Aside From Wuthering Heights, What Have You Done For Us Lately, Emily?
by Jeet Heer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Every time Art Spiegelman wins a public honour, a familiar cry can be heard among some comics critics. “Oh, no,” the lament goes, “why is Spiegelman winning praise again? He only has one good book to his name, Maus? He’s overrated.”
These frequently expressed opinions are profoundly wrongheaded. Even if, for the sake of argument, we accept the claim that Spiegelman is a one book author, that doesn’t diminish his stature: Ralph Ellison was also a one book author: aside from Invisible Man, Ellison’s legacy consists of an inferior posthumous novel and a scattering of strong essays. All of Flannery O’Connor’s worthwhile fiction can be found in single Library of America volume. Emily Bronte’s oeuvre could also be easily confined to a thick but still manageable volume needed to gather together Wuthering Heights and her poetry. Yet is anyone really willing to gainsay the legacy of Ellison, O’Connor, or Bronte?
But of course Spiegelman has more than one book to his credit. To my mind Breakdowns is a pivotal a book in the history of comics as Maus. Just as the more famous holocaust memoir was a springboard for graphic novels and historical/political narratives in comic book form, Breakdowns is a wellspring for comics formalism, a vital and still underdeveloped and underappreciated tradition. It’s harder to gauge the importance of In the Shadow of No Towers but only because we’re all too close to the events of 9/11, and our possessive memories of that trauma still hinder any predominately aesthetic response to such a work. All I can say about In the Shadow of No Towers is that it articulated something I distinctly remember about the aftermath of 9/11 which almost every other account avoids: the frenzied and baffled anger of the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks. It’s a book whose stature will rise once we are far enough away from 9/11 to confront it.
Way back in August 1980, Gary Groth interviewed Ted White, the writer, editor, and pioneering comics critic. During the course of the interview, which can be found in The Comics Journal # 59 (October 1980), White listed off the handful of cartoonists who he thought were geniuses: George Herriman, Winsor McCay, Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, and Art Spiegelman. Remember that when White was talking, Maus as we know it didn’t exist, apart from a 3-page germ story that was very different in tone and style from the eventual graphic novel.
White singled out Breakdowns for praise saying that it was “the single most important album or book or whatever you want to call it of modern comics that has been published.” White went on to say that Spiegelman “is in a direct line from Winsor McCay….There’s a page in Breakdowns which you can read in any direction. That’s a tour de force, to be able to do that. He’s done a lot of other really fascinating things. He’s one of the few people to come out of what we call underground comics who is a top-quality creative Artist. He’s not just a good technician, he’s not just a good storyteller, he’s not just a good renderer, he is an Artist with a capital A. There are very few people like that.” That White was able to recognize the importance of Breakdowns in 1980 shows remarkable prescience, especially since there are still comics critics out there who don’t understand the importance of the book in 2011. The 2008 edition of Breakdowns has been remarkably neglected by comics critics. It’s a fascinating volume in its own right, especially because the introduction is a great comic in its own right, rich in visual puns which help recast the older material in a new light. The introduction in effect makes the new book not just a new edition but a separate work. Some artists late in life re-write their older works – most notoriously Henry James with his endlessly amended New York edition of his fiction. Spiegelman has done something a bit craftier: he’s rewritten Breakdowns by giving it a new context.
As it happened, I recently wrote a little essay addressed to a non-comics audience explaining Spiegelman’s importance. Here is a slightly edited version of that article:
Spiegelman’s achievements as the cartoonist are of course well-known. His most famous graphic novel, Maus, was widely praised when it was first published. Maus won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and has been translated into many languages. Aside from its many other honors, Maus is notable for being the first graphic novel to be widely incorporated into the academy; it is now a staple part of the curriculum in many disciplines ranging English to Holocaust Studies and has generated a large and growing critical literature.
But it could be argued that the estimable achievement of Maus obscures Spiegelman’s larger and even more impressive work as path-breaking cartoonist, editor, educator, curator, and theorist. Spiegelman has distinguished himself in each of these fields, making him the most influential living American cartoonist. Spiegelman’s historical significance is something that comics scholars are familiar with, but the larger public only has a small inkling of, so it might be useful to discuss Spiegelman’s work outside of Maus.
When Spiegelman started cartooning in the late 1960s, comics were, with a few minor exceptions, largely a commercial art form, bound by the restrictions of mass entertainment. To be sure, there had already been a significant number of artists who were able to do personal and expressive work within the framework of the daily newspaper comic strip or the monthly periodical comic book, notably cartoonists like George Herriman, Charles Schulz, and Harvey Kurtzman. But the possibility that comics could be a fully adult form, enjoying the artistic freedom of fiction or the fine arts, only really became possible with the advent of Robert Crumb, whose psychedelic explorations of his own id revolutionized comics and inspired a whole generation of younger artists to do countercultural “underground comics”.
Spiegelman’s early work was very much an outgrowth of the burgeoning underground comics scene. But within a few years, it became apparent that Spiegelman was much more ambitious than his peers, who were largely content to use the new freedoms they had won to do scatological comics about sex and drugs. Almost alone among the early underground cartoonists, Spiegelman thought that the cartoonists should have higher literary and artistic aspirations, and try and do work that had a tonal range that extended beyond providing belly laughs and visual shocks. Seminal examples of his ambition can be seen in stories from the early 1970s like “Maus” (the proto three-page story that formed the basis of the graphic novel) and “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” which dealt, daringly and painfully, with his mother’s suicide.
Spiegelman’s project to elevate comics also manifested itself in Arcade, a crucial anthology he edited from 1975 to 1976 with Bill Griffiths. Arcade featured both the stalwarts of the underground comics movement (Crumb, Kim Deitch, Gilbert Shelton) and also gave prominence to younger artists like Diana Noonin and Mark Beyer. What set Arcade apart from the ruck of other underground anthologies was the seriousness of editorial vision Spieglman brought to the task. He pushed established artists to do more challenging work (arguably Crumb’s mature period of doing history-based stories, which has culminated with his recent adaptation of Genesis, can be traced back to Arcade). Through Spiegelman’s editorial agenda, the underground comics were pushed in a new and more fertile direction.
Arcade was the precursor for another, even more important anthology, Raw, which Spiegelman would co-edit with Francoise Mouly from 1980 to 1991. With its high production values and carefully selected roster of artists, Raw had an immense immediate impact. Raw showcased translated work by European masters like Jacque Tardi while also giving a national forum to a younger generation of artists who would define the alternative comics aesthetics (Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Sue Coe, Drew Friedman, Ben Katchor, Gary Panter, Chris Ware). These artists, many of them discovered by Spiegelman and Mouly, would re-make comics in the subsequent decades.
Aesthetically, Raw leaned towards formalist inventiveness, a vein that had historically been under-explored in comics aside from a few early masters like McCay and Herriman. Spiegelman’s own work in the 1970s and 1980s also played heavily with the visual language of comics, deconstructing standard units like the word balloon and panel. These experiments were the direct inspiration for a host of younger artists ranging from commercial writers like Alan Moore to alternative cartoonists such as Richard McGuire and Chris Ware. As the fountainhead of the formalist tradition in comics, Spiegelman has built a useful bridge between a hitherto commercial art form and the larger “tradition of the new” that defines modernist and post-modernist fine art.
There have only been a handful of great anthologies in comics history: Kurtzman’s Mad, Zap Comix, Arcade, Raw, and a few others. Of that handful, Spiegelman has co-edited two.
Because of his formalist work so clearly links comics with the fine arts, Spiegelman was among the first cartoonists to widely exhibited in museums, and he has served as the informal advisor and curator for several major museum exhibits (notably the groundbreaking Masters of American Comics and the recent Krazy show in Vancouver). As with his cartooning work and his editing, Spiegelman’s work as a curator has opened up a new frontier for comics.
Thanks to the fame of Maus, Spiegelman has frequently lectured on comics at many major universities throughout the world. These lectures, coupled with essays he has written for publications like Harper’s and the New York Times, allow Spiegelman to display his wide learning in the history and lore of his chosen art form. He is among the top critics and theorists in the field. He has written in-depth essays on a wide range of early cartoonists (Topffer, Jack Cole, Bernie Krigstein, Carl Barks, Lynd Ward). These essays, along with the Toon Treasury anthology he recently co-edited, are key texts for anyone interested in the history and aesthetics of comics. When Spiegelman’s fugitive essays on comics are gathered together, the resultant volume will be one of the key critical texts in comics criticism.
Finally, something has to be said about Spiegelman the educator. At the School of Visual Arts, he taught such young cartoonists such as Drew Friedman and Paul Karasik, who have gone on to have important careers as artists and writers in their own right.
Labels: Art Spiegelman