Co-Mix Shows Spiegelman to be an Amazingly Versatile, Adaptable Artist

“Co-Mix” / Vue Weekly / Kenton Smith / November 21, 2013

Had he not produced a certain landmark graphic novel concerning genocide and anthropomorphic animals, Art Spiegelman's cultural influence would remain ubiquitous: he also designed the hugely popular Garbage Pail Kids stickers in the '80s.

Thankfully, Spiegelman is perhaps most renowned for the 1986 Maus, a personal Holocaust memoir that famously depicted Nazis as cats and Jews as mice and won a 1992 Pulitzer Prize—a feat comics have yet to repeat. Nonetheless, the critical respectability the medium resultantly earned means they're now regularly written up in the likes of The New Yorker, among others. Comics may still occupy a farther position among concentric literary circles, but progress was made.

Co-Mix, a new Spiegelman career retrospective featuring strips, cartoons and cover designs among other work, was first presented as an exhibition in 2012. Handsomely designed yet without intimidating density or gloss, it's relatively accessible to even comic novices—though is perhaps better appreciated if one is acquainted with not merely the Garbage Pail Kids but, say, Maus. Which is to say everything that watershed helped usher into the comics mainstream from then to now. For unquestionably, Spiegelman's most popular work was a formative step towards the personal meta-narrative characterizing many adult-oriented, “alternative” comics today.

Of near-equal importance was the comics anthology RAW, edited and published by Spiegelman and wife Francoise Mouly—The New Yorker's longtime art editor—from 1980 to 1991, which first showcased now-equally iconic artists like Chris Ware (Building Stories). Though we're shown Spiegelman's earlier experiments towards the same end, the book credits Mouly with pushing him decisively towards embracing innovations from the fine-art world.

Thus Co-Mix is also something of a retrospective on the entire evolution of comics over the last 30-odd years—though Spiegelman himself would likely (and rightly) insist that he was hardly the sole or original engine of change. Still, his considerable standing has lent great weight to his longtime efforts, where comics are concerned, to break down notions of high and low art.

Looking at Spiegelman's own artistic output, the postmodern is paramount, his work explicitly referencing and commenting upon his medium's history. He produced comics about comics, as in a RAW strip demonstrating the effective difference between captions and speech balloons. And with tributes to Charles M Schulz of Peanuts fame and Mad magazine creator Harvey Kurtzman, for which he imitated their distinctive styles, he made the postmodern personal, expressing as much his own experience of their work.

Spiegelman took much inspiration from Kurtzman, who in Mad parodied, and thus critiqued, comics in largely unprecedented fashion. What Spiegelman ultimately pursued, however, was to demonstrate what was unique to his medium, so long misunderstood as an inimitable art form.

Surprisingly, the book also asks: could Spiegelman draw? The artist himself thought not, as confessed, characteristically, through his work. No wonder he laboured on each drawing for Maus, the obsessively re-worked sketches for which we see in detail, with seven studies for one particular panel.

Even former Village Voice film critic J Hoberman puzzlingly declares in the introduction that Spiegelman is a “limited” artist, his gift being design—as if adept drawing and adept design were essentially different in comics. In fact, the book shows Spiegelman to be an amazingly versatile, adaptable artist, his wide range of stylistic approach reflective of his mastery.

For that matter, Co-Mix also showcases his interest in visual art beyond comics, his having also dabbled in lithography, stained glass and even visual design for modern dance. Spiegelman, we see, had an at least equal gift for rattling the divisions between artistic possibilities.

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