He is married to and frequently collaborates with artist and art editor Françoise Mouly.
Spiegelman was born in Stockholm, Sweden, to Vladek Spiegelman (1906–1982) and Anja Spiegelman (née Zylberberg) (1912–1968), Polish-Jewish refugees. Spiegelman grew up in Rego Park in Queens, New York City, New York and graduated from the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan. Spiegelman attended Harpur College, now Binghamton University. He did not graduate but received an honorary doctorate from there 30 years later. At Harpur, Spiegelman audited classes by the avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs and became friends with him. Spiegelman has acknowledged Jacobs as one of the artists who inspired him, though he claims Harvey Kurtzman, the creator of Mad as his true spiritual father.
He had one brother named Richieu who died before Art was born. Richieu was caught in the conflicts of World War II and was sent to live with an aunt, Tosha, since the Zawiercie ghetto where she resided seemed safer than the Sosnowiec ghetto. When the Germans started to deport people from the Zawiercie ghetto, Tosha poisoned herself, Richieu, her own daughter (Bibi) and her niece (Lonia). (Maus, Volume 2) Art mentions in Maus that he felt like he had a sibling rivalry with a photograph, since his parents were still upset over the death of their first-born son. The second volume of Maus was dedicated to Richieu and to Spiegelman's daughter Nadja.
In the late winter of 1968, he suffered a brief but intense nervous breakdown, an event occasionally referred to in his work. After his release from a mental hospital, his mother, Anja, committed suicide. Spiegelman was a major figure in the underground comix movement of the 1960s and 1970s, contributing to publications such as Real Pulp, Young Lust and Bizarre Sex. He co-founded a significant comics anthology publications, Arcade (with Bill Griffith) in San Francisco during the early 1970s. In 1973 he co-edited with Bob Schneider Whole Grains: A Book of Quotations, featuring the notable words of countercultural icons like Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan before they got much play in such mainstream reference works as Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. The book was mistakenly racked on the "Cookbook" shelves at some bookstores.
In 1976, Spiegelman moved back to New York, where he met Françoise Mouly, an architectural student on a hiatus from her studies at the Beaux-Arts in Paris. They married and he moved into her Soho loft in 1978. He lobbied to see Breakdowns, an anthology of his formal experiments in comics published around that time; it eventually came out from Belier Press to "resounding indifference".
Undaunted, Mouly insisted on launching a new magazine with Spiegelman, parts of which she would print on the printing press she had brought into her loft, so together they started RAW in 1980. Among many other innovative works, RAW serialized Maus, which retraces Spiegelman's parents' story as they survived the Holocaust. In 1986, he released the first volume of Maus (Maus I: A Survivor's Tale, also known as Maus I: My Father Bleeds History) The second volume, Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began followed in 1991. Maus attracted an unprecedented amount of critical attention for a work in the form of comics, including an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
Spiegelman has also worked in more commercial forums: After a summer internship (when he was 18) at Topps Bubble Gum, he was hired as a staff writer-artist-editor in Woody Gelman's Product Development Department. During his 20 years with Topps, Spiegelman invented Garbage Candy (candy in the form of garbage, sold in miniature plastic garbage cans), the Wacky Packages card series, Garbage Pail Kids and countless other hugely successful novelties. He farmed out Topps work to many of his friends, such as Jay Lynch, and to his former students, such as Mark Newgarden, collaborating on some products with Lynch and Bhob Stewart.
After 20 years of asking Topps to grant the creators a percentage of the profits, and after other industries (such as Marvel Comics and DC Comics) had grudgingly conceded, Topps still refused. Spiegelman, who had assigned Topps work to many of his cartoonist friends or students, left over the issue of creative ownership and ownership of artwork. In 1989 Topps auctioned off the original artwork they had accumulated over the decades and kept the profits.
Hired by Tina Brown in 1992, Spiegelman worked for The New Yorker for ten years but resigned a few months after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The cover created by Spiegelman and Mouly for the September 24 issue of The New Yorker received wide acclaim and was voted in the top ten of magazine covers of the past 40 years by the American Society of Magazine Editors.
At first glance, the cover appears to be totally black, but upon close examination it reveals the silhouettes of the World Trade Center towers in a slightly darker shade of black. Mouly repositioned the silhouettes so that the North Tower's antenna breaks into the "W" of the logo. The towers were printed in a fifth black ink on a black field employing standard four-color printing inks, and an overprinted clear varnish was added. In some situations, the ghost images only became visible when the magazine was tilted toward a light source.
Spiegelman states that his resignation from The New Yorker was to protest the "widespread conformism" in the United States media. Spiegelman is a sharp critic of the administration of former President George W. Bush and claims that the American media has become "conservative and timid."
In September 2004, he released In the Shadow of No Towers, a book relating his experience of the Twin Towers attack and the psychological after-effects. Beginning fall 2005, Spiegelman's new series "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!" appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review.
In the June 2006 edition of Harper's magazine, he published an article on the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy which had occurred earlier in the year. At least one vendor, Canada's Indigo chain of booksellers, refused to sell the particular issue. Called "Drawing Blood: Outrageous Cartoons and the Art of Outrage" the article contained a survey of the sometimes dire impact of political cartooning on its creators, ranging from Honoré Daumier (who was imprisoned for a satirical work) to George Grosz (who was exiled). The article raised the ire of Indigo because it seemed to promote the continuance of racially-motivated cartooning.
Spiegelman is a prominent advocate for the medium of comics. He taught courses in the history and aesthetics of comics at schools including the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the School of Visual Arts in New York. He tours the country giving a lecture he calls "Comix 101." An anthology of interviews with Spiegelman, spanning 25 years and a wide variety of printed venues, was published by University Press of Mississippi in 2007 as Art Spiegelman: Conversations.
Together with Françoise Mouly, he published three hardcover anthologies of comics for children, called Little Lit, and in 2006, Big Fat Little Lit. He is an advisor for Mouly's newest publishing project, the TOON Books, a line of hardcover comics for young readers, which started publishing in 2008.
He lives in downtown Manhattan with Mouly and their two children, Nadja and Dashiell, and their cat, Houdini.