In the early ’90s, still a Snarky Young Man, the cartoonist Daniel Clowes used his series Eightball to serialize the misadventures of Dan Pussey, a serene fool who wants nothing more than to work on industrial-scale superhero pamphlets, and gets his wish. The ridicule of the comics industry was ecumenical. During one strip, Pussey falls under the influence of Gummo Bubbleman, who runs a “moderne, avant-garde, neoexpressodeconstructivist compendium of kommix,” mostly by forcing the captive artists in his loft to produce meaningless scrawls — a caricatured Art Spiegelman, co-editor at the radically formalist comics magazine RAW and frequent consultant for Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. Clowes’ satirical fraud, with his lank ribbon of hair, was funny but self-refuting. Why would an obscurantist high-culture mandarin bother creating the Garbage Pail Kids? Jacques Lacan, alas, never contributed to Métal Hurlant.
According to In Love with Art, Jeet Heer’s new monograph about Françoise Mouly — who before restoring visual spontaneity to The New Yorker created and published RAW alongside her husband, albeit while receiving little of the credit or spite — Clowes came to change his opinion: “My negative reaction was based purely on feelings of pre-emptive rejection … knowing there was this club I wanted so badly to join, but lacked the skills to do so.”
He was hardly the only artist to feel alienated from an imagined RAW house style. Spiegelman is one of the most elusive great cartoonists, in certain traditionalist terms not even a great cartoonist at all. The kindest way to describe his drawing would be utilitarian. Maus, the anthropomorphic Holocaust tale, somewhat unfairly overshadows everything else in his brief personal bibliography. But a more expansive notion of “cartoonist,” one akin to a political tendency or aesthetic orientation, would recognize Spiegelman’s indiscriminate achievements as editor, historian, teacher, advocate and critic. It might resemble the perspective adopted by Co-Mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics, and Scraps (cataloguing the exhibition of the same name), giving half a century of experiments their dissatisfied context.
Spiegelman came up in the Nixon-era underground comics scene, but his taste for the scenery was brief. The early strips collected here, full of contrived surrealism and second-hand scatology, demonstrate how quickly the movement’s putative transgression slackened into genre conventions, no less boyish and regressive than Marvel or DC’s: desultory violence, naked female hippies, the tragic results of mixing acid with Lewis Carroll. Even then, he displayed an unusual interest in the medium’s history. “Pluto’s Retreat,” which found a home in the wonderfully named Bizarre Sex, imagines the comics pantheon getting un-canonical at an after-hours club: “I had the most incredible wet dream!” attests Little Nemo. Spiegelman began to feel the freedom of the underground should be used more ambitiously, and in the mid-’70s, with Bill Griffith, he launched Arcade, printing the magazine-shaped anthology on quality paper and gingerly attempting editorial guidance; they induced Robert Crumb, for example, to set his sexual neuroses aside and try more essayistic work.
The Arcade project was a commercial failure, but it only dragged Spiegelman’s comics further towards avant-garde formalism. He managed to jiu-jitsu his limitations into agility: If his line was indistinct, then it would be chameleonic, adapting techniques from modern art and experimental filmmaking. He drew on comics history to make it unfamiliar again. “Nervous Rex: The Malpractice Suite” pasted images from a melodramatic medical strip into distorted, distended surroundings. Work and Turn is a Tijuana bible as rendered by Picasso, all tumbling cubist shapes. This was the editorial ethos that Mouly and Spiegelman brought to RAW, assembling purposely dissonant contributors — Joost Swarte’s line claire minimalism, Lynda Barry’s philosophical quasi-diaries, Gary Panter using his ink and paper like a flame-thrower against jungle — underneath covers that belonged on a wall, and were sturdy enough for it.
The flagship piece serialized in RAW turned out to be Spiegelman’s own. What more could Co-Mix say about Maus? It’s been cited by the Pulitzer Prize committee and a vastly higher number of academics than any other comic. Two years ago the author published a companion text called MetaMaus. But the preliminary material included here reveals how much he laboured over that biographical memoiristic historical non-fiction novel. Neurologically deprived of depth perception, Spiegelman’s process was slow and deliberate, creating numerous sketches for each page and study after study of every individual panel. (In a later collaboration with Maurice Sendak, his avatar admits: “I do maybe 20 sketches for every finish, all with the insecure dread that people will find out my dirty secret: I can’t draw!”) He would tweak compositions down to the subtlest details, trying to refine the effect he wanted. It challenges the critique that his Jewish-mice-and-German-cats conceit inadvertently retraced Nazi essentialism (and indeed he appears more than once as a rodent-masked human, implying the iconography’s artifice). Spiegelman knew precisely what he was doing. Reducing the Holocaust’s perpetrators, victims and descendants to recognizably primal symbols, semiotic letter blocks, he conveyed its full inhumanity.
There is such a thing as excess context. Co-Mix’s treatment of the post-Maus work, which includes family vignettes, children’s books, dance commissions, New Yorker covers, pictorial essays, an illustrated narrative poem and stained-glass windows, should’ve been more focused than Spiegelman himself. Why lavish space on lithograph curios when the RAW archives extend so much deeper? Still, it’s striking how many of them, of all his comics, were made in collaboration with others. Maus uses the autobiographical mode to tell the story of another person, his controlling, traumatized Auschwitz-survivor father Vladek. The ungainly 9/11 monologue In the Shadow of No Towers closes by reproducing pages from the early-20th-century newspaper strips that inspired it. And so often, across whatever projects, there’s Françoise Mouly, agonizing about colouring or pushing Spiegelman to take up her idea for a new kind of comics magazine. For long decades the archetypal cartoonist was (invariably) a man hunched (always) in hermetic monomania over their drafting board. Spiegelman lined his wastebasket with crumpled archetypes.