Art Spiegelman lives in the world of the intellectuals.
He lives in the world of the New Yorker, museum openings, Manhattan dinner parties and underground art. He throws around the jargon of the cultivated, words like “semiotics” and “Zeitgeist” and oblique references to people like Umberto Eco and Fiorello LaGuardia. He is secure in the knowledge that we live in this world, too.
But for all his erudition, the comic artist is not inaccessible. His intellectualism falls just short of pretentiousness ? he is bitingly funny but not condescending. He is extraordinarily articulate, easily speaking sentences most people only wish they could write.
Most known for his Pulitzer-winning Maus, Spiegelman spoke in Strong Auditorium last night about the evolution and function of the comic as an art form. Brandishing a laser pointer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, he used a slide projector to present his work and that of other comic artists.
“I can’t not smoke and talk in public, so we’re stuck with me,” he apologized at the start of the talk, lighting his first of many. “Everything’s changed since Sept. 11 ? I now no longer think cigarettes will kill me.”
Living 15 blocks from the World Trade Center, Spiegelman thought he was going to die that morning. Instead, he crafted the Sept. 24 cover of the New Yorker, which on first glance appears to be completely black. The cover is actually a black on black image of the two towers, which took a number of readers several days to realize.
Spiegelman had originally intended to draw two black towers against a bright blue background and gold skyline, to contrast the tragedy against the vibrancy of that fall morning. But it didn’t seem right. The blue detracted the focus away from the towers, and as Spiegelman played with his scanned-in computer image, he saw that it didn’t make sense until he had shifted the background color entirely to black.
“In the days after Sept. 11, I kept turning around to see if the if the towers really weren’t there, like a phantom limb,” he said. “It made the most sense to make the cover seem black until you see it in a different light.”
Spiegelman was born in Stockholm, Sweden and grew up in Rego Park, New York. He has done illustrations for the New Yorker, Village Voice and New York Times. His current projects include a comic called “In the Shadow of No Towers” and a book of quality comics for children. His two-part anthology Maus is the story of his father’s survival from Hitler’s Europe. Used in the Holocaust course taught by Professors Celia Applegate and William Green, the books depict Jews as mice, Nazis as cats and Poles as pigs.
Spiegelman explained how a comic’s impact often depends on the depiction of a stereotype.
“Comics language essentially does deal with a symbolic language that depends on preassembled images in your head,” he said. “Comics function much like thought functions. You don’t think in holograms ? you think in stripped-down images, primal images.”
His Nov. 26 cover of the New Yorker depicts a plane dropping golden Thanksgiving turkeys to the silhouettes of turbaned Afghans. His first New Yorker cover, a Valentine’s Day cover for Feb. 5, 1993, is of a Hasidic man kissing a black woman.
Spiegelman caught a lot of heat for that one. A New York Times columnist denounced “the Jew’s lascivious lips,” Spiegelman said, while a Washington Post column found fault with the Jew’s “prim lips.”
“It was clear to me that the objection was that the Jew had lips at all,” he said.
A major theme of the talk was that comics have disrupted the traditional dichotomy of poetry and narrative art. One deals with time, one deals with space. Comics are a mongrel that has taken those two art forms and revolutionized their relationship.
“Comics take time and turn it into space,” he said. “Each frame is a unit of time.”
He also said comic art is beginning to be perceived as a true art form.
“Until recently, comics were completely beyond critical radar,” he said. “It is only lately that people have begun to think of comics as art, worthy of consideration as one more medium that can express thoughts and feelings.”
Spiegelman then ran through a rapid and detailed presentation of groundbreaking comics in history. These include the 1914-1944 Krazy Kat, the darling of the intellectuals, exempt from highbrow criticism because it was so good and so smart. Dick Tracy was an explosively popular comic, the first to portray realistic violence. Artist Chester Gould, Spiegelman said, went senile toward the end.
“The editors didn’t read it because he’d been around for so long,” he said. “He went nuts and they just let him go nuts. Toward the end, he had them riding around on the moon in garbage cans.”
Other important comics were Thimble Theater, Plastic Man, Master Race, Mad magazine and the famed Charles Shulz, who wrote Spiegelman a fan letter shortly before his death. Spiegelman had actually viewed “Peanuts” as a mainstream strip that existed far outside his realm of underground comics, but came to realize Shulz had actually exerted considerable influence upon that sphere.
A comic called “Binky Brown meets the Holy Virgin Mary,” Spiegelman said, opened the doors for comics of an autobiographical nature.
“I don’t think Maus could have been written without that,” he said.
When asked if he feels uncomfortable with the sometimes unflattering portrayal of his father in Maus, Spiegelman said, “To be honest, I didn’t think anyone would read it.”
“Ultimately, the one thing that was important to me was to not show the survivor as some kind of hero who has been ennobled by his suffering,” he said. “It’s a Christian notion that suffering ennobles. The main thing suffering causes is pain. It doesn’t necessarily make a better person.”
Spiegelman stresses the idea that anyone can be a comic. Good comics, he said, are not about good illustrations ? they are about the relationship between the words and pictures, between time and space.
“Comics that rely heavily on illustration seem to betray the essence of comic drawing,” he said. “Some things are fine as illustrations but don’t make sense as comics. They’re antithetical to the kind of pictures that take place in your head.”
Le can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org