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Intersections: Of 'Maus' and Spiegelman

With Maus, a comic book based on his parents' survival of the Holocaust, Art Spiegelman won international acclaim — and the 1992 Pulitzer Prize. In the latest installment of Intersections, a Morning Edition series on artists and their inspirations, NPR's Susan Stamberg explores how the artist was first inspired to use the visual language of comics to tell a dark tale.

During the 13 years Spiegelman spent writing Maus, he mainly listened to two things. One was music from the Comedy Harmonists, a 1930s Berlin sextet composed of three Jews and three Aryans; they were popular in Europe until the rise of Hitler. The other sound that dominated Spiegelman's world: recordings of his father Vladek recounting his experiences as a Jew in Poland during the 1930s and '40s. Spiegelman transcribed the tapes — almost verbatim sometimes — into the speech balloons in Maus, using them to narrate one of the most tragic stories of our times.

Subverting the conventions of comics — a form usually reserved for the funnies — was an audacious, outrageous, controversial act. Spiegelman depicts Jews as mice, Nazis as cats, Poles as pigs. But his simple black and white drawings speak with the power of literature. It was a lesson, Spiegelman says, he first learned from the pages of MAD — when it was a comic book, not a magazine.

"The message MAD had in general is 'The media is lying to you, and we are part of the media,'" Spiegelman says. "It was basically... 'Think for yourselves, kids.'"

Spiegelman continues to use comics to explore the serious issues of the adult world. His latest book, In the Shadow of No Towers — due out next fall — is his account of life after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

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