Any examination of comics in popular culture has to begin with Art Spiegelman. And indeed, he engages in such discussions constantly, whether with pen and ink, on the road, or on the phone.
“Sometimes I feel like a word machine masquerading as a cartoonist,” says the veteran artist, calling from his home in New York City.
Spiegelman, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his Maus books about his parents’ experiences in the Holocaust, has long been a vigorous advocate of a genre once considered the low end of the artistic scale. So it’s fitting that he’ll be in Vancouver to help launch KRAZY!: The Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art, a bold multimedia show opening at the Vancouver Art Gallery next Saturday (May 17) and running until September 7.
The formerly underground creator of RAW magazine and frequent New Yorker contributor is one of six artists who worked with VAG curator Bruce Grenville to assemble the show. Spiegelman will be at the Great Northern Way Campus’s Centre for Digital Media next Thursday (May 15) at 7 p.m. for a public talk about the work of Seth (also a curator of KRAZY!), Chris Ware, and some of the other linesmiths in the show. This kind of institutional imprimatur makes one wonder whether the old distinctions between high and low culture haven’t gone the way of lindy-hopping and ladies’ hats.
“There is certainly a more fluid movement between things than there has been in the past,” allows the Swedish-born cartoonist. “The art world itself seems to be in a kind of meltdown. I don’t think it has any clear idea of why it’s there, except as a money-generating venture—which is ultimately what most of our culture is about.”
On the other hand, even as graphic novels and anime gain respect, other touchstones are being forgotten. “There’s something that happens from generation to generation, and that is the total erosion of the past,” Spiegelman says. “Where this comics thing fits into museum art is all very strange to me. What makes art the stuff of comics is interesting. But in the late ’60s, the formal aspects attracted me more to the art side. You know, like, ”˜This Kurt Schwitters guy is pretty interesting.’ In the film world, someone like Jean-Luc Godard was doing the sort of cut-and-paste I could relate to. Experimental filmmakers like Stan Brakhage were asking you to work hard to get something back.
“These days, it ain’t about working hard. It’s about, ”˜How much can you swallow?’ There’s so much coming at you from every portal, and there isn’t the notion that you should slow down and consider something—or anything, for that matter.”
You could say, then, that museums offer us the last chance to contemplate fading forms of popular art—in this case, with the work itself still complicated by the lingering stench of disreputability. “That’s what still makes it exciting,” says Spiegelman, who remains fascinated by the naughty fare 1950s kids scanned beneath their Cold War bedcovers. “The danger, from both sides, is part of the Faustian deal of being embraced by museum and academic and literary culture, for sure. But this is all part of the natural permutation of art. One could argue that cinema reached its purest form in the nickelodeon, or with the magical movies of Georges Mélií¨s. But a lot of interesting things have happened since then.”
Of course, time itself changes our perception of these works, whether old or relatively new. It’s fascinating, for instance, to revisit Spiegelman’s large-format 2004 book In the Shadow of No Towers, which depicts in comic-book form the events of September 11, 2001, and combines them with odd visual ephemera of New York from almost a century earlier. At the time, readers just didn’t get what the Yellow Kid and the Katzenjammer Kids had to do with the fall of the World Trade Center. The immigrant Katzenjammers, alongside George Herriman’s Krazy Kat—from which the VAG show takes its name—led to Mad magazine, and eventually to The Daily Show and a new way of fusing anarchic, grab-bag comedy with current events.
“What once seemed unsayable is now the stuff of late-night comedy,” Spiegelman says. “There was a long interregnum in which people were afraid to say anything.”
These days, much can be said and done in public, but that doesn’t mean all social constructs are tumbling.
“Class distinction is not entirely gone. For instance, Barack Obama is being painted as too highbrow—”˜Hey, this guy reads and thinks. Yuck!’ In the art world, yeah, there has been a kind of strange interweaving of what used to be called high art and low. In a way, Harold & Kumar Go to Abu Ghraib, or whatever it’s called, may now be as pungent a political statement as Errol Morris’s new documentary.”
He may complain like an out-of-work curmudgeon, but this is a boom time for Spiegelman and his wife, artist Franí§oise Mouly. She is readying a new comic book aimed at young children, and he is preparing the radically updated re-release of his little-seen 1978 graphic work Breakdowns.
The night before our chat, the couple had “a rare night out”, attending the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Redbelt, made by their friend David Mamet.
“I liked it because it was so peculiar. It didn’t have much to do with the 21st century. In fact, it reminded me of an old Gene Autry serial, The Phantom Empire, in which cowboys find a cave full of space aliens.”
This mix of seemingly incompatible genres and off-topic references is a perfect encapsulation of Spiegelman’s body of work, and of his fascination with pop-culture history, which has repeatedly seen the ordinary transformed into the esoteric—or, as he puts it, “That which was most common is now most rare.”
But age doesn’t make all artifacts equally valuable, insists the artist, who recently turned 60.
“As I get older, I find myself more nostalgic for the time before I was born. The songs and movies and comic books of my own childhood have too many personal associations to be able to see them clearly. And for some reason, I want to see the past clearly.”