TCJ 300: Comicopia

Posted by on January 4th, 2010 at 5:37 AM


Spiegelman’s first purely autobiographical exercise appeared in the 1978 Breakdowns: Drawn like a woodcut in the manner of German expressionism, “Prisoner on Hell Planet” is a recollection of the suicide of the cartoonist’s mother in 1968, just after he was released from that mental hospital. Not unexpectedly, the narrative focuses on Spiegeman’s grief and angst; it concludes with him metaphorically in prison, saying: “Well, Mom, if you’re listening — congratulations! You’ve committed the perfect crime… you put me here… shorted all my circuits… cut my nerve endings… and crossed my wires!… you murdered me, Mommy, and you left me here to take the rap!!”

While the egocentricity of the piece is understandable, given the provocation, it is, in hindsight, a little strange that Spiegelman spends no effort at all speculating about why his mother killed herself. Strange, that is, until we realize that the cartoonist himself is his authentic subject, the focus of his concern and art.

Even Maus, his most celebrated achievement, is more about him than it is about its ostensible subject, his parents’ experience of the holocaust.

Chronologically, Maus succeeds Breakdowns in Spiegelman’s oeuvre, but the earliest manifestation of Maus appeared as a three-page strip in the 1978 Breakdowns. From this, he would develop his 300-page magnum opus. Although the two-volume tome is subtitled “A Survivor’s Tale,” implying that it is about “Mauschwitz” and his parents’ survival of World War II’s most horrendous event, the narrative device turns on Spiegelman’s interviewing his father, Vladek. Tellingly, when he learns that his father has destroyed the diaries his mother kept during their incarceration, he calls his father a “murderer”: His mother’s diaries would have supplied unimagined insights into the concentration camp experience.

Throughout the book, the storyteller’s preoccupation, gathering material for the story and then devising a way to tell it — the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats — the ostensible subtext of the book is actually the author’s chief subject. The focus of the work is on the cartoonist making a book — on his concerns, not his father’s.

Maus, Spiegelman told Phillips, wasn’t intended “to make the world a better place. On some level, it was about trying to find out how come I’m even in the world when both my parents were supposed to be dead. Also, I really was thinking, ‘Would it be cool to have a comic book be so long [that] it needed a bookmark and demanded the same kind of attention a book might demand?’ Comics not as a story but as a kind of essay in comics form.”

To which Phillips responded: “Thus did the graphic novel become mainstream” — meaning, I think, that the publication of Maus and the ensuing Pulitzer trappings catapulted the graphic novel into wide public attention.

While denying that making comics is therapy, Spiegelman admits that he does his best work when he’s unhappy — “It’s the way a pearl gets made in an oyster,” he told Weich. And his best work is always autobiographical. Maus is fundamentally autobiographical; and his next major work, In the Shadow of No Towers, is also autobiographical, beginning with the horror and panic of the cartoonist’s realization on that fatal September day in 2001 that the school of one of his children was “in the shadow” of the burning, collapsing World Trade Center towers.

And his introductory autobiographical comic strip in the reincarnated Breakdowns is another of his better accomplishments. It’s as if Spiegelman has nothing to say, no story to tell, until some disorienting event in his life frees his inner demons to do their worst, which, in typical Spiegelman manner, is their best, and his.

Spiegelman realizes this propensity of his for self-absorption and, in interviews, often apologizes for his inevitably arrogant-sounding sermonizing. Nicely rhetorical, but he needn’t have bothered: He’s usually answering his interrogator’s queries, after all, which invariably are pointed at his, Art’s, “Art,” thereby forcing his hand. When one is regarded as the Pope of comics, it’s difficult not to pontificate about oneself.

“Everything I know I learned from comic books,” he says in Breakdowns‘ opening autobiographical strip. And, recalling his father’s advice about packing a suitcase — “You have to use what little space you have to pack inside everything what you can” — Spiegelman realizes that “was the best advice I’ve ever gotten as a cartoonist.” He’s been packing meanings into panels ever since. Because of his deep engagement in the medium, Spiegelman’s comics are complex, even obtuse. Much of the meaning he infuses them with is lost to all but the most informed observers of the history of comics.

A moment of realization in the Breakdowns‘ prefatory strip is depicted not with a light-bulb going off overhead but with a brick hitting the narrator, Spiegelman, in the head, accompanied by “Zip” and “Pow,” all evoking fond memories of the lyrical Krazy Kat and the brick Ignatz hurls at the Kat’s head in the final panel of so many strips. Why this allusion should be significant in the autobiography we are left alone to ponder. Homage to a master of the medium? Perhaps. Probably. Under other circumstances — in a lecture hall, say — Spiegelman would himself supply an explanation. He is his own best explicator. And many of his comics are improved by his expert elucidations.

From Maus II, ©1991 Art Spiegelman.

One page in the second book of Maus, for instance, achieves a kind of profundity through a visual maneuver so obscure as to be nearly invisible — until Spiegelman explains it. In a lecture hall one time, he projected this page on a screen behind him and, using a laser pointer, traced the image of a swastika that appears behind the figures in the panels. The swastika is tilted; its crooked arms are diagonal lines not horizontal and vertical. The swastika is most evident in panels 4 and 5, an arm of the tilted image continuing from one panel through the other, and once you’ve attuned to the imagery, you can see the diagonals of it in the preceding panels too.

The final image on the page — of Spiegelman the cartoonist at his drawing board, making Maus, his endeavors, his fame as the cartoonist who made the first volume of Maus, built on a heap of rotting Mauschwitz bodies — achieves another layer of meaning once we recognize the swastika looming over the scene. One aspect of the meaning of the page derives from the éclat (“critical and commercial success”) that the first book of Maus has brought its author: as he works on Volume II, Spiegelman, like Cervantes writing the second part of Don Quixote, is conscious of the reputation both he and Volume I of his work enjoy.

But the fame, he realizes sardonically, is not an unalloyed pleasantry: it has been achieved by using the holocaust as narrative. His renown has been built on the deaths of millions: Our realization of this unhappy fact dawns upon us slowly as we read the page, wondering, at first, why the flies hover at Spiegelman’s elbow. (The heading of the page, “Time flies,” now acquires another shade of meaning, the noun becoming, perhaps, an adjective. More typical Spiegelman legerdemain.) The last panel explains the flies with the rotting corpses, giving Spiegelman’s fame a bad odor — on the page and, doubtless, in the cartoonist’s mind, as he revealed when he referred to Maus in an interview with Mark Athitakis at as having been done “on the piles of the dead.”

So saying, Spiegelman displays a nuance of guilt that sidles up to self-loathing, and the Nazi emblem completes the picture. Is the swastika in the background of this page simply a subtle reminder of what built the heap of death at the cartoonist’s feet? Or does Spiegelman, who, in the imagery of this page, acknowledges the unsavory fact of a fame built upon the massive misfortune of others, see himself as a kind of Nazi, using the holocaust for selfish purposes of his own. Is he, by some bizarre stretch, himself a Nazi, an architect of the holocaust? That interpretation may be more than a little overwrought, but the overdetermined way that Spiegelman has packed his panels encourages it.

In the page we’ve just been contemplating, Spiegelman has tied a mouse mask on his face, impersonating his impersonation in Maus. Spiegelman, knowing the value of publicity, often draws himself as a mouse; he uses a mouse as a self-caricature in autographing copies of his books. In the autobiographical comic strip at the beginning of Breakdowns, he bemoans his perpetual association with a mouse and Maus: He draws a huge statue of a mouse with himself in the shadow the statue casts. “No matter how much I run,” his self-caricatured character says, “I can’t seem to get out of that mouse’s shadow.”

And yet he persists in giving himself the head and face of the Maus mouse in most of his self-caricatures, contriving thereby yet another fillip of publicity for the book — and for all subsequent Spiegelman works.

The cover of Breakdowns offers another image as fraught with vague meanings and connections as the nearly imperceptible swastika. The curlicue that traces the possible revolution of the man slipping on what we later discover is a banana peel is revealed to be a doodle that can be turned into any sort of image by a cartoonist. In the cover picture, the man is slipping on a copy of the first version of Breakdowns instead of a banana peel, but that aspect of the picture, while offering a tempting possibility for interpretation, is not as compelling as the image of the man, spinning topsy-turvy.

Cover to Breakdowns (©2008 Art Spiegelman) and Zap Comix #0 (©1967 R. Crumb).

This picture has no discernible connection to any story we find in the book’s interior. It is a stand-alone image, significant, if significant it is, for itself. A man slipping on a banana peel is a classic bit of comedic stagecraft. But in the topsy-turviness of this man, I detect an echo, vague perhaps but persistent, of Robert Crumb’s cover drawing for Zap Comix #0. For many of us, Spiegelman included, the first several issues of Crumb’s Zap Comix launched the underground genre. These were the outrageous bellwethers of the iconoclastic future.

Comics were reinvented during the underground 1970s, Spiegelman believes. An art must reinvent itself or die, he told Michael Cavna in May at the latter’s Washington Post blog, Comic Riffs.

But comics have always been a danger to society. “Comics were the first rock ‘n’ roll,” Spiegelman said. “That’s part of what I’m interested in. Comics broke rules and infiltrated youth culture in the 1950s, during the Senate [subcommittee] hearings [about comic books as primers for criminals]. That made it kind of dangerous, and it’s still being felt. Comics were the Grand Theft Auto of the 50’s. I was on the side of the transgressors then — like drawing a corpse and an icepick — wow! That’s part of my ‘underground comics’ brain.”

By invoking Crumb’s Zap on the cover of this reincarnation of Breakdowns, Spiegelman asserts his own place in the history of the medium as a formalist who redesigned the form, producing another “comic that plugs you in.”

Spiegelman may not be as arrogantly self-absorbed as he sometimes seems, but he does not hesitate to proclaim what he sees as his role in the evolution of the medium. In the 30-some years since the initial publication of Breakdowns, much about comics has changed. We can now better understand Breakdowns as a formal experiment. What was once passing strange we now see as wonderfully prescient.

And that’s not all that’s changed in 30 years: Spiegelman has become more and more expressive verbally, and he now writes — and talks — as much as he draws. He is interviewed frequently and always proves both articulate about the medium and colorful in the ways he describes it. He’s “good copy,” as olde timey journalists used to say.

Even as newspapers are expiring on every hand, taking the newspaper comic strip with them, Spiegelman finds hope for the form. “I like Richard Thompson’s work [Cul de Sac],” he said to Cavna. “They’re good gags, and graphically it’s on a very high level. It really seems like the inheritor of the Calvin and Hobbes mantle. It’s amazing when any strip can electrify and bring life to a form [the comic strip] that is on life support.”

Some prestigious others have applauded Thompson’s strip: he was one of three finalists for the Best Comic Strip division award from the National Cartoonists Society in May. Mark Tatulli’s pantomimic horror-child Lio won in this category; the other candidate was Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine. Despite his anointing of Thompson’s comic strip, Spiegelman’s hopeful assessment of the future for comics does not include newspapers.

“But comics in general,” he said, “are doing great. They’ve moved into another cultural space successfully. It’s not really about the newspaper anymore.”

Like most observers of the medium, Spiegelman sees webcomics as the future: “Online, pages get to crackle in a different way. It’s a different medium — it’s a real difference. As the medium evolves as something that’s on my screen, online comics will become as different from comic books as comic strips are to comic books. The rules are different online.”

Although he has entertained, briefly, offers from those who want to animate Maus, Spiegelman still concentrates on the print forms of cartooning, not the digital.

He and his wife have been delving regularly into children’s-book production lately. Spiegelman’s current project is to reprint between the covers of a single anthology various comic books of yore that were intended for children.

“Not all comic books were worthy of banning,” he said, alluding to the industry’s self-censorship that began in the mid-1950s. “There were comics that were wholesome, that were part of the innocence of the culture, which Norman Rockwell came out of…. It’s not as simple as: it should always be transgressive.”

Spiegelman’s love affair with comics was consummated long ago, but like any successful marriage, it is sometimes exasperating as well as happy, and always challenging — the form and its pleasures constantly changing.


Be Sociable, Share!

Pages: 1 2

Tags: ,

Comments are closed.