The Great Art Comic Evangelist: A Tribute to Art Spiegelman
Many comics creators can be applauded for garnering the art form a more popular legitimacy, but it can be argued that nobody has done more than Art Spiegelman. Born to Holocaust survivors on February 15, 1948, Spiegelman has acted as comics’ ambassador for decades, working to reduce the gap between the perceived high art of the galleries and the perceived low art of the comics page. And it wasn’t entirely because of Maus…
Art Spiegelman took a somewhat circuitous route to winning a Pulitzer Prize and Guggenheim Fellowship. Spiegelman started making money in commercial art when he was still in high school, and shortly after he graduated, he began a decades-long, on-and-off relationship with Topps. Around the late 1960s, he got swept up in the underground comix movement and became involved in the San Francisco scene that included Bill Griffith, S. Clay Wilson, and Robert Crumb.
Like many of his contemporaries, the comix that Spiegelman produced around this era in publications like Bijou Funnies were brash, weird, and confessional without being particularly revealing; explorations of the id and shock for shock’s sake. After meeting Justin Green and seeing Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, he was inspired to make work with more substance.
The 70s were a period of great growth for Spiegelman. His comics became more formally experimental and personal. He reached an artistic breakthrough with “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” a stark and wrenching story about his mother’s suicide, rendered in a style similar to the woodcut, wordless narratives of Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel. He explored the relationship between panel and page, and how they represent space and time. He stole “high art” concepts and used them in nonlinear narratives and cut-ups about sex, neuroses, and modern despair that often worked as exhibitions of storytelling possibilities of the comics form.
In the mid-70s, Spiegelman co-edited Arcade: The Comics Revue with Bill Griffith, a landmark publication in underground comix that included work from Crumb, Kim Deitch, Spain Rodriguez, and countercultural humorist Paul Krassner. By that time, the undergrounds were dwindling and Arcade — a very cohesive and well-made anthology for the chaotic undergrounds — helped keep it alive for at least a few more years, and found its way into the hands of the next generation of cartoonists. But it was a trying and stressful experience for Spiegelman, and he left the magazine, returned to New York, and swore not to edit another comic again.
That changed shortly after he met Francoise Mouly, a French transplant with interests in art, comics, literature, architecture, and anarchy. The two married in 1977, and after the publication of Breakdowns, a collection of Spiegelman’s best comics, Mouly convinced him that it was time for another anthology of art comics, which she would co-edit and publish on her own printing presses.
(It should at this point be noted that Mouly does not get the credit she deserves. Her achievements will seemingly always be linked to Spiegelman’s — they’re married and he’s the cartoonist, after all — but the impact she’s had both on Spiegelman and comics as a curator, publisher, advocate, art director, and editor is tremendous.)
The result of their creative partnership was RAW. Featuring mostly unknown cartoonists, some of whom came from Spiegelman’s classes at the School of Visual Arts, RAW became the flagship publication in the second wave of undergrounds that exploded in the 80s. Charles Burns, Sue Coe, Chris Ware and Gary Panter all made their big splashes in RAW, and they’re just a few of the brilliant cartoonists who contributed.
Along with the second issue of RAW, Spiegelman published the first installment in his most vital work, Maus. His first attempt at telling the story of his parents’ experiences in the Holocaust came in the early 70s, as a short comic for Justin Green’s Funny Aminals, in which Nazis were portrayed as cats, Jews as mice. His return to the subject matter was much more focused and deliberate, and as he worked on Maus throughout the 80s, he paid the bills with commercial work for Topps that was decidedly different; at the same time that Spiegelman was creating the most critically-acclaimed comic of all time, he was also designing the Garbage Pail Kids.
Justifiably, history is more concerned with the former than the latter. While Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns deserve some credit for exposing mature comics to the world, the lion’s share belongs to Maus. Prior to Maus, the popular perception was that the entire comics medium was devoid of any true art or maturity, but once the “graphic novel” made the transition to bookstores, college classes, and become a worldwide bestseller, and won a special Pulitzer Prize for letters, that opinion was forced to change, even if incrementally.
It seems like it would be impossible to match the massive creative and commercial success of Maus, a fact that Spiegelman is so aware of that he hasn’t even really attempted it. He joined The New Yorker in the early 1990s and contributed for over a decade, including covers, articles, and comics-form essays. Pieces like “High Art Lowdown” and “Abstract Thought is a Warm Puppy” are structurally mesmerizing, academic, and remarkably expressive. Another article on one of Spiegelman’s heroes was lengthened to book form with designer Chip Kidd, and the resulting Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched To Their Limits is an explosion of visual information.
In the Shadow of No Towers, his best and most personal work since Maus, is a chronicle of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001 and the massive shift it inspired in American culture. Spiegelman, who lived not far from Ground Zero, channeled his stress and trauma into an oversized comic strip that captures the anxiety and jingoism that throttled the country in the years following the attacks. Like in his comics-form essays, his absolute mastery of the medium is apparent in this frantic, nervous wreck of a book.
Since then he’s worked on a few more books, released a few new stories, published, lectured, sat on boards, and raised his strident voice of dissent whenever he felt the need. It seems unlikely that we’ll see another long-form comic narrative with Art Spiegelman’s name on it.
But at this point it’s unnecessary. Without Maus, he would still be a fascinating figure in comics history. With it, he’s the one most responsible for helping the medium grow up. He clearly had the goal to make people take comics more seriously, and he accomplished it decades ago, and everyone who creates, buys, reads, and loves them owes him a word of thanks.