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March 7, 2012

Conversational Euro-Comics: Bart Beaty On Katz

imageBy Bart Beaty

Though questions of parody and appropriation have a long history in comics, they are remarkably little thought through. Cartoonists at MAD regularly stepped on the toes of other comic book publishers with their satires of Starchie and SuperduperMan with few repercussions, but when the Air Pirates turned their pens towards the Disney empire the situation played out with rooms full of lawyers.

In Paris this week, cartoonists and lawyers were back at it. The subject this time out is Katz, an edition of Art Spiegelman's Maus in which all of the characters -- not just the Nazis -- are depicted with cat's heads. Flammarion, the French publisher of Spiegelman's work, sought an injunction against the small Belgian press Cinquieme Couche, the distributor of the appropriated edition. Cinquieme Couche is not fighting the injunction because of the costs that would be incurred, although they are maintaining their belief that they have the legal right to produce the book in question. The have agreed to destroy all of the remaining copies in their possession.

I was given a copy of Katz at the Angouleme festival, where it debuted as a small part of Spiegelman's presidency. The book was for sale at a number of booths -- I saw it at L'Association, Fremok, Cornelius, Requins Marteaux and Cinquieme Couche -- although it is credited with neither an author nor a publisher. Speaking with one of the people intimately involved in the creation of the book, I was told that it was part of an effort to destabilize existing ideas of authorship in the comics field, with the goal of producing comics that are authorless and which have no publishers. This is an idea that I find appealing on an intellectual level, and I was keen to read the book.

I should probably note that many of the comics that I find most interesting are those that challenge the notion of cultural ownership in various ways. Given the fact that the comic book industry (both in France and, probably even moreso, the United States) is so fundamentally structured by a culture of malfeasance where artistic credits are due, I find efforts to expand the discussion about the circulation of culture imperative. To my mind, some of the most vital comics currently being published (I'm thinking, for example, of the work of Jochen Gerner) are explicitly critiquing the logics of originality and authorial control.

I found Katz, therefore, to be an interesting book. The decision to appropriate the entirety of Spiegelman's work -- every page, every line of dialogue -- seems central to its implicit argument that Maus, as a key text that has shaped comics culture unlike almost any other, is already an object belonging to the community as a whole. It is, this book seems to be saying, a revered work, open to challenges and contestations by others.

Further, I was struck by how closely aligned the work is to much of the existing academic criticism of Maus. By replacing mice and pig heads with those of cats, the anonymous authors of Katz refuse what they see as a fatalism in Spiegelman's work. This point of view was perhaps best expressed by Hillel Halkin, writing in Commentary, who asked of the central visual metaphor in Maus: "Why did the Germans murder the Jews, who did not fight back, while third parties like the Poles let it happen? For the same reason that cats kill mice, who do not attack cats, while pigs do not care about either: because that's the way it is".

I should stress that I do not particularly share Halkin's objection. I think that Spiegelman fruitfully problematizes the potentially essentializing aspect of his representations in the pages of Maus itself. But this is a widely shared criticism of the work and its expression is one that I think should be encouraged. Flammarion's lawyers argue that the appropriation pushes too far and Cinquieme Couche lacks the resources to dispute that charge. Myself, I would argue that it is the very thoroughness of the appropriation that makes it so compelling. Katz challenges us to see one of the most important comics ever produced with new eyes. How is that a bad thing?


To learn more about Dr. Beaty, or to contact him, try here.

Those interested in buying comics talked about in Bart Beaty's articles might try here.



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