Art Spiegelman does not want people to think of him as a creep.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Maus: A survivor’s tale is referring to the oft-asked question of whether he will write another graphic novel.
Spiegelman demurs and borrowing from Voltaire, says, “Once a philosopher, twice a pervert.”
So, though it is unlikely Spiegelman will craft another epic, what he is willing to offer the packed room at the University of Calgary is some insight into comic books and the creators who influenced him.
Comics have always “been a tug-of-war between the vulgar and the genteel. I’m not here to champion the vulgar, I’m here to champion the tug-of-war,” begins Spiegelman’s What the %@&*! Happened to Comics? lecture.
“For me, they were my first window into American culture when my immigrant parents couldn’t clue me in,” adding “They are something that burns their way into your brain through your eyes.” To emphasize this point, Spiegelman displays the cover of Mister Mystery #12, which depicts a red-hot poker poised to pierce the bloodshot eye of some unfortunate soul.
“I learned to read trying to figure out if Batman was a good guy or bad guy. I learned about sex from Archie, feminism from Little Lulu, philosophy from Peanuts, and ethics from MAD Magazine,” he continues.
But Spiegelman’s insight into his influences does not stop with this handful of pop culture ‘vulgarities’. Toward the more refined end of the spectrum Spiegelman name checks Wilhelm Busch, Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland and the woodcuts of Lynd Ward before again tugging back to Bernie Krigstein’s Master Race story from EC’s Impact #1 and finally Robert Crumb.
“I still look up to Crumb,” says Spiegelman, who describes himself as a “hanger on” of the underground comics movement of the 1970s for which Crumb was the poster boy.
One surprising figure from the comic book battleground Spiegelman acknowledges is Dr. Fredric Wertham. Citing Wertham’s claim that images of naked women could be found in the lines of seemingly innocuous drawings if one looked hard enough taught him to “look at pictures very carefully.”
All kidding aside, Spiegelman seems to be part of the growing movement to, if not defend Wertham, at least reassess his motives for claiming comic books were a bad influence on children. Spiegelman calls Wertham a more interesting individual than people give him credit for. But for his defense of Wertham, Spiegelman makes clear that he believes the resulting Comics Code Authority harmed the business and left readers with boring insipid books where good always defeated evil and more nuance and mature themes could be found in funny animal books than in any other genre.
Wertham was not the only aspect of comic history Spiegelman touches on in his presentation. During the short time he had, Spiegelman managed to give a brief account of the Yellow Kid wars between Hearst and Pulitzer, the decline of sales after World War II, comic book burnings in Binghamton, New York and the rise of the graphic novel. Familiar territory for most fans of the medium but enlightening for those who may have began and ended their exposure to comics with Maus.
But Spiegelman does not just dwell on the past glories and indignities of the comic industry. The man who, along with Will Eisner, helped bring graphic novels mainstream acceptance feels the medium is finally beginning to come into its own.
“We think in icons, we think in abstract cartoony language, in bursts of language that might fit inside a word balloon. We are a sign making culture,” he says.
What better medium than the comic book or graphic novel to reach today’s youth who absorb their culture in 140 characters or less?
Despite book sales being down and chains declaring bankruptcy, Spiegelman says comics are still doing well. Maybe more true in the case of graphic novels than for monthlies.
Spiegelman believes that the good figures are due to the fact that graphic novels have enthusiastically taken advantage of the ‘book object’. That is, the large broadsheet format that affords a proper appreciation of the unification of art and words. As an example he points to his own In the Shadow of No Towers.
Add to this the number and quality of books being produced and Spiegelman says he feels optimistic that the medium will continue to thrive for the foreseeable future. Good news for an industry that seems to be struggling to redefine itself.
But are there any challenges facing creators of graphic novels? Yes. Spiegelman feels that the graphic novel still has some work to do in finding its nature, its voice.
Who knows, maybe Spiegelman will change his mind and help in this work and risk being labeled a pervert, or more likely, solidify his reputation as a master.