Ilan Manouach remixed Speigelman’s Maus, by switching the heads of all characters (both Nazis and Jews) into cat heads with his version of the book causing quite a stir in this year’s Angoulême festival. Despite its huge success and the multitude of enthusiastic comments that it received, the book never got to reach the shelves. This is its story.
Pulitzer awarded “Maus” is a graphic novel written by cartoonist Art Spiegelman and released in the early 90’s. It’s considered to be one of the most important and popular works in comics. In “Maus” (which tells the story of a Jew surviving the Holocaust –inspired by the story of Spiegelman’s father) the Jews are depicted as mice and the Germans as cats. “Katz” is an altered, pirated version of “Maus” designed by Greek artist Ilan Manouach that made its appearance in early 2012 –while the International Comics Festival of Angoulême was underway, with Spiegelman himself presiding. In “Katz”, all characters, both Jew and German, are depicted as cats. It was printed in 800 copies from the Belgian publishing house La Cinquieme Couche and thousands of copies were pre-ordered by lots of bookstores in France and Belgium, but only 100 lucky people throughout the world managed to get their hands on a promotional copy. After the initial shock in the Angoulême festival the book was scheduled to be released in this year’s spring and its official distribution would start in the beginning of April 2012. A couple of weeks before its distribution, French publishing house Flammarion, which was the copyright holder of the French edition of Maus, sent a 500 page extrajudicial notice to the publisher of Cinquieme Couche, Xavier Lowenthal, seeking an settlement. The notice contains comparisons of pages from Maus and Katz, interviews of the author concerning the projest, post from various blog about the pirate version and correspondence between the Manouach and Spiegelman. As the expenses of the trial would exceed €20,000 (if the case went to court) an out-of-court settlement forced Lowenthal, the French distributor, Les belles Lettres, and Manouach to destroy all copies of Katz as well as the digital files, under the supervision of a state attorney. The destruction of the books took place in Brussels in March 15th; the whole process brings in mind scenes from Fahrenheit 45, Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel. The Belgian publisher is currently working on Metakatz, a version with contribution of comics critics, authors, historians, bookstore owners, lawyers and interviews with the artists.
What is your relation to Belgium?
I went there to study comics and this is where I publish most of my works. Although I got back to Athens after 8 years, I kept on working with my publishing house La Cinquieme Couche.
How come you took up “tweaking” Maus? Have you done anything like it before?
Maus is one of my favorite comics. Back in 2007 I had made a book called Petzi, which is based on a classic Danish comic strip series which has nurtured generations of children. It’s about a group of animals that hang around all day long, travel in a ship and eat crepes. This series of books is comprised from 30 volumes. I had picked one of those, titled Petzi Fermier, I scanned it, removed all the characters as if they had never been there in the first place, and just kept one side character called Pelle the pelican. Then I made all the speech balloons pointing at him, so he was all alone roaming in the village and talking to himself. I gave it the name Vivre Ensemble because when I was making it in Photoshop I was listening to the lectures of Roland Barthes in College de France under the title Vivre Ensemble, that is how we can live together. About this particular comic I had a big argument with the scriptwriter of the Smurfs, which had stopped in his wheelchair in front of a huge poster of some pages from Vivre and was yelling at me. The thing that I changed in Art Spiegelman’s Maus is than I replaced all the character heads with cat heads. I called it Katz. The book was printed in Greece and was sent to Brussels in November 2011, in order for it to be presented in Angoulême Festival in January 2012.
Have you altered the text as well?
No, not at all.
What is the reason why you tampered Maus? Why would you mess with somebody else’s work in general?
I believe that the works belong to the public state, and I think that they belong to all people, that we have to be able to alter them in some way, to adjust them to our needs, to cut them up, to represent them to the audience. I call this “active” reading. Works like “”Katz” enjoy a very special position, like sampling in music, or like traditional folk songs. The concept of the creator loses its purpose in its strict application. It’s not by accident that the first one to talk about the death of the author is Roland Barthes. These days I’m setting up a platform , assisted by the Belgian state, in order to build a site that will reinforce piracy and give freedom of expression and distribution of works like Katz.
So tell me what happened afterwards? Despite Spiegelman’s being not very enthusiastic with the project, the comic did come out.
The comic was already done when I sent him the letter. The books were printed in Greece (because the cost was a third of what it would take to do it in Brussels), and we sent them to Brussels with trucks together with feta and vegetables. After reaching their destination, we sent some samples and they ordered us around five times the copies we had printed. We had printed 800 books and we had more than 5000! When the copyright holder of the French edition of Maus, Flammarion, got word, they decided to take this to court three days before the official starting date of the Angoulême Festival in order to stop us from publishing it. It takes 25,000 only to start the trial, but because none of us had the money, we made this deal to have them destroyed. It was way too hard to go to trial with Flammarion, they have a staff of 15 legal advisors and the notice that we received was thorough. 500 pages long, with scans from both Maus and Katz, the cover, all the interviews that I had had with my statements underlined, my correspondence with Spiegelman including all the emails that we had sent to each other.
Did that intimidate you?
No, I wasn’t too worried, but we had to destroy all the copies. We went to a factory specially built for this purpose and they turned the books to confetti –under the supervision of a state attorney- and then they asked us to give them the digital files so that they would destroy them as well. The pdf’s! We were given a cube of paper; we filled 25 garbage bags with confetti. I have stashed so that I can do something with them in the future.
What sort of reactions did the incident spur? It was given a lot of publicity from the media abroad it was only Greece that the whole thing came by unnoticed.
There were many articles about it in the press abroad. In general, most Jews were excited with the project. Our arguments were backed up seriously by the biggest Belgian newspaper, Le Soir, from critics artists and lawyers in Europe and the US and many magazines and sites became interested in the case. We will gather all this literature and publish a book of theoretical context, in accordance to MetaMaus –a book documenting the history and the making of the Maus book, titled MetaKatz.
If you are interested in the case you can read the following articles:
Bart Beaty on Comics Reporter.
Ilan Manouach’s interview on Du9.
A Podcast of a conversation about Katz in Filigranes bookstore.
An article of lawyer Maxime Lambrechts on Katz from the standpoint of intellectual property rights.
You can watch a video of the books being destroyed .
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