Art Spiegelman was born on February 15, 1948 in Sweden, to Polish Jews and Holocaust survivors Vladek and Anja Spiegelman. An aunt poisoned their first son Richieu to avoid capture by the Nazis four years before Spiegelman's birth. He and his parents immigrated to the United States in 1951. During his youth his mother occasionally talked about Auschwitz, but his father did not want him to know about it.
Spiegelman developed an interest in comics early and began drawing professionally at 16. He spent a month in Binghamton State Mental Hospital in 1968 after a nervous breakdown. Shortly after he got out, his mother committed suicide. The elder Spiegelman was not happy with his son's involvement in the hippie subculture. Spiegelman said that when he bought himself a German Volkswagen it damaged their already-strained relationship "beyond repair". Around this time, Spiegelman read in fanzines about such graphic artists as Frans Masereel who had made wordless novels. The discussions in those fanzines about making the Great American Novel in comics inspired him.
Spiegelman became a key figure in the underground comix movement of the 1970s, both as cartoonist and editor. Justin Green was a cartoonist who had produced the semi-autobiographical Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary in 1972, an influential work which inspired other underground cartoonists to produce more personal and revealing work. The same year, Green asked Spiegelman to contribute a three-page strip for the first issue of Funny Aminals [sic], which Green edited. Spiegelman wanted to do a strip about racism, and at first considered focusing on African Americans, with cats in the role of the Ku Klux Klan chasing African-American mice. Instead, he turned to the Holocaust. The strip was called "Maus" and depicted Nazi cats, called die Katzen, persecuting Jewish mice. The tale was narrated to a mouse named "Mickey". After finishing the strip, Spiegelman visited his father to show him the finished work, which he had based in part on an anecdote he had heard about his father's Auschwitz experience. His father gave him further background information, which piqued Spiegelman's interest in learning more. Spiegelman recorded a series of interviews over four days with his father, which was to provide the basis of the longer Maus. Spiegelman followed up with extensive research, reading survivors' accounts and talking to friends and family who had also survived. He got detailed information about Sosnowiec from a series of Polish pamphlets published after the war which detailed what happened to the Jews by region.
In 1973, Spiegelman produced a strip for Short Order Comix #1 about his mother's suicide called "Prisoner on the Hell Planet". The same year, he edited a pornographic, psychedelic book of quotations, and dedicated it to his mother. He spent the rest of the 1970s building his reputation making short avant-garde comics. He moved back to New York from San Francisco in 1975, which he admitted to his father only in 1977, by which time he had decided he wanted to work on a "very long comic book". He began another series of interviews with his father in 1978, and visited Auschwitz in 1979. He serialized the story in a comics and graphics magazine he and his wife Mouly began in 1980 called Raw.
American comic books were big business with a diversity of genres in the 1940s and 1950s, but had reached a low ebb by the late 1970s. By the time Maus began serialization, the "Big Two" comics publishers, Marvel and DC Comics, dominated the industry with mostly superhero titles. The underground comix movement that had flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s also seemed moribund. The public perception of comic books was as adolescent power fantasies, inherently incapable of mature artistic or literary expression. Most discussion focused on comics as a genre rather than a medium.
Maus came to prominence when the term "graphic novel" was beginning to gain currency. Will Eisner popularized the term with the publication in 1978 of A Contract with God. The term was used partly to mask the low cultural status that comics had in the English-speaking world, and partly because the term "comic book" was being used to refer to short-form periodicals, leaving no accepted vocabulary with which to talk about book-form comics.