Fea­ture Art Spiegel­man’s dark art

Pulitzer prize-win­ning graphic nov­el­ist Art Spiegel­man wants us to see words and pic­tures dif­fer­ently, he tells Jac­quelin Magnay

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -



ART Spiegel­man, Pulitzer prizewin­ning artist, chuck­les when I put it to him that his great­est works, cer­tainly his most mem­o­rable, are pro­duced when he is at his dark­est, when the world is at its most vi­o­lent. He booms down the line from his New York stu­dio: ‘‘ Argh, when I am happy I don’t feel like work­ing. But when some­thing oc­curs that is un­set­tling then I have to work it out through the draw­ings and comics.’’

We are talk­ing mere mo­ments af­ter the Bri­tish par­lia­ment has re­jected mil­i­tary in­volve­ment in Syria, and just hours be­fore the US govern­ment’s for­mal re­sponse. It is a height­ened time of po­lit­i­cal pos­tur­ing, in­ter­twined with the hor­rors of chem­i­cal war­fare. But Spiegel­man, one of the most cel­e­brated artists in his genre of graphic nov­els, says that so far at least, the Syr­ian sit­u­a­tion has not forced him into such a deep bur­row of in­tro­spec­tion.

Mid­dle East pol­i­tics and suf­fer­ing might have been a sen­si­tive sub­ject to have raised with the son of two Holo­caust sur­vivors, but then Spiegel­man has never shied away from cur­rent af­fairs — rail­ing against Ge­orge Bush’s in­ter­ven­tion in Iraq, so­cial in­jus­tices or con­trary views about the state of Is­rael. This is the fig­ure who, af­ter all, over­came in­ter­na­tional out­rage over his 1993 Valen­tine’s Day cover for The New Yorker de­pict­ing a Ha­sidic man kissing a black woman — drawn as ten­sion was still raw about vi­cious race ri­ots at Crown Heights, Brook­lyn. That was one that got pub­lished; many oth­ers have been viewed by edi­tors as too ex­ploita­tive, too ex­treme, too provoca­tive.

The Arab Spring, he tells me, ‘‘ and the un­likely af­ter­math that some­thing peace­ful would have sprung for­ward’’, is some­thing he might in­ves­ti­gate in the fu­ture.

More im­me­di­ately, Spiegel­man says he is ob­sessed with words rather than ‘‘ one of many night­mares on the planet’’, and com­ing to grips with a ‘‘ ter­ri­fy­ing’’ 20-hour flight to Aus­tralia next month.

He is putting the fin­ish­ing touches on a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Aus­tralian-New Yorker jazz mu­si­cian Phillip John­ston for a one-off per­for­mance at the Syd­ney Opera House — com­plete with a six-piece jazz orches­tra — look­ing at the con­cept of pic­tures and words, the ‘‘ word­less’’ genre, and how the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two has played out and shaped his own much-lauded artis­tic ca­reer.

‘‘ It will yank you from left brain and right brain and back and get you to see stuff in a dif­fer­ent way,’’ he says.

Cer­tainly Spiegel­man’s per­sonal his­tory has been lit­tered with grim and ter­ri­fy­ing events, yet he has recorded those ex­pe­ri­ences with the light­est of artis­tic medi­ums — through comics and car­toons — but all the while with a sig­na­ture un­der­tone of grav­i­tas. One only has to look at In the Shadow of No Tow­ers, a de­cep­tively sim­ple but dev­as­tat­ingly ef­fec­tive New Yorker cover af­ter the 9/11 disas­ter to ap­pre­ci­ate his in­tense em­pa­thy with loss.

Spiegel­man grew up in a Jewish house­hold in Queens, New York, hav­ing re­lo­cated to the US from Swe­den af­ter World War II. His older brother Ry­sio had died dur­ing the war, poi­soned by an aunt to avoid the hor­rors of the death camps. His mother Anja com­mit­ted sui­cide only months af­ter Spiegel­man had re­cov­ered from his own ner­vous break­down and the re­la­tion­ship with his Jewish fa­ther, Vladek, was fraught.

Spiegel­man used his car­toon­ist’s skills to de­pict that re­la­tion­ship with his fa­ther and ex­plore his fa­ther’s Holo­caust rev­e­la­tions for a comic book. This ended up be­ing his sem­i­nal work, Maus. In it, Spiegel­man adopted a dis­tanc­ing tech­nique of us­ing an­i­mals as hu­mans, iden­ti­fy­ing the Nazis as cats, the Poles as pigs and the Jews as mice. He says: ‘‘ Maus is a graphic novel, one has been anointed as a pla­tonic ex­am­ple of what that is, al­though I al­ways thought I was mak­ing a comic book, but it’s bet­ter than that.’’

Spiegel­man ex­plains how he felt it was le­git­i­mate to ex­plore the use of car­toons in a som­bre for­mat be­cause of the art form known as the word­less novel, which was pop­u­lar in the early part of the 20th cen­tury about the time of the silent movies but is lit­tle known now out­side of Ger­many.

One of the word­less artists, Amer­i­can artist Lynd Ward, had an ex­pres­sion­ist style that Spiegel­man ref­er­enced heav­ily when draw­ing his mother’s sui­cide in Pris­oner on the Hell Planet in the 1970s. Spiegel­man’s dark and grisly re­count of the sui­cide af­ter­math in­cluded the chill­ing fi­nale: ‘‘ Con­grat­u­la­tions, you’ve com­mit­ted the per­fect crime . . .You mur­dered me, Mommy, and left me here to take the rap.’’

In spite of the emo­tive words used, Spiegel­man is fas­ci­nated by the artists who didn’t use such writ­ten drama to punc­tu­ate the draw­ings. ‘‘ The fact that there are very in­ter­est­ing, com­plex and in­tensely beau­ti­ful works that es­chewed the word part of the word pic­ture to make the story is very in­ter­est­ing to me,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s like an art of lim­i­ta­tion: why wouldn’t you use words if you could? Th­ese sto­ries are done in pan­tomime art stream in much the same way as silent movies.’’

Spiegel­man says it was Ward’s in­flu­ence that en­cour­aged him to jux­ta­pose the comic form with streams of deep con­tem­pla­tion. ‘‘ Ward’s se­ri­ous­ness was very im­por­tant to me, be­cause it al­lowed me to do what I was do­ing with some kind of model some­where of how one might feel and do one’s work.’’

Flem­ish artist Frans Masereel was an­other ex­po­nent, per­haps one of the first at the turn of the 20th cen­tury, who of­ten used wood­cuts as word­less pages of il­lus­tra­tion — crit­i­cally re­viewed and en­thu­si­as­ti­cally re­ceived by No­bel lau­re­ate Thomas Mann, no less. Such ac­claim was cru­cial, Spiegel­man says, since it also gave him the con­fi­dence to pur­sue comics be­yond the friv­o­lous, funny or light­hearted.

‘‘ Comics, al­ways looked down upon for most of my life­time, have been made rep­utable,’’ Spiegel­man says. ‘‘ That re­spectabil­ity came from th­ese books, one pic­ture a page. They were just sto­ry­telling draw­ings but they never got tainted with that brush, the one that goes, ‘ Oh, it’s for dopes.’

‘‘ This work I am do­ing for Syd­ney has grown out of a long and fas­ci­nat­ing in­ter­est in the ob­scure genre of word­less nov­els done in the early part of last cen­tury. I recog­nised a long time ago I was very con­nected to the medium with comics.’’

He adds quickly: ‘‘ I am not mak­ing a po­lit­i­cal state­ment, al­though al­most all of th­ese word­less nov­el­ists tend to be po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated. Masereel is a paci­fist, an­ar­chist so­cial­ist who was in World War I and po­lit­i­cally wound up; Ward was the son of one of the found­ing US civil lib­er­ties groups and was on US com­mu­nist black lists, so there are a lot of pointed po­lit­i­cal works tak­ing place that deal with class strug­gle, war, war prof­i­teer­ing and the teem­ing city and its prob­lems.

‘‘ That in­forms the work and so it in­forms my work to a de­gree as well, but here for Syd­ney I am in­ter­ested in how words and pic­tures act on the page.’’

In his pre­sen­ta­tion, Spiegel­man will show the de­vel­op­ment of pub­lic per­cep­tions to car­toon­ing, par­tic­u­larly in the re­cent use of pic­tures and words in ev­ery­day com­puter use. Car­toon­ing is no longer con­sid­ered low­brow or a form that needs a joke to break the ice. Spiegel­man ex­plains that in the Mid­dle Ages and in pop­u­lar lower cul­ture, words and pic­tures nat­u­rally sat to­gether but then dif­fer­ent hi­er­ar­chies de­vel­oped.

‘‘ Even­tu­ally, il­lus­trated books were looked at as deluxe ob­jects you might have had in your house as some amaz­ing il­lus­trated edi­tion, but in the most part il­lus­tra­tions were thought of as some train­ing fa­cil­ity to throw away once you could de­code words,’’ he says. ‘‘ And you out­grew th­ese child­ish things. Yet things that come to your brain, to the vis­ual part of it, are very strong and now we are look­ing at this place where they smash to­gether all the time.

‘‘ I love this art form. I love it more than movies, more than mu­sic, and I love what hap­pens when words and pic­tures come to­gether. I try to un­der­stand how in­tense my reaction to the art­form is. I dig into bur­rows, pull out things and make it clear to un­der­stand.’’

Spiegel­man says a new work he will show in Syd­ney is called Shap­ing Thought. He in­di­cates it will be light in tone to take some pres­sure off the dark ma­te­rial he will be talk­ing about else­where. ‘‘ It’s not tragic,’’ he says of the new work, not­ing it is ‘‘ pacy and all vis­ual’’.

Spiegel­man for his en­tire ca­reer has railed against peo­ple who per­ceive car­toons as ir­rev­er­ent or in­suf­fi­ciently in­tel­lec­tual. ‘‘ It was one of my pet peeves: ap­pear­ing to be funny when I wanted to be taken se­ri­ously, as if they are ex­clu­sive of one an­other,’’ he says.

What, then, of that ‘‘ comics for dopes’’ ref­er­ence? Spiegel­man’s voice deep­ens: ‘‘ It wasn’t that comics were for dopes. But it is just that peo­ple thought they were for dopes.’’

Art Spiegel­man’s Word­less, with mu­sic by Phillip John­ston, is at Syd­ney Opera House

on Oc­to­ber 5.

Art Spiegel­man; his 1993 Valen­tine’s Day cover of The New

Yorker, top right; and the book cover of Me­taMaus, be­low

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