What the %@&*! Happened to Comics?

Posted by on March 8th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

“Are you here for Maus?” I’m practically grabbed off the street by the Liberty Theater’s usher, who looks unusually anxious before tonight’s lecture from Art Spiegelman. The fact that on my way in, everyone is referring to the event as “Maus” makes it easy to see that it’s really only that work which has caught the general public’s attention, and not the man himself. There is something backwards about this: While Maus is undeniably an important work, it’s Spiegelman’s thinking and influence as an editor that really mark him out as an important figure in comics.

“Are, um… are you, ah- the, er, press?” Another nervous usher — it feels as if this whole affair has knocked the theater for six. Is this how comics are seen in the arts community: The awkward second-cousin of art and literature that no-one quite knows what to do with? Certainly the audience is a mixed bag of children (either dragging, or being dragged by, parents), students, beards, haircuts and assorted curious locals, so it feels culturally healthier than the average comic con panel. Again, this is probably down to Maus and its broad appeal — as Spiegelman will later admit, “They really like it because they know how to read.”

Maus © Art Spiegelman 1973-91

The whole time I’m trying to puzzle out exactly why this event is taking place in Puyallup — a city that’s a mere half-hour from Seattle and Olympia, the more natural venues for an event like this. It turns out that it’s being put on as part of the local college’s “Artists and Speakers” festival, so they’ve got themselves a double-whammy tonight, since Spiegelman is both. Although he often struggles with his limitations as the former, as the latter he ranks as one of the great raconteurs of the medium, a fact which is evident tonight.

As Spiegelman takes the stage, he’s dwarfed by the cinema screen behind him on which he projects a number of visual accompaniments to his talk. It’s reassuring to see a Pulitzer-winner quite literally take the spotlight off his self and place it on his medium, making the following 90 minutes a fervent tour through comics’ awkward shuffle into prominence, rather than a self-aggrandizing ego trip.

Art Spiegelman in Puyallup, 4th March 2010 – Photo by Gavin Lees

However, it is very much the history of comics from Spiegelman’s perspective, meaning a heavy focus on newspaper cartoons — for his definition of what comics are, he uses a Nancy strip to illustrate it — even when exploring the modern resurgence of the medium. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns get a cursory nod, as do Chris Ware and Charles Burns, but they are seen as the end of product of newsprint precursors. Also, the lack of manga coverage, and Spiegelman’s admitted reluctance to engage with the medium, seems strange considering that’s exactly what the %@&*! has happened to comics lately. Tellingly, and amusingly, the image he uses to represent manga, while laughing away his bafflement over some of its more notorious tropes, is the cover of a hentai anime, Anyone You Can Do.

The elements he does illuminate, though, are done with wit and intelligence. One of Spiegelman’s gifts is in bridging the gap between high and low culture, and tracing the connections between them. On his guided tour of the first half of the 20th century, we see cubism collide with Krazy Kat, Chester Gould prefigure Lichtenstein and, for the first and probably only time, hear Magritte mentioned in the same breath as Fletcher Hanks. It’s refreshing to hear this history told from a perspective wider than the industry itself and he uses this quite pointedly — having breathlessly conveyed the artistry and credibility of the early comics — to move into issues of censorship, from Dr. Wertham to cartoon Muhammads.

“Magritte for beginners” – Stardust the Super Wizard by Fletcher Hanks

This recent controversy has become something of a hobby-horse for Spiegelman, and here he does offer himself a few indulgences to talk about his more controversial moments. His 1993 Valentine’s cover for the New Yorker, which featured a Hasidic Jew kissing a black woman, provoked outrage from numerous communities and almost as many misinterpretations — he recalls a naïve letter to the magazine praising the cover that showed “Lincoln kissing a slave.” Naturally, he was drawn to and could sympathize with the furor over the Danish Muhammad cartoons, leading him to an article on representations of the prophet for Harper’s, which he takes us through, including his “bomb rating” for the potential sensitivity of each one. These preoccupations with representations of race and creed are obviously a big part of Maus and one of the reasons for its resultant success — even though, he says, the Poles have never forgiven him for being portrayed as pigs.

This idea of physiognomy is then explored and used to slingshot us through some of comics’ racist stereotypes and their evolution into modern tools of layered satire, Spiegelman’s point seeming to be that, as with all disciplines, mistakes have an educational value.  More connections and we’re suddenly back to Batman — how early awkward layouts paved the way for modern experimental comics — and then back further to the printing press and then forward to Justin Green paving the way for confessional comics and arriving full-circle with Breakdowns and Maus.  By the end, Spiegelman’s voice is practically tripping over itself, so heightened is his enthusiasm for each subject he hurtles us through.  His pressure to cram everything into his quite generous time slot is clear and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine him continuing for a further hour-and-a-half.

New Yorker cover by Art Spiegelman – ©1993 Conde Nast Media

“Where do you see comics going in the future?” The final few minutes are given over to a Q&A session and Spiegelman answers that particular question with an aphorism: “The future of comics is in the past.” As a summation of the evening, this is about as good as it gets. He certainly makes a convincing case that every trick in comics has been learned from those early newspaper strips, but it would be foolish and unfair to see that as the extent of Spiegelman’s argument, painting him as a curmudgeonly anachronist. By connecting the dots between fine art and comics, he articulates the continuing dichotomy between high and low art — sculpture used to be forbidden from imitating poetry, jazz started as whorehouse music — the same shift in perceptions and acceptance is taking hold the same way it always has. Whether that shift is more a result of Maus or manga, still seems open for debate.

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One Response to “What the %@&*! Happened to Comics?”

  1. […] What the %@&*! Happened to Comics? A report from Art Spiegelman's illustrated lecture at the Liberty Theater, Puyallup, WA. (tags: comics maus) […]