Category Archives: Comics

“Enslaved by a metaphor.”

Art Spiegelman first glommed onto the idea of depicting the mouse as a metaphor for the oppressed during his stint as an underground ‘comix’ artist when he was asked to contribute a piece for a comic book called Funny Aminals [sic]. This being 1971, the twenty-three-year-old Spiegelman thought mice tyrannized by cats befitted the Black experience in America. While his efforts didn’t pan out—“just felt problematic”—he saw how neatly his “Ku Klux Kats” could be Nazis instead; injustice writ large if not anthropomorphically. And quite unexpectedly, he saw too in cats chasing mice a relevance to his Polish Jewish family’s history. So he wrote and drew “Maus.” His three-page Funny Aminals story would, fifteen years later, swell into the first volume of Maus, his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic memoir.

With mice standing in for Jews, for the small Spiegelman clan, the narrative shifts back and forth in time: from the comic book artist getting his father to speak about the past; to his father and his mother during the Holocaust; to his and his father’s complicated relationship, replete with recriminations, disappointment and guilt as he continues to work on Maus—all very meta.

Spiegelman elevated balloons of dialogue and bubbles of thoughts to literature; his graphic memoir is now considered a ‘modern classic.’ It’s been hugely influential; it’s sold over three million copies worldwide, translated into more than thirty languages. And inasmuch as he dragged his heels to revisit “the book that both ‘made’ [him] and has haunted [him] ever since,” he finally agreed to do a follow-up. His aptly titled MetaMaus is based on a series of conversations Spiegelman had with the scholar Hillary Chute. Covering practically every aspect of the creative process behind Maus,* he answers the three questions that have bombarded him ever since Maus, Volume I: My Father Bleeds History appeared in 1986, “Why the Holocaust?” “Why Comics?” and surely the single most important: “Why mice?” To which he nods to Funny Aminals and says, although he had some vague notion “of Jews as defenseless scurrying creatures,” it wasn’t until he began reading up on the Holocaust, research for the short story, that he discovered numerous works from the 30s and the 40s of Jews pictured as mice and rats, as vermin. “Shockingly relevant,” is how Spiegelman puts it; dehumanization was “a necessary prerequisite” for murder.

Meanwhile, Spiegelman realized, mice and cats were just the beginning; every nationality needed an animal to represent it. The international group of patients at the Czech sanatorium where his mother once stayed quickly became a zoo on the page; and the child of a Nazi and a Jew forced the artist to make some sort of a cat-mouse hybrid. And there were the wartime favorites: American dogs and Polish pigs, British fish and Swedish reindeers… “At a certain point,” Spiegelman sighs, “I did feel enslaved by my metaphor.”

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* Mentioned briefly in this earlier post when both a scholar and a critic had found similarities between 17th–18th century Japanese illustrations of mice and Spiegelman’s mice.

All quotes by Art Spiegelman, MetaMaus, 2011; additional sources: Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale, My Father Bleeds History, 1986; Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale, And Here My Troubles Began, 1991.

(Image: Self-portrait by Art Spiegelman, 1999, from MetaMaus, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


“Lenguage is that we may mis-unda-stend each udda.”

Ignatz Mouse tries to deflect Krazy Kat’s ardor by whomping her on the side of the head with a brick; the county sheriff, Offissa Pupp, arrests the miscreant mouse and hauls him off to jail. Day after day, the lovelorn Krazy takes Ignatz’s brick-tossing; she even seeks it out, while the bulldog ‘kop’ secretly pines for the Kat. Day after day, the drama remains practically the same.

This love triangle unfolded against a barren universe in the comic strip Krazy Kat, which ran in newspapers from 1913 to 1944. The names of  its admirers read like a roll call of the twentieth century greats: Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein; H.L. Mencken, T.S. Eliot and Jack Kerouac; the list goes on. Krazy Kat was the genius of the American cartoonist George Herriman. He gave his characters a language, a Babel’s tower of English and Yiddish and Creole, a rural patois of the Arizona desert, showing that he was as much a poet as he was an artist. He toyed with Krazy’s sex, making her sometimes a him. He was the first to draw frames within frames; to push his scenes outside the panels’ neat borders; to turn a strip at a forty-five degree angle, making it dance and sing, simulating a hill. He was the first to change the background from night to day, day to night, season to season, with no sun rising or setting or leaves falling in between. Yesterday’s and today’s cartoonists and graphic artists—Charles Schultz, Garry Trudeau, and Bill Watterson, Will Eisner, Robert Crumb and Chris Ware to name a few—speak of Herriman’s influence, his astounding innovation.

The renowned cultural critic Gilbert Seldes pointed out, “Herriman, a great ironist, under[stood] pity.”[1] Ignatz would alas never know what his brick means to Krazy. For his May 4, 1919 strip, Herriman takes us back to ancient Egypt, 1919 B.C., a time when cats were sacred: Kleopatra Kat tells her small daughter Krazy to remember her exalted position, to beware of lowly mice who will want to catch her off guard. She speaks from experience, of the moment when a noble Roman rodent Marcantonni Mouse had stolen her heart. As ‘the siren of the Nile’ predicted, a mouse came along looking to woo Krazy. Too timid to tell her, the young mouse goes to the Sage of Karnac who advises him to write her a note. The mouse, however, can’t write, so he has a blacksmith chisel his words of love onto a brick, which he then throws, hitting Krazy on the head, conquering her affection. “When the Egyptian day is done it has become the Romeonian custom to crease his lady’s bean with a brick laden with tender sentiments, and true to his trust he has been faithful. Faithful through the ages. Through the tide of dusty years.”

Krazy, alone, remembers her long history, her bloodline. She, the eternal romantic, knows the brick is none other than a message of love; Ignatz instead would forever think Krazy was crazy. Ignatz and Krazy simply “mis-unda-stend each udda.”

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[1] Gilbert Seldes, “The Krazy Kat That Walks by Himself,” The Seven Lively Arts, 1924.

Additional sources: Ignatz Mouse website; John Carlin, Paul Karasik, Brian Walker, eds., Masters of American Comics, 2005; Sarah Boxer, “Herriman: Cartoonist who equalled Cervantes,” The Telegraph, July 7, 2007; George Herriman, Bill Blackbeard, Krazy & Ignatz 1919-1921: A Kind, Benevolent and Amiable Brick, 2011; Craig Yoe, Krazy Kat & the Art of George Harriman, 2011.

(Click on image to enlarge: strip by George Herriman, “Reel of Time, Reverse,” Krazy Kat, April 20, 1919, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


An Origin Story

There’s an elephant in the room masquerading as a mouse. A mouse who has taken on the world: an ambassador of mass culture, an all too easy symbol for the menace of the Corporation, for cultural imperialism. Heady stuff for a mouse who happened to have been conceived in an act of desperation.

Every morning, twenty-one-year-old Walt Disney would walk into his Kansas City Laugh-O-gram Studio, which he had opened that year in 1922, and start to work. He would sketch ideas for single-reel cartoons and live action films, and direct his staff of talented friends, including Ub Iwerks, later to be considered as “the greatest animator of his time.”

And every morning, in the trash basket, he would find a tiny field mouse. He decided to keep three of them in a cage on his desk; he considered them pets. He had been a farm boy after all. And as he struggled to keep his studio afloat, he often ate very little—his brother Roy remembered, Disney was ‘skinny as a rail’—but would always find an extra morsel for the mice, feeding them with his fingers. He would train one of the mice to run back and forth. He would draw another mouse in different poses while he sat still on his drawing board, giving a member of his staff a fright. “I’ll never forget the scream [she] gave,” Disney said.

After Laugh-O-gram went belly-up, barely into its second year; after Disney moved to Hollywood and founded with Roy in 1923 the Disney Brothers Studio, hiring many of his pals from Laugh-O-gram; and after the film distributor, for whom he had been creating a cartoon series, betrayed him, stealing both his animators (who had become resentful of their old friend’s new-found imperiousness) and his profitable cartoon character, a rabbit named Oswald, Disney knew he needed a new venture as well as a new character. He knew he needed to turn one out fast. So as soon as he and his wife Lillian boarded the train to return to California from New York and that disastrous March meeting in 1928 during which Disney learned he had no rights to Oswald, he began tossing around ideas about cats and kittens, “this and that,” and Lillian, according to Lillian later, interrupted and said, “Well, a mouse is awful cute.”

But as with so much in America, the myths in particular can be bigger—especially when it comes to Disney. And Mrs. Disney had told a tale. To the contrary it wasn’t until Disney was back in L.A. that anything was determined. He and Roy and Ub Iwerks—one of the three animators who had remained loyal—got together daily and frantically leafed through magazines, looking for the perfect star. The men finally found inspiration in the mouse of the early cartoonist Clifton Meeks; they admired the small rodent’s big round ears. Disney tried to draw Mickey but made him long and scrawny, not good it seems for animation; he handed him over to Iwerks who ‘redesigned’ him. It was Iwerks who gave Mickey his figure, which he described, “pear-shaped, ball on top, couple of thin legs.”[1] He put The Mouse in motion.

Lillian would also go on to say the stories of Disney and the mice in Kansas City were “apocryphal.” But consider this: Disney had actually been using mice in his films since 1925; he gave them cameo appearances in his comedies. He had them pose with him for a publicity poster, and he had a lifelong passion for Aesop’s mice. And this: in 1923 moving from Kansas City to Los Angeles, Disney carried with him one of the mice. En route he stopped and freed him. Disney wrote, “When I looked back he was still sitting there in the field watching me with a sad, disappointed look in his eyes.”

Mickey Mouse was born on the 18th of November, 1928.

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[1] Neal Gabler, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, 2006.

Sources: Michael Barrier, The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, 2007; Bob Thomas, Walt Disney: An American Original, 1994; www.thankyouwaltdisney.org.

(Image: Sketch (detail) Mickey Mouse, circa 1928; The Walt Disney Family Museum.)


A Mouse Called Quimby

Quimby is an odd mouse. A volatile fellow. Sometimes he’s joyful—when he realizes he can fly like his favorite superhero, sometimes he’s mean—very mean in fact, often bashing in the head of his friend Sparky the Cat. And then there are the two crazy Quimbys, who share a pair of legs—are they Quimby and an imaginary twin, an alter ego? Who knows. They seem to have a mischievous time together until Quimby does his twin in. More times than not, however, we find the small ant-like rodent wandering through the world, his world, and through an empty house, despairing of a place in which he might fit. A lonely little guy with very few words.

That being said, there had been one person who had brightened Quimby’s day. His grandmother. Lying in bed he recalls that as a kid he’d wonder, “what it would be like after she was dead,” and now he says he can barely remember “what it was like when she was alive.” Every morning. “I forget another little piece of her.” He tries to grasp “a sense of her presence.” He goes downstairs and peers around the door into the kitchen, and reminisces about the lit candles his grandmother had once put on his cup and plate, and the way she would dance around and tell him stories from her childhood and marrying his grandfather—that would fill Quimby with the knowledge ‘life was worth living,’ that would make him want to be like her. For ten years he’s even kept her toaster oven, along with the piece of aluminum foil she had used to line the tray. He knows she would have disapproved of his cherishing the foil that way, of such sentimentality. One recent day, he confesses, he finally took the foil out. And staring at it, he couldn’t fathom why he had held on to it. He then convinced himself to crumple it up and toss it away. In bed again, he looks up at the ceiling, thinking, ‘Oh god why…why did I do that?’

“Every Morning” is a two-page comic from Chris Ware’s strips collected in Quimby the Mouse. Chris Ware—mainly known to non-comic book readers for his amazing and poignant graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan and for his New Yorker covers—drew Quimby in 1990-1991, when he was a student at the University of Texas. Now, much to his embarrassment. “Student Efforts,” he calls the mouse’s tales in the book’s introduction. He seems to be in agreement with Quimby’s grandmother, with little enthusiasm for sentiment. Nevertheless, in the introduction, we learn Ware created the Quimby strips in the period that his own grandmother was dying. He also writes, “Every week was a torment of my trying to do something that might mean something to a reader waiting to take a Calculus test and balancing the inevitable erasure of one of the most important people in my life.”

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(image from “Every Morning” reproduced for non-commercial use only, copyright C. Ware)