Forgotten Masterpiece: COMIX BOOK #2 and the first Maus

With the fact that Maus was banned from circulation in some school districts making national news this past week, the time seemed to be good to discuss COMIX BOOK, the short-lived Marvel magazine that published work by underground cartoonists–including the prototype short story for Art Spiegelman’s Maus. COMIX BOOK was an outgrowth of Marvel’s concerns that the super hero fad of the 1960s was drying up. All publishers, but especially at that moment Stan Lee, were looking for other lucrative subjects to drive sales. Lee had become aware of the underground comics (or “comix”) movement, and he saw a natural touch-point with Marvel. In part, this came from Denis Kitchen, an underground cartoonist and publisher who is best remembered as the driving force behind Kitchen Sink Press. Kitchen had sent Lee a copy of his first publication, and the two men had struck up a correspondence. With Lee now Marvel’s publisher and actively looking for new places he could continue to appear relevant and with-in, trying an overground underground seemed like a good idea at that moment.

In point of fact, it wasn’t a good idea, and it caused some trouble for Lee down the line due to the fact that, in order to get any underground cartoonists to contribute to the new project, Lee was forced to permit them to retain the rights to their material–something that creators in the mainstream had been angling for but had never been granted. As the book developed, Lee and Kitchen had to work out a loose “code of conduct” for its stories, as the wild sex, rampant drug use and frequent use of colorful language wasn’t going to fly in a Marvel publication, even one that wasn’t going to carry a Marvel logo. Still, even with that, the material was often a lot more edgy than anything else being published in the overgrounds. In fact, as the book neared publication, Lee became concerned about his own involvement, and insisted that he be credited on each issue simply as Instigator–in this manner, he hoped to be able to reap the benefits were it a hit (“Hey, I instigated it!”) but to be able to distance himself from any material that proved too controversial (“Hey, I only instigated it.”)

COMIX BOOK ran for three issues under Marvel before Lee pulled the plug, citing low sales. Kitchen had already solicited contributions for further issues, and a deal was made that allowed him to publish #4 and #5 himself. But the whole thing is an often-overlooked little adventure in Marvel’s history. And as I mentioned at the outset, the second issue of COMIX BOOK contains a story that has taken on some larger significance. It’s a short three-page tale by Art Spiegelman called Maus, and it’s the first published instance of the inspiration that later led Spiegelman to tell the serialized story of his father’s experiences in the concentration camps during World War II–a work that would eventually win the Pulitzer Prize and be recognized as one of the most impactful and moving comics ever published.

ADDITION: While this story did appear in COMIX BOOK #2, a few folks pointed out to me that this was a reprinting. It originally appeared in the Underground comic FUNNY AMINALS.

This prototype of Maus uses the same overall iconography: Jews are depicted as mice, Nazis as cats. But given its short length, it can only scratch the surface of the subject matter. Still, in 1973 when this first saw print, it still carried the kind of weight that was impossible to find in any other mainstream comic book at that time. Nobody could have guessed where this would lead, and it kind of blends in among the other assorted stories in this issue–it isn’t particularly a stand-out, it was only after the greater work was published that people truly took notice of it. (It wasn’t even noteworthy enough to warrant mention in Kitchen’s rundown of the issue’s highlights in his opening editorial column.)

3 thoughts on “Forgotten Masterpiece: COMIX BOOK #2 and the first Maus

  1. While noteworthy, the appearance of “Maus” in a Marvel magazine wasn’t the first publication of this story (it was a reprint from an earlier underground comic, “Funny Aminals”). It seems Spiegelman wasn’t comfortable with the idea of Marvel competing with underground publishers, and preferred not to do new stories for this publication (only allowing the reprint of this particular story).

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  2. Art Spiegelman on COMIX BOOK and the three-page “Maus” story, from The Comics Journal #180:

    “I remember feeling that COMIX BOOK was one more attempt at trying to find a way out in the world [for underground comix], but the situation being created wasn’t good enough. Not owning your own rights was too big a compromise. […] the three-page “Maus” was reprinted in the first [sic] issue of COMIX BOOK, and “Ace Hole” was reprinted in another issue. I didn’t have any problem with that because since this was a reprint they were paying [for] reprint rights to make a secondary use of work that I already owned. […] As I remember it, the reason I gave him [Denis Kitchen] reprint work is because he couldn’t let me have the rights to new work.” (P. 98)

    COMIX BOOK apparently did treat first-publication material as work-made-for-hire. Jim Shooter has written of arranging for the transfer of rights to Howard Cruse for Cruse’s material here:

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  3. “Light up and read on,” indeed. In addition to jumping on the underground comix bandwagon, I can’t help but wonder if Marvel also had an eye on National Lampoon as a possible direction.

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