Art Spiegelman has no compunction about admitting that he was probably the last person who wanted to see CO-MIX, a comprehensive retrospective exhibition of his work, mounted. It’s that word retrospective, you see. The veteran cartoonist turns 65 on Friday (February 15), but he’s clearly not ready for retirement. He’s best known for his Pulitzer-winning graphic novel Maus (a vivid and gripping narrative about his parents’ experiences during the Holocaust), but he has never been one to rest on his well-earned laurels.
“I feel I’m being given my gold watch and put out to pasture,” Spiegelman jokes when the Straight calls him at his studio in Lower Manhattan. “It’s not a pretty place inside my head when I think about this. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t want one. Willem de Kooning said, ‘Never have a retrospective while you’re alive,’ but then I researched it further and found out he did it—but then maybe he was senile already by the time he did it, I’m not sure. So, I don’t know. It’s really not what I would have chosen for myself.”
CO-MIX had its genesis when the organizers of the annual Angoulême International Comics Festival, the largest event of its kind in Europe, gave Spiegelman a lifetime-achievement award (officially called the Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulême), and along with that honour came a request for a career-spanning gallery show. Spiegelman initially balked at the idea of putting so much work into something that would be shown in a small French town for a few weeks and then taken down. With the help of his friend and curator Rina Zavagli-Mattotti, he was able to get CO-MIX into the Centre Pompidou in Paris, after which it was mounted in Cologne, Germany. It’s about to open at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Still, Spiegelman was hesitant to dig through his own past yet again. “I was kind of dragged kicking and screaming, because I had just finished a large period of retrospection just before this call came,” he says. “I had done a book called MetaMaus, which was sifting through all the Maus material. If you’ve seen the book, that was an intense sifting. Prior to that, I had done a book called Breakdowns, which was a reworking and a rethinking of a book from 1978 which was a seminal book in shaping me as an artist, now coming out again with new material. That was also a big work of retrospection, and now they were going to slam me back into that situation of looking at everything I hadn’t looked at for those other two books.”
Diving back into the Maus material was particularly onerous. As proud as he is of what he accomplished with it—Maus has been published in some 30 languages and has done more than any other single work to elevate the graphic novel into the ranks of serious literature—Spiegelman admits to feeling somewhat shackled by it, knowing that it is what defines him in the minds of many. “With MetaMaus I really felt I had done a major job of excavating and rethinking and reorganizing these things,” he says. “I was hoping that was my jailbreak from Maus—the one that locks my brain down: ‘You made Maus. That makes you a very responsible human; you may not do a graphic novel about a talking penis, okay?’ I just figured MetaMaus was all I could offer to Maus, in service of that work—to just take out all of the rough sketches, the underlying material, sift through it, analyze it as best I could, and presumably then walk away. But instead I felt, when I had to work on the retrospective, that I’d been killed and made the executor of my own estate. And that’s dogging me a little bit. It’s getting a little better as we go from venue to venue. It gets smoother to figure out how to put it together, especially if Rina, as she is, stays involved. But I understand why there’s a lyric in a Bob Dylan song: ‘She’s an artist, she don’t look back.’ It’s not necessarily a good idea.”
VAG visitors will be glad Spiegelman relented: the range and depth of the work that makes up CO-MIX is staggering. In addition to studies for and finished pages from Maus and Breakdowns, the exhibition includes examples of the artist’s underground comics from the late 1960s, some of the covers he created for the New Yorker between 1992 and 2003, and his post-9/11 broadsheet pages, collected as In the Shadow of No Towers. Flipping through the show’s catalogue, one is struck by the scope of Spiegelman’s influences—his drawing makes explicit reference to everyone from Pablo Picasso to Rube Goldberg to Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould—and by his gleeful twisting of the conventions of the comic-book medium.
“He’s an interesting guy,” says Bruce Grenville, senior curator at the VAG and the man responsible for bringing CO-MIX to Vancouver. “There’s just so much in the work. I think that’s what’s so wonderful about the show....You can’t believe the complexity and the density that he puts in there. And yet, at the same time, they’re kind of open and easy as well.”
In 2008, Grenville put together the VAG exhibition Krazy! The Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art, of which Spiegelman was a co-curator. “People still talk about it,” he says of that large and wide-ranging show. “It probably reached to a broader audience than we sometimes get, because traditional visual art has a narrower bandwidth, and this opens it up a bit.”
Spiegelman notes that the barrier between “high art” and “lowbrow” has eroded significantly over the past 20-odd years. More and more, work like his is being taken seriously, for better or worse.
“I think at this point, comics are as capable of making something that you’d want to call art as anything else,” he asserts. “And that’s both a plus and a minus—there’s something great about comics being an outlaw medium. And that’s, of course, getting lost—and I’m even partially to blame, and I apologize. I think it’s been one of the strengths of it as a form, that it doesn’t have to conform to cultural preconceptions.”
Ever the champion of the underground, Spiegelman is understandably most impressed by what’s happening outside the sphere of mainstream comics. As an example, he touts Chris Ware’s groundbreaking Building Stories as “a work of genius. Brilliant. But I’m not as interested in X-Men, or The Archie Wedding. But at this point it’s like any other medium. It’s like if you talk about books, you’ve got 50 Shades of Grey and you’ve got really serious literature sitting in the same shop, you know? And similarly, you go to museums and there’s stuff that’s so clearly a fraud, and there are other things that you’ve got to slow down and attend to. In movies you’ve got the same kind of spectrum, ultimately. What’s really popular isn’t necessarily what’s really great, nor is it a priori a sign that it’s terrible.”
Mind you, even if something is terrible, the odds are good that Spiegelman will find something to like about it regardless. He just loves comics. “I’ve gotten to the point where I even like the stuff that I think sucks,” he admits. “I like the medium, and as a result I’ll look at something and go, ‘God, that’s just impossibly stupid.’ But I say it with a certain kind of admiration.”