.”
But on this February afternoon, the glasses are the more pressing matter. Spiegelman and Mouly talk for about five more minutes until they realize there’s nothing to be done. “Damn,” he says after he hangs up. “I was always good at losing things. I had a Polish name my parents called me — Zguba — which means ‘loser.’ Not in the sense of what you’d say in English when you say ‘You’re a loser,’ but that I would always be bringing back one glove when I was in kindergarten, first grade, or beyond.”
It’s possible that this talent was a rebellion against his father, Vladek, a Jew from Poland who lost almost his entire family to the camps and subsequently became a hoarder — unwilling to lose anything more, even a glove. In 1968, Spiegelman’s mother, Anja, killed herself and left no note. Vladek found her dead in the bathtub and later burned her voluminous diaries, which were intended for Art to read someday. In Maus, Art depicts himself raging at his dead mother (“Mommy! Bitch!” he yells) and seemingly careless father (“Murderer!” Art calls him). The curse words and his dead mother’s barely visible breast are both sources of complaints from the McMinn parents. “A lot of the cussing had to do with the son cussing out the father, so I don’t know how that teaches our kids any kind of ethical stuff,” one of them, Mike Cochran, told the board, which later voted unanimously to ban Maus. “It’s just the opposite: Instead of treating his father with respect, he treated his father like he” — Art, that is — “was the victim.”
Although the incident hasn’t led to other calls to ban Maus, the book’s defenders suspected more sinister motives beyond discomfort with obscenities: anti-Semitism and hatred of so-called critical race theory. Spiegelman, on the other hand, isn’t so certain there’s any actual bigotry behind the parents’ complaints, which he stayed up until 4 a.m. reading. “I feel like this wasn’t an actual anti-Semitic incident. It was an incident created by somebody who probably knows very few Jews,” he says. “The thing that really upset them was me yelling at my father for burning the diaries. I guess it would’ve been better, for the school board, to say, ‘Gee whiz, Pop — I wish you hadn’t done it!’ But that would not have been accurate to my intensity of horror.”
As Spiegelman sees it, the real reason for the board’s decision may be that the narrative of Maus offers no catharsis, let alone comfort, to readers. There are no saviors. No one is redeemed. The characters — Spiegelman’s family — remain the imperfect people they were to begin with. “It’s a very not-Christian book,” Spiegelman says. “Vladek didn’t become better as a result of his suffering. He just got to suffer. They want to teach the Holocaust. They just want a friendlier Holocaust to teach.”
The irony, of course, is that Spiegelman never wanted Maus to be used as an educational tool. He started his career as an often obscene chronicler of humanity’s id, and Maus is about as upsetting and non-cathartic as a book about the Holocaust can be. He certainly didn’t expect the role cable-news anchors have assigned him: the friendly Jewish grandfather who comes to impart a lesson about the Holocaust using cartoon animals. “I never wanted Maus to be for children,” he says. “I wasn’t doing it in the context of I’m going to teach people to be better; I’m going to teach people that they should learn about the Holocaust because ‘Never again.’ ”
Today, at age 73, he has made peace with being an accidental educator and is leaning into — if not embracing — his abrupt return to the public eye. When we speak, he has just been recruited to do a live webinar with residents of McMinn County who want to ask him questions. (“I agreed to talk to anybody if I could do it by Zoom,” he says, “and not have to worry about getting shot at the same time.”) Lately, he has been feeling apocalyptic about society, and he has been using his platform to talk up the artist Nora Krug’s recent illustrated adaptation of Timothy Snyder’s anti-authoritarian monograph On Tyranny. “I would suggest that would be the book more relevant for right now than Maus,” he tells me. When I ask him whether he and his family have an escape plan, Spiegelman says they could go to France, where Mouly is from. He says he thinks he can justify it, especially because Snyder says there’s no shame in running away if all else fails. He tries to cite the part of On Tyranny where that idea appears, but he can’t find that, either.
After the day has faded past dusk, I’m getting ready to leave, and I hear a shout. “They’re here!” I look up to see the cartoonist’s knees melt in relief. The glasses were in his coat pocket. The first thing he does is phone his wife. He omits where they’d been. “A weight just lifted, man,” he says to me, beaming. “Now today has been a good day.”
The saga reminds him of a one-page comic he did for The New Yorker many years ago, which he pulls out of a filing cabinet to show me. The story, “Lost,” unfolds in seven panels: A boy loses his baseball, his hat, and his path, wandering through a darkening forest. He finds his way home with the help of a talking worm. When the boy gets within view of his front door, he sees an ambulance leaving. His mother has just died. In the final panel, we see the scene at the devastated boy’s feet: The worm is grinning. “Hey!” the joyous worm yells. “I found your hat!” The end. Is it obscene to find joy in retrieving a hat — or writing a best-selling book — in the wake of catastrophic loss? The comic, as is true of all of Spiegelman’s work, defies the notion of ever having an answer.
“Losing your glasses,” Spiegelman says. “It’s like …” He pauses. “You’re going to lose everything. That’s how it works.”