It wasn't too long into his childhood in a working class neighborhood in Queens, New York, that fell utterly in love with the zany, colorful and instructive world of comic books. His parents were Polish-Jewish refugees who very much unaccustomed to American culture.
"And basically, comic books became my window into America," says the 61-year-old artist.
Those comic books included Donald Duck, Little Lulu and other standard comics fare of the time, but Spiegelman says the one that "marked him for life" were the early was published in 1986; the , in 1991. It became an instant classic of Holocaust literature.
But Spiegelman says his main goals with the work were formal and artistic.
"It wasn't to make the world a better place. On some level, it was about trying to find out how come I'm even in the world when both my parents were supposed to be dead," he says. "Also, I really was thinking, 'Wouldn't it be cool to have a comic book be so long [that] it needed a bookmark and demanded the same kind of attention a book might demand?' Comics not as a story, but as a kind of essay in comics form."
Thus did the graphic novel become mainstream.
Current works explore post-9/11 world
"Maus" was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. The following year, Spiegelman was offered a staff position at the prestigious New Yorker magazine. There Spiegelman was able to give full vent to his iconoclasm. His controversial 1993 Valentine's Day cover for example, showed a religious Jew and a young black woman sharing a passionate kiss.
But he left the magazine soon after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, which stood about a kilometer from his family's home. Although he had created a post-9/11 cover for the magazine that became one of the historical moment's iconic images he says he wanted to explore the personal crisis the event had provoked in him and felt that the raw authenticity of comics art was the way to express it.
Spiegelman then began to create a series of raw, disjointed drawings which were printed in a German newspaper and were later published as a book in the 2004 collection . Spiegelman says the work mirrored his fragmented internal world and the fractured outer world of George W. Bush's America.
"What could have been more fractured than September 11th?," he asks, with traces of the anguish of that time still discernable in his tone. "The structure of comics is what really interested me, and here I was dealing with structures that were falling all around me: The structures of democracy and the structures of those buildings."
Today, Art Spiegelman continues to make comics that make the rest of us think. Current projects include editing, with Francoise Mouly, a "Toon Treasury" of classic children's comics. Like his other work, it may well turn out to be both funny and disturbingly serious stuff.