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Art Spiegelman: Art Mirrors Man

Published on
March 13

I was never a big fan of comics. Growing up, I would occasionally read the Sunday "funnies" (often a bit of a misnomer, if you ask me), but I never read any of the comic books or graphic novels that many other kids my age read. I’m not really sure why I largely ignored this genre – maybe I just didn’t take it seriously, even at that young age. After I saw the extraordinary new musical “Fun Home,” however, I was so enthralled by its story that I went out and bout the graphic novel on which it was based. I read it quickly, as well as its sequel. I was hooked. The comic medium can be so much more than corny three-panel jokes and two-dimension characters. In the right hands, it can create extraordinarily powerful works of literature and art.

I had the amazing opportunity to visit the Jewish Museum’s exhibition “Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective" before it closes on March 23rd. Art Spiegelman is best known for creating the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, widely recognized as a modern classic, an important milestone in the development of the graphic novel as a serious style of writing (and, as I have already implied, something which I am ashamed to admit I had never read prior to coming to this exhibit). But Spiegelman has had an extremely prolific life beyond Maus, drawing “comix,” as he refers to them, for organizations ranging from Topps Bubble Gum to The New Yorker. As someone who had only ever associated Spiegelman with Maus, I was surprised to discover how bawdy some of his earlier works were – including a clever pair of comixs showing the simultaneous and contradictory conversations between a man and a woman’s top halves, “Jack and Jane,” and their bottom halves, “Rod and Randy”. Many of them also cleverly used the medium of comics to their advantage – one character laments that he always disappears in between panels; in another comic, police searching for a man on the run are told to “Try panel 4”. The silence of the exhibition would occasionally be interrupted by loud chuckles. I especially enjoyed a large multi-chapter comic about a “midget detective”, full of funny quips like, “This case was breaking open faster than a teenager’s face!” After the detective kills the villain, a large man with a potato for a head, Spiegelman writes right under the villain’s death panel that if readers are interested in more stories about the villain, that can be arranged: they must simply mail a potato to his address.

The center of the exhibition is focused on the Maus series. Both works are presented in their entirety – while Maus was presented on one large poster, making it difficult to read each page closely, Maus II was presented in a rectangle of glass cases. I spent over an hour in that rectangle, and could have easily stayed longer. It is quite a powerful work – capturing not only the horrors that Spiegelman's father experienced at Auschwitz, but also the process of creating the work itself and the lingering guilt that Spiegelman himself feels. While I knew that the Maus series would be intense, it was made even more so by the fact that many of the comics that preceded it were so funny and lewd. Instead of the laughter in the first section of the exhibit, the silence here was cut by a powerful recording of one of Spiegelman’s interviews with his father, which he used while writing these works. This work is a deeply personal one for Spiegelman, and its creation exhausted him physically and emotionally. Though I have learned a lot about the Holocaust myself, seeing such a private and horrific story in such a medium gave it a new emotional weight. The effects of the Holocaust are still present and extremely relevant today, and affect even those of us who did not live through it ourselves in powerful ways. As Spiegelman both writes and demonstrates in these works, “Maybe everyone has to feel guilty. Everyone! Forever!”

Despite (or perhaps in spite of) the great success and recognition he received for Maus, Spiegelman did not want this work alone to define him. The exhibit concludes with a selection of more recent works, which continue to push Spiegelman’s artistic medium in new directions. In addition to his comixs, including a thought-provoking tribute to Charles Schultz and a collaboration with Maurice Sendak, Spiegelman also created several children’s books. I particularly enjoyed a very clever story, "Open Me... I'm a Dog!" about a book that actually thinks it is a dog, which Spiegelman described as “Magritte for beginners”. As recently as last year, Spiegelman collaborated with the dance troupe Pilobolus to create a fascinating multimedia work in which dancers in shadow interact and combine with large comic projections behind them. Spiegelman also created another powerful autobiographical work which I had never heard of before, In the Shadow of No Towers, a work arising from his feelings about witnessing, in person, the collapse of the Twin Towers. This retrospective really takes the viewer through the whole gamut of emotions and demonstrates the endless possibilities of the comic medium.

This exhibition is the first ever retrospective of Spiegelman’s substantial body of work, and it is certainly an impressive collection. Two hours in the exhibit went by in a minute – I could have easily spent the whole afternoon among these works if I didn’t have to make it back for class. Spiegelman notes that the word “Spiegel” is German for “mirror”; therefore his name is actually a sentence: “Art Mirrors Man.” Spiegelman’s work really does hold a mirror up to humanity, revealing both its hilarities and its travesties. And though comics may not yet be universally appreciated as a serious medium, Spiegelman’s oeuvre shows that it truly is art, in the highest sense of the word.  

Image Credits: 

Top Left: Art Spiegelman; Ace Hole, Midget Detective, 1974

Right: Art Spiegelman; Maus II - A Survivor's Tale - And Here My Troubles Began, 1992

Bottom Left: Art Spiegelman; In the Shadow of No Towers, 2004; from cmes.hmdc.harvard.edu