Posts Tagged ‘Art Spiegelman’

Aside From Wuthering Heights, What Have You Done For Us Lately, Emily?


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

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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.



The Mark You Make Is The Mark You See


Saturday, January 8, 2011

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When I was in high school (10th grade?) I saw Masters of Comic Book Art. It was a videotape collection of interviews with Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, Steve Ditko, Neal Adams, Berni Wrightson, Frank Miller, Moebius, Dave Sim, and Art Spiegelman. Somehow, I was able to dub my own copy and used to watch it when I would draw. It was really inspiring back in 1988. Still is, I think.

The one interview that kind of baffled me as a teen was the Art Spiegelman interview. He was the only artist represented who wasn’t on my radar at the time. He didn’t draw costumed heroes or genre comics. He was drawing something from his own experience but using comics to flip the script. Spiegelman was talking about how he wanted to feel like he was writing. He said he was using office supplies to draw with like typing paper and white out.

Then he talked about how most comics are drawn larger than they are actually printed. He explained how the lines become smaller and how there is a refinement process that occurs with the artwork. And then he said that’s what he didn’t want to happen with Maus – that the refinement process created a distance between the reader and the maker. He said that he wanted it to feel like a diary – that he wanted the mark he made to be the mark you see. (more…)

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Comedy Minus Time


Thursday, December 2, 2010

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“The overwhelming part about tragedy is the element of hopelessness, of inevitability.”

—J.A. Cuddon, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms

In his 1987 essay “What’s so Funny about the Comics?” (reprinted in Comics as Culture), the scholar M. Thomas Inge defends the validity of the term “comics,” despite the fact that so many of the art form’s admirers express resentment for the pejorative connotations of that name, by basically claiming that the term is literally true, and implies very strongly that all comics are comedies.

He accomplishes this primarily by appealing to a fairly broad definition of comedy:

Not all things “comic” are necessarily funny or laughable. Comedy implies an attitude towards life, an attitude that trusts in man’s potential for redemption and salvation, as in Dante’s Divine Comedy or Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Since comic strips always conclude with resolutions in favor of morality and a trust in the larger scheme of truth and justice, they too affirm a comic view of the social and universal order. While Krazy Kat and Smokey Stover may appear absurd, they do not reflect on the world around them as being irrational or devoid of meaning, as in the drama of the absurd. Comic art is supportive, affirmative, and rejects notions of situational ethics or existential despair.


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Interviews and Autodidacts Notebook


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

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Gil Kane, an artist whose interviews are always worth reading.

A notebook on comics interviews and autodidacts:

Autodidacts. I often think William Blake is the prototype for many modern cartoonists. Blake was a working class visionary who taught himself Greek and Hebrew, an autodidact who created his own cosmology which went against the grain of the dominant Newtonian/Lockean worldview of his epoch. The world of comics has had many such ad hoc theorists and degree-less philosophers: Burne Hogarth, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter, Lynda Barry, Howard Chaykin, Chester Brown, Dave Sim, Alan Moore. These are all freelance scholars who are willing to challenge expert opinion with elaborately developed alternative ideas. The results of their theorizing are mixed. On the plus side: you can learn more about art history by listening to Gary Panter and Art Spiegelman talk than from reading a shelf-full of academic books; Robert Crumb’s Genesis deserves to be seen not just as an important work of art but also a significant commentary on the Bible; Lynda Barry’s ideas about creativity strike me as not just true but also profound and life-enhancing. On the negative side: Dave Sim’s forays into gender analysis have not, um, ah, been, um, very fruitful; and while Neal Adams drew a wicked cool Batman, I’m not willing to give credence to his theories of an expanding earth if it means rejecting the mainstream physics of the last few centuries. Sorry Neal!


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Speaking of Spiegelman


Friday, April 16, 2010

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Adorno: theorist of art and atrocity.

Since Art Spiegelman’s name has come up lately in Comics Comics, I wanted to point readers to my recent Walrus piece on “the Holocaust novel.” The essay covers a lot of ground — T.W. Adorno, Natalie Portman, Yan Martel, Anne Frank, Samuel Beckett, Irving Howe, Hugh Kenner — and also touches on the comics of Spiegelman and George Herriman. You can read the essay here.

And here is a taste of the opening:

Few hypothetical scenarios are harder to imagine than a conversation between Theodor Adorno and Natalie Portman. Adorno was the highbrow’s highbrow, the sage Thomas Mann turned to for advice while writing Doctor Faustus, the friend and long-time correspondent of Walter Benjamin, the champion of astringent creators like Arnold Schoenberg, the relentless foe of jazz and Hollywood, the mercilessly pessimistic Marxist critic of modernity whose “negative dialectic” has enriched thousands of scholarly studies. Portman is perhaps best known for her turn as Queen Padmé Amidala in the more mediocre of the two Star Wars trilogies.

Yet on the subject of the Holocaust, Adorno and Portman, both of Jewish heritage, might have found some common ground. In a typically dense 1949 essay titled “Cultural Criticism and Society,” Adorno — a refugee from Nazi Germany who had lost the world of his youth to the Nazi genocide — bluntly declared that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Arguably, Portman is not as deep a thinker as Adorno (who died in 1969, twelve years before the actress was born), but the starlet has been impressively educated at Harvard and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Interviewed by the Daily Mail earlier this year, she complained, “I get like twenty Holocaust scripts a month, but I hate the genre.”

Despite their shared discomfort with Holocaust art, an enormous historical and cultural gulf separates Adorno’s statement from Portman’s…

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Jews and American Comics from Another Angle


Friday, April 16, 2010

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A great deal of ink has been spilled in recent years on the subject of Jews and comics: Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Paul Buhle’s Jews and American Comics, along with many other books and articles.

Anyone interested in the topic who is Toronto will want to attend the Toronto Jewish Film Festival next week, which has a special program on Jews and comics. Among the guests who will speak are Ben Katchor, Harvey Pekar, and Paul Buhle (who is that rarest of things, a goyim who is fluent in Yiddish).  

Here is a new angle on the subject: I think writers have been too quick to assume that the Jewish immigrant community, which was very divided on ethnic and class lines, was monolithic.

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Kwik Kwotes


Thursday, April 15, 2010

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I think that I can seriously say there are many different types of fiction out there, one of them is the heroic, and Art Spiegelman has no sympathy for the heroic, so I have no sympathy for Art Spiegelman.

Frank Miller, defending caped crusaders last weekend at MoCCA.

I don’t know about this heroic business; I like superhero comics mostly for the art.

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Against Purity in Comics (and everywhere else)


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

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A Comics Studies Reader, an anthology of comics criticism and scholarship edited by Kent Worcester and myself, has just won the 2009 Peter C. Rollins Book Award. The Award is given annually to the best book in Cultural Studies and/or American Studies. I’m very proud of the Reader, both for the work Kent and I put into it and also for the quality of the contributors (who include Art Spiegelman, Ariel Dorfman, and Anne Rubenstein).

I thought it might be interesting to give a concrete example of how the Reader might illuminate the broader conversation about comics, held not just but academics but also by cartoonists, journalists, fans, and free-lance intellectuals.

In The Comics Journal #300, there is an interesting conversation about the idea of “pure comics” where Art Spiegelman and Kevin Huizenga thrash out the possible meaning (or meaninglessness) of the term. Here is an excerpt:

Art and I haven’t talked about it before, but, briefly, it was this: Art referred to both Harvey Kurtzman and George Herriman as examples of pure cartooning or pure cartoonists, and you [Kevin Huizenga] expressed skepticism at the idea of “pure” cartooning.

At the time I had received this exhibition catalog of the Krazy! exhibition. There was a couple times in that book where you [Spiegelman] referred to something as “pure comics.” I wrote a quick blog entry about how I have an issue with the whole concept of purity. Whenever someone starts talking about purity, I always take notice, because it’s one of my pet peeves. In the time since I’ve written that entry, I’ve realized that obviously you don’t think that there’s such a thing as “pure comics.” I mean, you’re the guy who talked about the whole concept of mix, “co-mix,” with an X. So it’s not that I think that you have this idea of “purity,” it was more just that in that exhibition catalog you use “pure comics” a few times and I used that to as a springboard to sound off.

I think, if I was trying to parse my words better, I would have called it essential cartooning, maybe, rather than pure. There’s not like, “Oh, and I don’t like the impure stuff.” But, to me, the essence of comics is a little bit like what we were talking about just a minute ago when we were talking about an architecture. It has more to do with things that aren’t like anything else that are the essential aspect of what makes it itself.

As it happens, in the Reader, there is an essay by the distinguished literary theorist W.J.T. Mitchell which takes up this very issue of purity in comics. Mitchell argues that no art form is “pure”, that all media are mixed media. I think Mitchell’s arguments are congruent with Huizenga’s sense of things. Here is an excerpt from Mitchell:

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Tim Talks Towers


Thursday, December 31, 2009

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Our own Tim talks In the Shadow of No Towers over at Comics Reporter. It’s a great read.

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Notes on the Midwestern School of Comics


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

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The Comics Journal 300 carries a conversation between Kevin Huizenga and Art Spiegelman. During the course of the interview, Kevin brings up the idea of a Midwester school of cartooning, something that I’ve discussed in various essays on Little Orphan Annie and Gasoline Alley. The conversation goes like this:

Huizenga:In one of the recent Annie reprints, Jeet Heer talks in the introduction about this idea of a Midwestern, or Chicago school of cartooning that was more preoccupied with everyday life and the quiet rhythms of everyday life. The style was quieter and more repetitive. I think you can definitely see how Ware fits in that tradition, and also he’s called more attention to that kind of cartooning. Visually, it might look boring, at first, to some people, but it’s a form that’s fitted to content. What they’re doing is comics about mundane things like talking to your wife, or whatever — the “little things.”
Spiegelman:I guess. But I think rather than just Midwest, I would make it Protestant, you know. Like they don’t have those ornate crucifixions.
Huizenga:I have those two strikes against me, I guess, here. [Laughter.]
Spiegelman:It’s definitely suspicious of ornament and exuberance…

A few points can be added to this discussion. I elaborate one what I mean by the Midwestern comics tradition in an interview with Tom Spurgeon in the Comics Reporter, where I talk about this school of art and how it links together Harold Gray and Chester Brown. Here’s a relevant part of that interview:

The geography of rural Illinois left a strong mark on Gray’s imagination, as can be seen if he’s compared to his Wisconsin-born colleague Frank King. In King’s work, the country-side is always rolling and sloping, with cars constantly sputtering up hills or flowing down valleys. In the early Little Orphan Annie strips, by contrast, once our heroine leaves the city, the countryside is as flat as a quilt spread out on a bed, each acre of farmland its own perfect square, with stacks of hay and isolated silos the only protrusions on the land. The flatness of the prairies, the prostrate manner in which the horizon spreads out as far as the eye can see, spoke to something deep in Gray’s imagination: it perhaps explains his sense of the isolation of human existence, the persistent feeling of loneliness his characters complain of, and their commensurate need to reach out to Annie and create strong (although temporary) families, with the orphan as their child.

Brown of course didn’t grow up in the prairies, which are the setting for Louis Riel. His childhood was spent in the very different landscape of Quebec. But I do think that appropriating Gray’s style helped Chester capture the landscape of western Canada, especially the flatness and isolation of the region. I do think there is a tradition of mid-western cartooning, a family tree that is rooted in John T. McCutcheon and extends to Clare Briggs, Harold Gray, Frank King (with a crazy branch that includes the grotesque approach of Chester Gould and Boody Rodgers). The latest branch of this tree is the alternative comics of Chris Ware, Ivan Brunetti, and Kevin Huizenga. Brown is interesting because he’s not from the mid-west at all, in fact is not even an American, but has absorbed the aesthetics of this

A few other points:

1. Spiegelman is on to something when he says that this is a Protestant tradition. What I’d say is that the tradition of Midwestern comics brings together various strands: partially regional tradition of vernacular, low-key literature (the line of George Ade, Sherwood Anderson, Ring Lardner) with its focus on small town life, partially from the low church Protestant tradition of plainness, partially out of the Chicago Tribune’s populist stance. So I prefer the more expansive term Midwestern cartooning, which seems to bring most of these things together. But perhaps we could also say that this is Midwestern Wasp cartooning?

2. If we were doing a genealogy of ideas, credit for the concept of Midwestern catooning should go to Gilbert Seldes, who talked about the “Chicago school” in his 1924 book The 7 Lively Arts. In the 1980s, Richard Marschall revived the idea of Midwestern cartooning in a few scattered essays in Nemo magazine. I’ve tried to give a third life to the idea by linking up the great Chicago Tribune cartoonists of the 1920s with their modern counterparts like Ware and Huizenga.

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