What better name for an autobiographical comix artist that Art Spiegelman? — art mirror man.

He is, of course, man behind the legendary Maus (1986), that Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about his family and his people’s travails through the Holocaust. (The book, if you haven’t read it, is tremendous, even devastating; and if it is comix, it has about as much relationship to Superman as Nietzche does.)

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As he explained at Melbourne Town Hall last night (Wheeler Centre event 8 Oct: What the %!&* Happened to Comics?) that was a time before the Holocaust was common, normalised subject matter — Spiegelman joked about the Oscars nowadays having a best Holocaust Film Award.


At the moment, Art Spiegelamn looks like a cross between KFC’s Col. Sanders and a middle period Billy Bob Thornton.


BTW, FYI: because we keep our cities separate, last Saturday our comix hero debuted his show Wordless!, commissioned by Syd’s Opera House, which the SMH described as “a resounding success, fusing art lesson, lively entertainment and dazzling concert.” Wordless! was “Spiegelman talking about and showing some of his major influences: wordless stories and novels from the first half of the 20th century. Phillip Johnston, meanwhile, led a sextet playing music he composed to accompany the images.”

At the Town Hall Spiegelman didn’t have the benefit of a backing band or a soundtrack, but after an awed introduction by our own Nicki Greenberg (who has graphically novelised The Great Gatsby and Hamlet), the artist, who preemptively apologised for trans-Pacific jetlag, showed a beautifully orchestrated set of digital slides while talking up a craftily lucid, funny and personal narrative of his genesis as a comix man inside the history of modern comics. He did this single-handedly for 90 minutes (!) to a Town Hall crowd of 1200 (!) — a one-man feature length film. Anything but Wordless!


A smattering of Spiegelman — bon mots and insights:

“These lines on paper can be like swords.”

His preferred term, a neologism: Co-mix — “a co-mixing of words and pictures.”

In Maus, the panels were reproduced at the same size as they were drawn — “I wanted to keep the intimacy.”

On graphic grammar: “Each page is a kind of thought in a well-constructed comics page.”

Spiegelman is a comics scholar. He mentioned the term “historia” — Latin for what became known as stained glass windows in churches, “stories in glass,”and how that translated into comics panels — and referring to the stained glass depiction of “a superhero who could walk on water and turn water into wine.”

“In the days before Internet it was harder to waste time.”

Referring to the controversy over his Valentine’s Day New Yorker cover showing a Hasidic Jew bloke kissing a black girl, he said “as a maker of graven images I was in trouble anyway.”

On Rodolphe Töpffer, a pioneering C19 Swiss cartoonist and how Töpffer was championed by Goethe — “Goethe was like the Oprah of his day — if he liked it, everybody wanted to read it.”

One of his heros was Charles Schultz, author of Peanuts. But at a certain point ” [The period slogan] ‘Happiness is a warm puppy’ reminded me too much of Republican girls — it was too detumescing to think about.” Spiegelman did make a pilgrimage to see Schultz in later years which he commemorated in a strip — he showed that on screen with his anecdote.

Spiegelman explaining the cartoon engineering / structure of a “Nancy” comic strip (above).


Using irony for something really worth saying: “What we need now is neo-sincerity.”

On high and low ar: “White elephant art and termite art.”

The engine of American creativity: “It’s a very useful tension — between genteel and vulgar.”

A terrific neologism, please spread: “Some sort of holokitsch.”

On his comics of his mother’s suicide: “One of my definitions of comics was ‘art for print’ — I didn’t know if I would let it be printed.”

Talking about Breakdowns: “I realised I had to go back to narrative, from meta-narrative. If I was going to be interested in this formal stuff I had to hide it under the hood — it wasn’t the reader’s business.”    (Breakdowns —  an old anthology of Spiegelman’s crucial early work — recently re-released, topped with an illustrated introduction which is as substantial as the central content, and tailed with a long essay — both pieces making up the autobiography of the artist as a young comix addict. A great piece of writing/s, it is essential Spiegeman and shares much of the material with last night’s presentation. It succintly records and demontrates Spiegelman’s evolution as a comix artist, his interest in it as an artform and his own aesthetics in comix making — fully postmodern.)

“It needed to reach a critical mass — that is, it needed to reach a mass of critics.”

On the original Popeye cartoons: “Like blue collar Beckett.”

On the great early cartoonist Will Eisner coining the term that Spiegelman hates, “graphic novel”: “Great cartoonist, genius marketer.”

Showing a last self-portrait cartoon on the screen of the mouse behind the man: “Megalomaniac with an inferiority complex.”

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The book-signing queue snaked from the author’s table next to the inner Hall doors down the stone steps and around the corner halfway to Lt Collins St. And Spiegelman likes drawing with his inscriptions…


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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