For our Artists Bookshelf initiative we asked select artists on the season to share 5-10 books that have had a lasting impact. Graphic novelist and all-around creative philosopher Art Spiegelman took a slightly different approach and wrote us this wonderful treatise which we will share in its entirety here.
Art (left) with Phillip Johnston. Photo by Sarah Shatz.
Art will be performing in Royce Hall October 15 as part of WORDLESS! with composer Phillip Johnston.
- The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West
The greatest “cartoon” novel I ever read, populated by grotesques and stereotypes, but (or therefore?) drilling into the heart of the human condition. It’s a seriously hilarious work drenched in alienation and despair, written during Great Depression I (1939), and focused on the losers and lowlife on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. It uses Hollywood as a metonym for an America populated by “innocent” monsters, and ends—spoiler alert!—with Armageddon. Sentence for sentence The Day of the Locust is one of the most beautiful books I ever read, and one of the most visual—as in this description of our protagonist, Tod Hackett, a hack Hollywood set painter, washing his hands: “He got out of bed in sections, like a poorly made automaton, and carried his hands into the bathroom. He turned on the cold water. When the basin was full, he plunged his hands in up to the wrists. They lay quietly on the bottom like a pair of strange aquatic animals. When they were thoroughly chilled and began to crawl about, he lifted them out and hid them in a towel.”
(With new books precipitously piling up around me like kipple*, I don’t reread novels as often asI’d like—a pity, considering that with my rapidly fading memory, I could save a lotta dough rereading all the ones I’ve got—but I still re-dip into this short novel every few years. The only book I’ve compulsively returned to more often is….)
- The Complete Dramatic Works of Samuel Beckett
If I was more rigorous, I’d have limited myself to Godot (the first Beckett play I read and the one most cited by people who never read Beckett) or maybe Endgame, but—happy days!—this set includes Happy Days, Krapp’s Last Tape and all the rest. Beckett’s floridly minimalist and precise language is so deadpan funny and wise it makes me sob. A couple of years back, facing a brain operation and fretting more than usual about mortality, I realized I was too confirmed an atheist to have any sort of deathbed conversion so I steeped myself in his writings (the Molloy trilogy as well as the plays) and realized I indeed had Religion: I’m a devout member of the Church of the Absurd.
(And speaking of holy texts….)
- The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, edited by Bill Blackbeard & Martin Williams
We now live in a golden age of comics reprints that includes enough beautiful multi-volume collections of Little Nemo, Krazy Kat, Gasoline Alley, Dick Tracy Peanuts, et al to break any library’s budget and bookshelves—but this 1977 anthology of the first 60 or so years of newspaper strips was seminal. Bill Blackbeard was a peerless connoisseur, collector, and scholar of comic who curated this inspiring collection of lost treasures, a book so essential to understanding my medium that a number of my closest cartooning cronies simply refer to it as ‘The Book’.
- Inside Mad, edited, written and laid out by Harvey Kurtzman
This 1955 paperback collection of Harvey Kurtzman’s early issues of Mad (back when the no wailing magazine was still a comic book) is the very first book I read that changed my life. I was seven or eight and, if nothing else, it doomed me into aspiring to become a cartoonist. (The cartoonists who collaborated with Kurtzman—a genius cartoonist in his own right—all seemed to draw with pens manically overflowing with seratonin rather than india ink!) Mad also changed the life of America. Kurtzman’s self-referential anarchy may get taken for granted now, but he held up a cracked mirror that told the truth about a then Very Bland and Monolithic American culture. For better or worse, Harvey Kurtzman made literary irony mainstream. Without Mad there’d be no generation that grew up to protest the Vietnam War; nor the one that at least tried to Occupy Wall Street; no Simpsons or Colbert Report or Daily Show…. and certainly there could’ve been noMaus without Mickey Rodent!
- This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, by Tadeusz Borowski
Tadeusz Borowski was a Polish poet and journalist, a non-Jewish Communist prisoner in Auschwitz, who committed suicide in 1951 by sticking his head in a kitchen oven. His short stories, strikingly written even in translation, are seen through the eyes of a brutalized and brutalizing kapo, whose wide-open eyes are a camera, and whose emotions are clamped shut. It’s as if a less romantic and sentimental Raymond Chandler had lived through Auschwitz.
In the decade or more that I fully immersed in the grim world of “Holocaust Lit” in order to turn my father’s memories into comics panels, I couldn’t wrap my brain around the oxymoron of daily life in a death-camp until I found this book. If, as Franz Kafka once wrote, “a book must be an icepick to break the sea frozen inside us,” then Tadeusz Borowkski’s book of short stories is the volume that broke me the most.
Also in my top five are
—Kafka’s collected stories
—and Nabokov’s Lolita (as well as his Pale Fire)
—and Portnoy’s Complaint
—and maybe a collection of Harvey Kurtzman’s anti-war (or at least Humanist) War comics of the 1950s to show the flipside of that artist’s furshlugginer genius. (“Corpse on the Imjin” and Other Stories was published by Fantagraphics in 2012)
—and definitely the two-volume compilation of Lynd Ward’s six woodcut novels published by The Library of America that has an introduction I wrote that catalyzed the Wordless! performance at Royce Hall on October 15th (which occasioned the UCLA library’s request for this list.)
(At the moment I’m reading book on elementary math so I might to learn to count to five with greater accuracy….)
—art spiegelman, 2014