Designing a Digital "Meta Maus"

2011 marks the 25th anniversary of Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Maus," and to mark the occasion, Pantheon published "Meta Maus," an inside look at Spiegelman and his process in creating the book, which has become a modern classic. Included in the package is an interactive DVD containing a digital copy of "Maus," hundreds of sketches and designs, audio and video features and much more. The DVD is arguably the new high water mark for what is possible with digital comics.

Ryan Nadel, a recent graduate of the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver and the President of 8 Leaf Digital Productions oversaw the project. A former journalist and longtime fan of "Maus" and Spiegelman, Nadel spoke with CBR News about the project and what he learned from working with Spiegelman.

CBR News: Ryan, let's start by talking about your company. What does 8 Leaf Digital Productions do, and what is the company's mission?

Ryan Nadel: Our focus is in two areas. One is working with clients like Random House to build rich media applications and products, whether they're, in this case, DVD-based, web-based, mobile-based. The other side of the business is working and developing our own applications. Right now we're working on an application which is designed for kids to use in playgrounds and the idea is simply using video game mechanics constructors to encourage real world physical play. So using receptors in an iPod touch to measure who slides the most and building game structures around that type of experience. It's pretty broad in terms of [the] type of work that we do but it's all centered around this notion of using digital media interactive platforms to engage more with the real world.

The "Meta Maus" DVD, which is just amazing, was in the works before you got involved. How did you come to take over this project?

Art Spiegelman was a guest here in Vancouver and he gave a talk at the Centre for Digital Media, which is the school that I was attending at the time. One of the administrators approached him and started talking about the CD-ROM that was put together back in the '90s by a group called Voyager. He said it was his dream to try to recreate that for computers today. Students started working on the project and it was just too big for students to be working on it on an extracurricular basis. The stakes were just too high as far as the exposure it was going to get. When I finished my masters degree, I approached the Centre for Digital Media and said I wanted to take over the project, not really knowing what I was getting into. I realized very quickly that we had to essentially start from scratch and rebuild the application. What was interesting was that as Art saw the application taking shape, he kept putting more and more stuff into it. He just kept adding more and more content and that's how it got to where it is today.

Before starting this project, were you familiar with "Maus" and Art Spiegelman?

Oh, definitely. I read "Maus" as a kid. I remember the first time I got to meet Art last summer I said, "I'm a big fan, I've been reading your stuff since I was a kid." He went, "Oy, the child abuse that you suffered." [Laughs] In the Jewish community, the position towards "Maus" is kind of that it makes the Holocaust more accessible, because of the medium and the metaphors. Art's perspective on it is, this is some fucked up shit and you shouldn't be giving this to ten year- olds. But yes, I was very aware of "Maus" and Art and a big fan.

When you started out, what was your original conception of what it would be and how it would look? Was it just to create a digital copy of the book?

No, it was definitely adding layers to the book. What I came to appreciate very quickly is Art's brilliance is in his ability to take really complicated things -- stories, images, facts -- and distill them down to the most salient parts. You look at a panel in "Maus" and only the words which are absolutely necessary are written. Only the images which are absolutely necessary are drawn in any given panel. When I started to go through the material, I saw the process to get there. Looking at the sketches and listening to the recordings, it feels like you're watching a stone mason chisel away to get to this final product, which I think is almost the opposite conception that people have of the way that something is made, where you take something and build on top of it and that's how you get to a work of art. In Art's case, which I think is true for great artists, it's kind of the opposite. It's knowing what to take out. That was the decision that I had -- let's create something where people can see and feel that process and get a sense of those layers.

It was fascinating to see the sketches and designs and see where the page would begin and what we would end up with. How much of that is what Art was bringing you as you were assembling this?

The two sections on the DVD -- one called "The Complete Maus," where you go through the pages -- a lot of that material was there but it wasn't all curated. I saw this pattern again with [Art], he was removing sketches that he didn't think were relevant. Even at that stage there was still this concern that he wanted it to be meaningful to his readers. That's what I think sets Art apart from his peers. What we started adding on was the stuff in the second section, the "Meta Maus" section: The Attic, Anja's bookshelf, the unedited transcripts, the family tree. Those were all added on as we went when Art realized that we had the structure and the capacity to handle all that content.

What was really amazing was the material that was only available on the DVD. The audio recordings of his father. The hundreds of sketches, only a handful of which appear in the book.

It's the first time that any of it's ever been published. He has had some art shows over the years where select sketches have been on display but what's in The Attic and The Notebooks in most instances have never been published. He only edited one thing from the notebook and that was a page which had Dick Cavett's phone number written on it. [Laughs] Other than that, it is as raw as it comes.

When Spiegelman has talked about "Meta Maus," he seems to be trying to give his last word about what "Maus" meant, what went into it, ending the conversation about the book, at least on his part. I'm curious, what do you think the book will do?

I think it's really going to do two things. One, it will get people excited about the process of "Maus." I think it's almost going to backfire on Art, in that it's so interesting that people will just want more of him and more of his insight and his way of seeing the world and his work. I don't think he's going to achieve his goal of stopping the conversation about "Maus." I think it's going to trigger a whole other generation of conversations. We're so used to seeing in media the polished product and "Meta Maus" just rips all that away and shows the struggle and the process and people are just going to want more. I don't think he's going to achieve its goal.

I can understand what he's trying to say, but I agree with you "Meta Maus" will likely start more conversation than it could ever end.

It's interesting; the dialogue around the book has two perspectives. One is, it's great for "Maus" fans, but no one else is going to care. The other perspective which I'm part of, is, look at this amazing work about work. An amazing work about what it means to be creative and be an artist. That to me really is the message of "Meta Maus" and Spiegelman's career in general. It's a laser focus on making perfect work. That's a rare insight. And he kept everything. How many artists keep every single draft and sketch?

I hope some of the conversations "Meta Maus" starts will reframe how we talk about "Maus" and Spiegelman because so much of the conversations are about the subject matter only, and for good reason. Perhaps "Meta Maus" will help us talk about Spiegelman's skill as a writer and artist.

People often criticize his drawing. He's the first one to say it. He said, "I'm not a good drawer, I'm a decent writer, but what I'm really great at is designing and layout." If you look at the way the panels on the pages are assembled, you see the tremendous brilliance of his design. There's this one page where Art asks Vladek about the orchestra at the entrance to Auschwitz. Vladek says there was no orchestra and Art says, "But there's all these references to an orchestra." In "Maus," both of those realities are depicted. There are these amazing moments with Art both in "Meta Maus" the book [and] also in the audio section on the DVD. Hearing Art explain these things and the insight into his process and thinking, which you really missed on a conscious level when you're reading "Maus."

How much work was involved in designing and digitizing the book?

A lot. [Laughs] There were a few stages. One was the digitizing. We essentially scanned the original "Maus." The audio files were a big issue because the tapes were disintegrating so we worked with the CBC here in Vancouver to preserve and capture the tapes in digital format. The Auschwitz home video was a degrading VHS [copy], which we used a special preservation society in New York to digitize and capture. A lot of the sketches were previously scanned. Art's had interns over the years scan a lot of his notebooks. He did go on a mission for a couple of weeks trying to hunt down sketches which had been sold at different art shows and he only had low resolution versions of them. That drove him crazy for a couple of weeks. It was a lot of work to collect the content.

In terms of the design process, it was Art at his best in the sense that Art Spiegelman does everything himself when he's making a book. He designs everything down to the bar code on the back cover. Working with software geeks, he didn't have the capacity to do that, so it was very much an iterative process. I remember our early meetings where we had worked for six weeks on the project and we sent him a version of it and it looked like crap, but all the content was there. He went, "This is terrible, this isn't going to work, this looks like crap," and we're like, "Yes, but Art, look at what's here. We'll get to the rest of it." We figured out a good working rhythm where we were able to refine the design of things as we went along and as we built the infrastructure and the content management underneath it all. Those two elements were a ton of work. For example, on "The Complete Maus" section of the DVD, you can hover over different panels and these little boxes will show you where there's content. Someone had to measure the pixels for each panel on every single page. That's two months worth of work.

I know you're also working on a French version of "Meta Maus." Are you doing anything differently or simply translating everything?

We added one section, rejection letters. In "Meta Maus" the book, there's a two page spread talking about rejection letters he received. We actually have the original rejection letters in English and French and on the DVD you can read all of them. That's the only change.

Is there anything you came to understand about "Maus" or Art Spiegelman as a result of working on this project?

It's interesting, we never really talked that much about the content. After we finished the work, I let myself read "Maus." It was a very emotional, upsetting process to re-engage with that material. I realized over the course of the year while we were working through all this that I wasn't re-reading "Maus" because it was just too poignant and I think Art takes a similar approach. We never really talked about the content. It was a very matter of fact process.

The things that I did learn just for my own creative work, Art's attention to detail and his relentlessness to get things right was inspiring and frustrating, but you make world class art with that attitude. I learned a lot from him in terms of commitment to quality and seeing things through to the end. He spent lots of hours on the DVD and a hundred times that making the book. He pays attention to every single aspect of the process. I remember sitting with him in his studio, and we were with Andy Hughes who's the head of production at Pantheon, and he had this big box of scanned images. He was showing Art samples of the scans which would be included in "Meta Maus." Art went through a couple hundred images and he would say, "This purple is off," and he would go into his files and pull out the original and compare it to the scan. Another image he would say, "No, this yellow isn't right." He did that for every single image in the book. And it makes a difference.

"Meta Maus" is on sale now.

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