Maus: A graphic novel about the Holocaust that won the Pulitzer Prize

Art Spiegelman

Today we are speaking with Lilia Omelianenko, cofounder of the Vydavnytstvo Publishing House, about the graphic novel Maus: A Survivor’s Tale which will soon appear in a Ukrainian translation. It was written by the American artist Art Spiegelman. This is the first and one of only a few examples of the graphic novel genre devoted to the Holocaust.

Iryna Slavinska: So as not to recapitulate the plot, I will first ask Lilia Omelianenko to tell us a bit about Maus. What kind of book is it?

Lilia Omelianenko: Why did Maus become a book that all readers should have in their libraries? What did it change historically? I will begin with something very interesting. I will read the definition of the word “comics” from the newspaper Komunist Ukrainy in 1965, which later entered the dictionary of the Ukrainian language. “In capitalist countries, comics are small, richly illustrated adventure books (mostly about murder, poisoning, etc.) geared toward inferior preferences and tastes. The bourgeoisie uses tabloid literature, comics, action films, burlesque, and striptease to distract workers from the class struggle.”

Iryna Slavinska: To what extent is this definition similar to what comics truly are?

Lilia Omelianenko: The thing is that before Maus came out, comics actually were entertaining; of course, not to the same extent as described by Komunist Ukrainy.

Iryna Slavinska: …stories about Superman, Spiderman, Batman …

Lilia Omelianenko: Yes, these are various children’s adventure comics. Maus was the first graphic novel that talked about serious, important things, particularly about the Holocaust. The presentation itself was also very unusual because previously everything about the Holocaust was research-based, and there was practically no creative literature on this topic.

Iryna Slavinska: What year was this?

Lilia Omelianenko: It was the 1970s. Art Spiegelman wrote a factual story about his father, Vladek Spiegelman, and about everything that took place in Poland during the Holocaust. Why is this comic book important? First of all, all the heroes in it appear in the form of animals.

Iryna Slavinska: Yes, the cover of Maus can be easily recognized by the portraits of two mice…

Lilia Omelianenko: … and a cat. There is also a swastika, but it reflects, rather, an anti-fascist character. Incidentally, a few years ago this book was withdrawn from sale in Russia (and is being sold “under the table,” as far as I know). So, Germans are represented as cats, Jews are represented as mice, and Poles as pigs. People in Poland don’t like Maus very much precisely because of this.

Iryna Slavinska: I have to say that, in reading Maus for the first time, I too was surprised by the choice of this particular animal to represent the Poles. But, on the other hand, it’s the author’s business—how and whom he draws.

Lilia Omelianenko: The thing is that in principle there are practically no positive heroes in comics. This also applies to Jews. One can say that they are mice, and one can say that they are rats. Frenchmen are represented as frogs; that too is not a very positive image. The choice of these specific animals, which can be perceived in a variety of ways, was deliberate. Art does not talk about the exceptionality of a particular nation, including the Jewish one. He wants to show that there are good people and bad people everywhere.  A very important device that he uses in Maus is to show that we are not defending some exceptional nation; that the things that took place during the Holocaust cannot be perpetrated in principle against the members of any nation.

Iryna Slavinska: After all, I think that anyone who is interested in various cultural and historical definitions can recognize some memes or stereotypes here. “Frenchmen as frog-eaters” or “Jews as mice or rats” are a direct visual quote from Nazi propaganda materials, in which the Jewish part of the population of the occupied countries were called “rats that must be driven out.”

Lilia Omelianenko: Absolutely correct. The author especially uses the first of the “animal” associations that emerge when we talk about some nation.

Iryna Slavinska: But in Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, this device is not the main one. It is distinguished perhaps by something else.

Lilia Omelianenko: This is one of the unique features of this work. If Spiegelman had simply depicted events using ordinary people, this comic book would not have been perceived as it was. He would not have become so famous and would not have sparked such an instant reaction. The very act of representing people as animals is the reason behind the popularity of this comic book.

Iryna Slavinska: I wonder why. Does this have any connection to fairy tales and children’s perception?

Lilia Omelianenko: As I said, in the past the Holocaust was not discussed in literary works, let alone in comic books or graphic novels. The graphic-novel genre appeared with the publication of Maus. Maus was awarded the first and so far, the only Pulitzer Prize for precisely this presentation.

Iryna Slavinska: In other words, before and after that other graphic novels or comics were not awarded the Pulitzer Prize?

Lilia Omelianenko: No, they weren’t. Spiegelman’s work allows us to realize that comics and graphic novels can be exceptional literature for reading; that they can be concerned with social topics—that’s important.

Iryna Slavinska: I think that, for context, it is also important to be aware that the world community didn’t begin talking about the Holocaust right away, in 1945 or 1946. For a certain period of time, this topic seemed not to exist, not that it was specifically hushed up. At the time, the concentration camps were well known; photographs of them had shocked the whole world. But for a certain period of time, the Holocaust was not mentioned at all in the narrative about the Second World War. The website of Hromadske Radio features my conversation with Cécile Wajsbrot, a French writer of Jewish background. She recalls that during her school years in postwar France she generally had no space in which she could recount the history of her family during the Holocaust. At the time, people were ready to talk in class, for example, about the feats of the Maquis, the French Resistance, but the Holocaust was not mentioned. There wasn’t even a separate page or paragraph about the fact that such things had taken place in France during the occupation. It took a lot of time before President Jacques Chirac of France became the first to apologize for the Holocaust on French territory. Later this topic slowly entered the narrative of France during the period of the Second World War. For the United States, Maus was also one of the first statements on this topic, considering the time of its publication.

Lilia Omelianenko: Exactly. This was the first expression in a unique, parodic form, not the kind that was expected of this topic. It was precisely because of this that Maus garnered so much attention. Regardless of the fact that the action of the comic book takes place in Poland, this novel is also very important for Ukraine. First of all, the same thing happened in our country. Second, we are, unfortunately, a country that might very easily succumb to these things in the future. So, we think that this book must be in every library. If you purchase the comic book, then you will always be able to return to it, whenever you feel like talking about these things—with yourself, with your children.

Iryna Slavinska: This is truly a very important book for dialogue. In the second half of our talk we will discuss the importance of the graphic novel Maus in the context of memory. I, for one, was most struck by the fact that it is structured like a conversation between a father and son. Maus is above all a work about dialogue. At first, it is quite difficult to read because there are seemingly two parallel plotlines: about the hero, who visits his father (who is ailing; he asks him to buy milk, meets his son’s fiancée, and does a million other things), and another plotline, where during such everyday encounters the son makes notes in a copybook about what happened in Auschwitz. This is an incredible story about a conversation between the two of them. How does this work in the comic book?

Lilia Omelianenko: I personally much prefer dialogues than descriptive passages. I think that there is a certain category of people who operate the same way. Communication is constructed in such a way that the father and son talk together, but at the same time they are talking to us. This brings us closer to the work and its topic. We seem to become part of the comic book and the events described in it. We empathize with the heroes. But we promised not to give the plot away… It’s also worth describing the process of obtaining permission [to translate] this book.

Iryna Slavinska: We will definitely talk about memory (of course, without spoilers), but these production aspects are truly important. Maus is not a new graphic novel; it was never published before in Ukraine. How did you manage to pave the way from the original to the translated version?

Lilia Omelianenko: When we began doing comics, the first one was also social and iconic. That was Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, about the Iran-Iraq War. We definitely knew that our next step would be the start of negotiations about Maus. Since there was a lot written in the media about the fact that Art Spiegelman was not very interested in new translations of his book, we didn’t know how the process would take place. We waited for quite a long time for a response from Art, his permission for a Ukrainian-language translation of the book. Why, according to us, does he have this attitude to new translations? Perhaps because the book is already so well known and has been published in such a great number of languages, he thinks that the work has already adequately “covered the markets” and that it has been read if not in one language, then another. But we were very lucky, and after a rather protracted period of time, we did obtain permission to translate the work into Ukrainian.

Iryna Slavinska: Why did this happen? Did someone intercede?

Lilia Omelianenko: I can’t say if someone interceded. I think that Spiegelman ultimately realized that Ukraine had also suffered from those events and decided that it would be correct if this comic book existed in Ukrainian as well. Afterwards, a lot of time was spent negotiating the rights and arranging all the details. There is one interesting nuance: We got an addendum to the agreement in which Art himself handwrote his requirements about how Maus was supposed to be produced. In the opening sentences, he writes: “The best thing would be if you hired a person who has spent time in prison for forgery. Because I want the lettering that will be in the book to be very similar to it.”

Iryna Slavinska: Were you successful in finding such a person?

Lilia Omelianenko: Yes. We had previously worked with Svitlana Samokhina. She did the lettering for Forbidden Fruits for us. We decided to try out her work for Maus as well. We did not approve this lettering right away.

Iryna Slavinska: It should be explained here that Maus as a graphic novel is seemingly written by hand, like the text of a manuscript. This is an English-language text whose Ukrainian translation has to be written in handwriting that is as close as possible to the original. Did Art Spiegelman personally approve this lettering?

Lilia Omelianenko: Yes. He personally approves everything that pertains to this book. That’s why this usually takes quite a lot of time. He did not approve it right away. Several times he sent back to us the material with his comments and remarks. We confirmed the lettering after about two months. Now the publication work is nearing completion, but we still have to get approval for the whole book.

Iryna Slavinska: Does this coordination take place online, or are you supposed to send an advance copy of the publication?

Lilia Omelianenko: No, we can simply send the files; that’s sufficient. But we have copies that are supposed to serve as a model. I want to say that we chose a super team, just like for all our books. In this case, the translator was Yaroslava Strikha. I think she is the best choice for this comic book.

Iryna Slavinska: Yes, she’s a well-known translator, she has worked on many different things.

Lilia Omelianenko: The editor was Viktor Martyniuk, the proofreader—Maryna Hetmanets.

Iryna Slavinska: In the dialogue in Maus, it was noticeable—at least for me, when I was reading the French edition of this book—that there is a certain linguistic game between accented English (as spoken by Vladek Spiegelman, the narrator’s father and his alter ego), and the English of Art Spiegelman, who speaks it without an accent. How did you deal with this?

Lilia Omelianenko: Yaroslava dealt with this, and I think she succeeded very well. You will see this once you read the book. I can say that she managed to convey all these nuances.

Iryna Slavinska: Is there some kind of dialect there?

Lilia Omelianenko: I can’t say ahead of time; you have to wait right before the book comes out. I will add that for us it was very important to make this specific book accessible to everyone. We organized a few events. The first hundred copies could be pre-ordered for the lowest price; they were bought up in the first 24 hours. Right now, the comic book can be purchased on our website for 290 hryvnias. The final price is 380 hryvnias.

For connoisseurs of our exclusive publications, we created a special version with a different cover, in a box with a pin and a bag. Each copy will be signed. We are the pioneers in Ukraine in the production of such special editions. Until now, publishing houses usually did not produce a variety of editions, and where expensive features are concerned, they mostly featured gold or leather bindings; in other words, not the same level that we would like to talk about.

Iryna Slavinska: At the top of Velyka Vasylkivska Street there is a gift bookstore. It has everything that you just mentioned: leather, gold, diamonds, and the like.

Lilia Omelianenko: Yes, such items are produced, but there are no real, quality publications of exceptional literature, and we are the first to enter this market.

Iryna Slavinska: How is a special binding of a limited edition coordinated with copyright holders? As far as I recall, comic books are published as a “full package.” You have a cover, the typefaces that have to be used, lettering, and pictures that cannot be redrawn or transposed.

Lilia Omelianenko: It differs a lot, depending on the publication. For example, we have never used the same typeface of a comic book that has been sent to us. First of all, because there is usually no Cyrillic version. Right now, we have one typeface—a comic book one—drawn by Kyrylo Tkachov. We also have many hand-drawn comic books in which typefaces are not used at all. Svitlana sits and draws everything herself. But, since we still have a few more similar projects, we will be looking for people.

We are planning two more comic books on the Holocaust theme. I can talk about one, but we haven’t announced the second one; it is very well known as well. So, in the meantime, I can talk about the comics of the American illustrator Nora Krug. Her grandfather was a member of the SS. She created a very interesting textual and visual comic book entitled Belonging [Heimat], in which she reflects on how the fact that she is the granddaughter of an SS man can be understood and apprehended; how this happened in the first place. This comic book came out one and a half years ago and gained a lot of publicity in America and other countries. We already have a translation ready. We’ll be starting all the work that needs to be done by hand.

Iryna Slavinska: This reminds me of a graphic novel that came out recently in France. It also deals with the topic of membership in the SS. It talks about young people from Alsace and Lorraine, which were occupied by Germany and from where young people subject to conscription were automatically drafted into the army and, among other things, into the SS. In legal language, this is a novel about a war crime. But the book also deals with the topic of this “legacy.” Is this a crime for which one must repent or part of a biography and the person in this situation is a victim? I think that this is a fruitful topic and a direction toward which one can move in a conversation about traumatic episodes in world history.

This program is created with the support of the Canadian philanthropic fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
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