Art Spiegelman CO-MIX: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics, and Scraps. February 16 –June 9, 2013. Vancouver Art Gallery http://www.vanartgallery.bc.ca/the_exhibitions/current_exhibitions.html
Co-produced by the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Ludwig Museum, Cologne, and the Jewish Museum, New York.
Yesterday, I spent much of the morning engaged with this retrospective exhibition of Art Spiegelman’s work. In common with many people, I suspect, I knew little of Spiegelman’s work other than Maus I and II, and I understand from these two volumes why Maus is often referred to as “the graphic novel.” The only other graphic novel that I possess is V for Vendetta, so I approached the exhibition fully aware that I would be dealing with a genre in which I have little experience and no expertise at all.
I was raised at a time or at least in a family that regarded comics as a genre to be grown out of and rather suspect. Robin, Swift, and Girl were acceptable, but The Beano and The Dandy were seen only in the dentist’s waiting room, and I was encouraged to abandon Girl for The Children’s Newspaper and Look and Learn as quickly as possible. My primary school teachers were also liable to confiscate any Beanos and Dandys discovered lurking in desks. Marvel comics were seen only on the odd occasion when I visited someone who was allowed them, usually somebody with brothers, and American publications such as Mad were beyond my experience until adulthood. As you can see, my experience with the graphic format of narration was rather limited. When I first saw comic strips in a broadsheet newspaper, I was somewhat perplexed. Now, I would have difficulty without beginning my day with the daily episode of Doonesbury, and I still mourn the demise of Bloom County.
I’m still not sure quite how I define and respond to graphic narration. Actually, what I probably mean is I’m not sure where I “rank” graphic narration. I realize that a hierarchy of values was being inculcated in my childhood: the word pre-empts the image when it comes to telling stories notwithstanding Alice’s question, “What is the use of a book. . . without pictures or conversations?” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland first paragraph).
I absorbed an understanding that one would move up from pictures and conversations to serious prose. But where would fiction be without conversations? And, of course, the graphic novel depends almost entirely on both pictures and conversations. Perhaps then my unease with the genre comes from what those early comic strips and Marvel comics were about. Parents and teachers apparently believed the stories told and the values shared were not high enough values. But then if I had not read a comic strip version of Jane Eyre in Girl, I would not have begged and pleaded for the original for my birthday. My pleas were answered in a Blackie Classic edition and I ploughed through it—it took me three weeks—and my primary school principal complained to my mother I was reading above my age level. We ignored him.
In many ways, this discomfort with how to rank the graphic novel connects with how we tend to rank all fiction. What is the difference between Fiction and Literature? The local book-store puts all narrative prose in one place organized alphabetically by author under the heading Fiction and Literature. It puts the Graphic Novels in their own section as it does Mystery, Fantasy, and Romance. Wuthering Heights and The Mysteries of Udolpho make it into Fiction and Literature; anything by Barbara Cartland is more likely to be found on the Romance shelves. The debates surrounding whether classification of narratives in terms of “literaryness” is arbitrary or whether “literature” has some intrinsic value that distinguishes it from “genre fiction” are long-standing and occasionally acrimonious.
It was with this background that I first encountered Maus, and words failed me. Perhaps this is the point. There are situations when words fail. The black on black cover for the September 24, 2001 issue of The New Yorker designed by Spiegelman and his wife Françoise Mouly after the destruction of the twin towers is ample testament to the sometime power of the image over the word. The emotive power of Maus is such that it did cause me to question many of my preconceptions about the possibilities inherent in the comic strip. I was already comfortable with the power of the cartoon and of daily newspaper strips as vehicles for satire. It was Maus and later V for Vendetta that revealed to me that the form is capable of sustained argument. I am still not sure, however, that I would prefer a graphic novel version of say of Fielding’s Tom Jones or A. S. Byatt’s Possession over the original versions.
I came out of the Spiegelman retrospective no clearer in my mind about where I place this kind of art and story-telling but utterly impressed by Spiegelman’s work, both his imagination and his draughtsmanship. Perhaps unsurprisingly one whole room was taken up with materials relating to the genesis and development of Maus, but I found the other rooms just as fascinating.
Spiegelman’s early work re-enforced my understanding and acceptance of the form as a vehicle for social critique. I enjoyed his references to other artists, whether Picasso or Charles Schultz, and references to other well-known comic figures such as Nancy and Lil Abner. I particularly enjoyed what he did with Rex Morgan. Then there is his work in gouache on paper especially ’Twas the Night Before Hannukah, which somehow touched my funny bone in a very satisfactory way. His work for children, too, is lively, humorous, and endearing. The look on the dog’s face in Open Me. . .I’m a Dog somehow captures the essence of joyful dogdom.
The exhibition listed all Spiegelman’s prizes and other honours: an impressive list indeed. Although I’m still not certain exactly where I stand in regard to comic books as part of the literary or fine arts canon, I am certain that for a while I was engaged with a mind of great depth and understanding of the human condition and with a talent able to express that insight and empathy.