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The Uncivil Servant: Art Spiegelman at the Jewish Museum

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December 8, 2013
by Mitchell Abidor 20130115230821!Art_Spiegelman_-_Maus_(1972)_page_1_panel_3MORE THAN FORTY YEARS have passed since the first incarnation of Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust-themed graphic novel Maus appeared in 1972, in Funny Animals. Later, when he embarked on the two-volume work we’ve come to know, he said that he wanted to make “a very long comic book that needs a bookmark and would be worth rereading.” Few writers have so fully realized their intention, as the book and its sequel, Maus II, have remained in print ever since their initial publication in 1986 and 1991. Although R. Crumb had already changed the face of comic books, it was Spiegelman, with his novelistic talents applied to the graphic form, who opened the doors to the long-form graphic novel for artists such as Marjane Satrapi and her Persepolis and Chris Ware and his Building Stories. A retrospective of Spiegelman’s career is long overdue, and the show currently on exhibition at the Jewish Museum, “Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix, A Retrospective” provides us with a chance to see the development of Speigelman’s work from his teen years to the present, with its shifts but also the deep continuities. It’s a show that succeeds in being exhaustive without being exhausting. ShortOrderComix02-1-35LIKE SO MANY comic artists, Spiegelman discovered his vocation early, and his teen works, heavily influenced by Crumb and the ambient drug and hippie culture, have aged as badly as most work of that period. (One flower child piece has a character saying, “Play with your own cells and become your own food,” whatever that might mean.) But he was also influenced by Jules Feiffer, as we can see in samples from his Harpur College days, and produced audacious early works that he described as being “the result of my wrestling match with cubism.” In the 1970s we see him producing comic strips with elements of other strips pasted onto his panels, as in “Malpractice Suite,” where he incorporates panels from “Rex Morgan , MD” In 1974’s “Ace Hole Midget Detective,” Picasso makes an appearance, as does a character from one of his comic gods, Winsor McKay. Spiegelman has his pantheon, and McKay’s strange Little Nemo dream cartoons rank high within it. (McKay’s work would appear in reprint in Raw, the magazine Spiegelman edited from 1980 to 1991.) But it is all of comic history that makes itself felt in this retrospective. Spiegelman's 1990 “Lead Pipe Sunday” shows a woman’s dead body being swarmed over by classic comic characters of the past, including Snuffy Smith, Dick Tracy, Nancy, and Mickey Mouse. The panel is explained as follows: "The bastard offspring of Art and Commerce murder their parents and go off on a Sunday outing.” In his 2004 World Trade Center book, In the Shadow of No Towers, Spiegelman also used the heroes of comics past. On the endpapers, their silhouettes fall earthward after leaping from the burning buildings. It was these characters, Spiegelman said, who provided him with solace in the days after the 9/11 attacks. Spiegelman is, in fact, our greatest living historian and custodian of comic book history, lore and artistic styles. Nothwithstanding his own dark view of human character, he even wrote a strip in honor of Charles Schulz upon his retirement from writing Peanuts. Spiegelman recognized just how brilliantly Schulz applied the lessons in pacing and brevity learned from past artists, and noted that, “of course, he was always more a philosopher than a journalist.” Also singled out by Spiegelman for praise is Harvey Kurtzman of Mad magazine, about whom he wrote in a moving 1993 strip that “I think Harvey’s Mad was more important than pot and LSD in shaping the generation that protested the Vietnam War.” Like what you're reading?A visit with Maurice Sendak allows Spiegelman to reveal the vision of childhood that the author of Where the Wild Things Are had, a vision we can’t help but feel Spiegelman shares: “Childhood is cannibals and psychotics vomiting in your mouth.” THE DARKNESS that inhabits Maus was always present in Spiegelman’s work, as we see in a strip that emotionally parallels the anomie of Ben Katchor's work. In “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” which we are told should be read “to the accompaniment of a faucet dripping slowly,” a character sits alone in a room, his cable bill paid for three months in advance, with old Life magazines for reading material, and an empty refrigerator and a dripping faucet. And that’s the strip. Nothing is spared Spiegelman's bleakness: the happiness of his marriage to Françoise Mouly is displayed in “A Slice of Life with Art and Françoise,” in which Spiegelman’s French wife says, “I weesh I waire dead,” to which Spiegelman responds, “You will be. You’ll have worms crawling in you.” Garbage Pail Kids_page 48Not all is death and solitude, though. Spiegelman worked for many years for Topps cards, designing and drawing "Garbage Pail Kids" cards, a gross and grotesque response to the Cabbage Patch Kids fad of the 1980s. Yes, it is the same man who wrote Maus who drew a round-faced Uncle Sam Garbage Pail Kid sticking his finger up his nose. The centerpiece of the show, of course, are the Maus books, and the displays dedicated to them are worth the (steep) price of admission. The gestation of the tale of his father Vladek’s experience of the Holocaust, in which the Jews are mice, the Germans cats, and the Poles pigs, is brilliantly laid out, with every page of both books on display, along with drafts, sketches and drawings, notebooks, documentary material (including his parents’ entry records for Auschwitz), drafts of the texts for the balloons, and, perhaps most endearingly, a tiny stuffed mouse used as a model. Playing on a loop in the hallway are the tapes of the conversations between Art and Vladek Spiegelman, the basis for these two classics. Listening to them, we can hear how skillful Spiegelman was in communicating the Polish-Jewish voice of his father, a man he loved and who exasperated him beyond words, and about whom he produced an unequaled masterpiece. Aside from being his first lengthy work, the drawing style of Maus also marked something of a departure for Spiegelman. In an explanatory text the artist says that he sought a drawing style that was “somewhere between the intimacy of handwriting and the clarity of typography.” The show winds down on an ironic note. Now with two children, Art Spiegelman who played such a key role in making comics a respectable, adult form, has taken to also writing children’s’ books in an effort to prove that “comics are not just for grown-ups anymore.” Art Spiegelman's Co-Mix: A Retrospective at the Jewish Museum runs until March 23, 2014. Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the translator and editor of the forthcoming anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender, as well as the first English translation of Jean Jaurès’ Socialist History of the French Revolution, which will be published by Pluto Press in 2015.