‘Feeling Humbled About Comics’: An evening with Art Spiegelman

Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer prize-winning godfather of comics, gave a guided tour of the evolution of comics as an art form at Melbourne Town Hall last week. Pepi Ronalds was there, and reports back on her highlights of the evening.

It speaks to the medium of comics that Art Spiegelman (creator of Maus, In the Shadow of no Towers and so much more) is concluding his presentation for the Wheeler Centre without speaking at all. He takes the 1,400 strong audience at the Melbourne Town Hall through six panels – details from It was Today, Only Yesterday. Each panel silently charts Spiegelman’s progress as an artist – from an infant, to toddler, to teenager, to young man, old man and dead man. ‘Comics are a way of turning time into space,’ he tells us.

Every panel in this detail has two common elements: their representation of Spiegelman at various stages of life and the inclusion of a particular scribble. The scribble, Spiegelman explains, has its roots in a game he played with his mother. She’d scribble on a page and Spiegelman would have to make visual sense of it. His engagement with this game (as well as his family) helped spawn a prolific career in the creation of comics. He demands a ‘blood test’ for the title some give him as a ‘grandfather’ of today’s vast comic industry. But there’s no question that comics are inseparable from the man. Indeed the scribble has a spiral shape, echoing the helix of our DNA.

Spiegelman's masterpiece, *Maus*, is cited as an influence by graphic artists worldwide, including Melbourne's Nicki Greenberg and Bruce Mutard.

Spiegelman's masterpiece, Maus, is cited as an influence by graphic artists worldwide, including Melbourne's Nicki Greenberg and Bruce Mutard.

‘Comics mimic the way a brain works,’ he says. They’re like a sign language that we are wired to understand. Comics can become highly abstracted yet we still piece them together. Words and pictures, narrative and structure all contribute. In the presentation, there are silences from Spiegelman while he allows us to read the many comics he shows (but giggles, gasps and guffaws emerge from the audience as we process their meanings).

Spiegelman has a problem with the word comics. ‘People think it needs to be funny,’ he says. He doesn’t particularly like the phrase graphic novels either (it’s trying too hard to imply ‘double respectability’). The word that Spiegelman prefers is co-mix. ‘Comics are really a co-mixing of words and pictures,’ he says. ‘The cartoonist lives in the liminal space between stories and drawings.’

Spiegelman took the audience through a brief history of comics that included Rodolphe Töpffer’s experiments on moral representation (and the stories that spun from that). He looked at Max and Moritz (Wilhelm Busch), Little Nemo in Slumberland (Winsor McCay), Krazy Kat (George Herriman), Little Orphan Annie (Harold Gray), Dick Tracy (Chester Gould) and L’il Abner (Al Capp – describing the marriage between L’il Abner and Daisy Mae as ‘bigger than Miley Cyrus’ in its time). Spiegelman also paid respect to Peanuts (ŽCharles M. Schulz), a strip that ‘managed to find a way to exist in smaller newspapers’ by being short (just four panels), and being self-contained rather than serialised.

In a kind of meta-narrative, Spiegelman’s lifetime engagement with comics is illustrated by his own panels. Through this medium he shows himself reading comics as a boy (when comics were a ‘mass mass medium’). We see him negotiating comic book purchases with his parents. We watch him work through and develop ideas – such as the turning points that lead to his Pulitzer prize-winning Maus.

In more ways than one, Spiegelman’s life parallels key moments in the history of comics. He was an avid reader of mass-produced comic books, Sunday funnies and Mad Magazine. He borrowed a copy of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (a book denouncing the comic form) from a library and never returned it. (Instead he used it as a reference to find all of the good comic books.) He watched Dick Tracy (‘The Sopranos of its time’) unfold from a crime-fighting, gun-toting detective series to a rather abstract conceptual strip where, ‘Eventually the words and pictures went their different ways.’ He remembers when comic genres ceded to stories based on TV programs (such as The Partridge Family). At that time, ‘Comics for kids were the good ones.’ Spiegelman illustrates how ‘a whole page devoted to an emotional transition makes Donald Duck a lot more in depth than Danny Partridge.’

Plastic Man

Plastic Man

Different genres of comics have risen and fallen in popularity. The superhero genre lost some traction after World War II, says Spiegelman. He was never particularly interested in it, but he did like Plastic Man (Jack Cole). In every panel Plastic Man takes different forms, stretching his head and body into impossible situations: through a room, between some legs, taking the shape of a washing line. ‘It was the essence of cartooning incarnate – whatever you could draw you could be,’ says Spiegelman.

In his lifetime Spiegelman has gone from being ignored in a room because he was reading comics to having curious onlookers peering over his shoulders. He describes a century of comics in his lithography Lead Pipe Sunday. ‘…Who Knows? Certainly not this Unhappy Hooligan, a newsprint Star at the Dawn of the Century, whose Career Crashed in the Thirties when his creator’s eyes dimmed. He sits in the shadows, awaiting the Century’s End,’ reads part of the caption on one page. In the image, the sitting creator has his head in hands while he’s surrounded by icons of art and illustration. ‘Comics can move backwards, forwards, sideways in time,’ say Spiegelman, ‘They’re visually very rich, emotionally very stirring.’

A new phase of comics brought forth artists like Robert Crumb, who introduced a ‘comics conscious avant-garde.’ Spiegelman notes Rory Hayes, who ‘gave us permission to be primitive’ and Justin Green, who ‘opened up confessional comics to stories’ (which lead to autobiographical stories). Spiegelman marks a shift in the mid 1980s when Maus, The Watchmen (Allan Moore and Dave Gibbons) and The Dark Night Returns (Frank Miller) were all published and Graphic Novels became a special section in our bookstores.

Robert Crumb

Robert Crumb

Comics have certainly moved forward in time. Today there all kinds of comics from all kinds of people, Spiegelman says. ‘Now some of the best artists are women. It used to be a professional boys club.’ And comics are reaching wide audiences too (as evidenced by the mix of punters at the Melbourne Town Hall: t-shirt-and-jeans-wearing youth yuck it up with suited, retired professors). ‘The past of comics happily hangs over its future. The future of comics is in its past,’ says Spiegelman. While he talks about the form, he also echoes his own unique relationship to it.

There are now comics in every format, every shape and size and representing a wide range of readers. There are fat books, skinny pamphlets, foldout and boxed works. There’s both fiction and non-fiction. Spiegelman is delighted and perhaps even a little relieved, ‘There are so many [different comics now] that I don’t have to like them anymore because other people can do it'.

‘I’m now feeling humbled about comics,’ he says. And tonight he’s not the only one.

Portrait of Pepi Ronalds

Pepi Ronalds is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. She's currently researching and writing a book about rebuilding and recovery in Japan after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.