Art Spiegelman’s reputation doesn’t do him justice. Most people will recognize his name from his Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic novel Maus, a devastating, multi-layered account of the Holocaust. But Spiegelman produced iconic work before and after that work was published—though many people won’t have made the connections. He’s a shape-shifter, comfortable in many different styles and formats, so it’s easy to overlook the range of his accomplishments.
The retrospective of Spiegelman’s work now on at the AGO does a fine job of showcasing all the varied parts of his career, from his invention of the Garbage Pail Kids as a young graphic artist to his many memorable covers for the New Yorker later in life. But Spiegelman’s lecture “What the %@&*! Happened to Comics,” hosted by the Koffler Center of the Arts at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on January 26, dealt with an equally relevant aspect of his life’s work: namely, his advocacy for free speech in an age when cartoonists are being gunned down at their desks.
The talk began with a short introduction to the essence of the comic-book style, exemplified by the redacted expletive in the title: little abstract symbols that take on meaning because we invest them with meaning. Spiegelman asserts that comics are a “co-mix” of art and commerce—which seems like a coded way of saying that comics aren’t as pretentious as fine art (what art isn’t mixed with commerce?). The AGO exhibit is preoccupied with this aspect of his work, and the way he uses comics to blend high and low art.
But the most important thing about comics, in Spiegelman’s formulation, is that they get straight into the brain, moving faster than we can think about them. Comics are so condensed that we can understand them instantly, the way a baby recognizes the symbol of a smiley face before it can distinguish even its own mother’s face. And therein lies their power—and their threat.
Woven in with his broader history of the medium was Spiegelman’s story of his own love affair with comics. He described how he taught himself to read while trying to figure out if Batman was good or bad (“Maybe if I understand these words, I’ll find out,” he said), how he learned about sex from contemplating Betty and Veronica, and how he discovered philosophy fromPeanuts. Most important to his development, though, was Mad Magazine, which he says taught him about ethics, aesthetics, and everything else.
For him, Mad came as a revelation. “What Mad was saying was that the media and the whole damned adult world is lying to you,” Spiegelman explained, “and we here at Mad are part of the media.” That struck him as a heroically defiant stance—much more inspiring than the heroism displayed by the superheroes that have overwhelmed comic books for the last several decades.
But Spiegelman didn’t try to sanctify the art form by dwelling too long on his anti-establishment role models. He turned quickly to Nazi propaganda and its use of anti-Semitic cartooning, tracing the recurring association of Jews with rats. “It’s not an accident that the poison that was used in the gas chambers was a pesticide,” he says. With Maus, he was attempting to “adapt and absorb the toxin of that caricature of Jews.”
The recent shootings in Paris prove the impact that comics can have and raise complex questions about their relationship—both current and historical—with racism, representation, and free speech.
The French magazine, Spielgeman said, purposely baits Muslims, but it’s “an equal-opportunity defamer”: the publication targets every religion, aiming its barbs much more often at the Catholic church than at Islam, and at every political party on both the right and left.
What infuriates Spiegelman is that many newspapers and magazines refused to re-print the offending cartoons. He lambasted the New York Times and other media outlets for failing to provide context—by reproducing the images (often utterly banal and horribly unfunny) or through a discussion of Charlie Hebdo‘s broad mandate—because in doing so, they promoted the fallacious idea that some groups have the right not to be insulted.
Many of the points he covered can be found in his 2006 essay “Drawing Blood,” written forHarper‘s in the wake of the deadly riots that erupted in Europe when a right-wing Danish newspaper held a cartoon contest with the Prophet Muhammad as its theme. In it, he quotes Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish justice appointed to the United States Supreme Court, who in 1927 said, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
Spiegelman puts it more succinctly, “The realm of thought and ideas is the laboratory where we get better ideas.” He’d much rather see the ugly products of our lizard brains displayed openly, because only by responding in kind can they be dislodged. Let’s open up, not shut up. Anyway, we don’t have much choice: as Spiegelman observes, “If the stain is there, it’ll show through.”