Library holds series on Jewish graphic novels


The appropriateness of the comic book-style graphic novel format to tell the story of a Holocaust survivor and his son, and how the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novelist Art Spiegelman’s two volume Maus fits into Holocaust, Jewish and general literature were among the topics explored last week in a talk and discussion led by Webster University Professor Warren Rosenblum at the Schlafly Branch of the St. Louis Public Library.

Spiegelman’s graphic novels, Maus I and Maus II, which won the Pulitzer Prize in letters in 1992, which detail the story of Spiegelman’s parents, especially his father Vladek, who survived the Holocaust, and the son’s efforts to come to terms with the emotionally conflicting topic.

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The talk and discussion led by Prof. Rosenblum were the second in a series of Jewish book discussions on the topic of “Modern Marvels: Jewish Adventures in the Graphic Novel,” which began on May 10 with a discussion of the graphic novel A Contract With God, by Will Eisner, which is set in the Bronx tenements in the 1930s, four stories which describe the “brutal, tender world of workng-class Jews.” An unusual number of Jews have played prominent roles along the entire gamut of comic strips, comic books and graphic novels, including the creation of Superman by two Cleveland Jewish boys, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938, the Marvel Comics group, including Spider Man, created by Stan Lee, the prominence of the long-running comic strip Li’l Abner by the Jewish cartoonist Al Capp, and such post-modern artists as Harvey Pekar and Art Spiegelman.

Rosenblum said that Spiegelman “as a young man growing up in the 1960s came of age at a time when there was very little discussion of the Holocaust, or even the word ‘Holocaust,’ which has its roots in religious terms involving burnt sacrifices. During the war itself, even the American Jewish community, while engaging in some agitation on behalf of their fellow Jews, tended to advocate for refugees in general, seeking to raise the number of refugees to be admitted to this country after the war from the displaced persons camps based on nationality, not religion. They sought to raise the number of Poles, Lithuanians and even Germans, leading, ironically, to lots of former Nazis coming here.”

Rosenblum added that “even the publication of The Diary of Anne Frank was not presented as a specifically Jewish issue, but was framed as a universal story. Some passages in the diary were even altered to make it more ‘universal’ instead of a specifically Jewish story.”

Rosenblum noted that in more recent years, after the television series Holocaust, the construction of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington and other such facilities, and films like Schindler’s List, awareness and a willingness to openly discuss the Holocaust increased. Art Spiegelman, like many children of survivors, began to ask his father questions about his Holocaust experiences, how his parents, Vladek and Anja survived, and his mother’s later suicide. The result of those extensive conversations was the publication of Maus I and Maus II, titled, repsectively, A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History and A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began.

In a handout describing Spiegelman’s work, Maus is described as “essentially the story of Vladek and Anja’s ordeal,” but that Spiegelman has stated that Maus is also, in part, “a meditation on my own awareness of myself as a Jew.” There are deeply personal passages depicting conversations between Art and his psychiatrist, Pavel, who like Vladek, survived the Nazis’ attempted purge.” Spiegelman wrote in The Village Voice that Maus was motivated “by an impulse to look dead-on at the root cause of my own deepest fears and nightmares.”

Among the more controversial aspects of the Maus volumes is Spiegelman’s depiction of the various ethnic and national groups as animals, Jews as mice, Poles as pigs, Nazis as cats, etc. Spiegelman explained, in an interview with Joey Cavalieri in Comics Journal, “To use these ciphers, the cats and mice, is actually a way to allow you past the cipher at the people who are experiencing it so it’s really a much more direct way of dealing with the material.”

Some of the participants in the discussion in the Schlafly Branch Library auditorium, such as Thelma Broderson, found the Maus books to be riveting and an excellent retelling of the Holocaust. Another participant said she found the very idea of using a “comic-book format” to discuss the Holocaust to be unacceptable.

Most of the Jewish participants present spoke approvingly of the work’s dealing with the Jewish aspects of recent history, while the non-Jewish participants indicated its universal application.

One younger participant, who described himself as “a graphic novel nerd” applauded not only the work, but the entire genre of graphic novels, which he said includes some work which equals that of Spiegelman in quality.

Spiegelman’s fame from Maus led to a brief career drawing covers and doing other artwork for The New Yorker magazine, including some highly controversial covers, such as one depicting a Hasidic Jew kissing an African-American woman. Rosenblum said that Spiegelman “is a provacateur,” and also described him as “a genius and a powerful and fascinating speaker as well as artist.”

The series on Jewish graphic novelists and their work is part of a national program on “Jewish Literature: Identity and Imagination,” presented by Nextbook and the American Library Association. Other programs in the series include: Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: Stories by Ben Katchor, June 14; The Quitter, by Harvey Pekar, July 5, and The Rabbi’s Cat, July 26. All programs, free and open to the public, start at 7 p.m., and are held in the auditorium of the Schlafly Branch of the St. Louis Public Library, 225 North Euclid Avenue, near Lindell Boulevard. For information call 314-367-4120, or visit the library’s Web site,