It’s hard, if not impossible, to read Art Spiegelman’s Maus just once. The Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel tells the story of first- and second-generation Holocaust survivors, challenging the notion—if any such notion existed—that the effects of war and genocide are finite in a gripping autobiographical/biographical narrative. As such, Maus fits Spiegelman’s definition of the graphic novel genre: “a long comic book that needs a bookmark and wants to be reread.”
Just as his graphic novel has captivated readers for decades, Spiegelman engrossed a packed Wellin Hall on April 23 when he delivered the College’s annual Winton Tolles Lecture, titled “What the %@&*! Happened to Comics?” After grappling with possible names for the lecture such as “Comics 101,” which he thought was “hilarious, the idea that comics could be an academic pursuit of study,” Spiegelman decided to take a position on comics rather than simply engage in the discourse of the development of the comic medium. According to Spiegelman, “the future of comics is in the past,” an argument that he unpacked during his lecture.
Professor of English and American Studies Catherine Kodat, who introduced Spiegelman’s talk, referenced an interview in which Spiegelman noted the English translation of his name: “Art Mirrors Man”—appropriate given the often autobiographical nature of his works. Kodat considered the “long, hard look into the mirror of art” that Spiegelman took when he brought Maus to life.
“So much has happened, it’s been a sea change since about the late-90s, 2000s, of what comics could be,” Spiegelman said. “When I was coming of age, in the Paleolithic, you couldn’t tell a woman you might be interested in that you were a cartoonist because it would just mean that you were some kind of arrested development creep. Now, I meet these young graphic novelists, and they’re all rock stars.”
Spiegelman charted the shifts in interpretations of the comic form, from mass medium to cultural artifact to work of art. He aimed, in detailing the path of comics, to elucidate the various narrative techniques that comic author-illustrators have employed over time, to advocate a form customarily perceived as “low” art and to differentiate between all comics and those that can be considered art.
The paintings and prints of Roy Lichtenstein come to mind when people think of graphic art, or the comic as an art form. But Spiegelman doesn’t include Lichtenstein’s work in his definition of comic art. “He did no more for comics than Andy Warhol did for soup,” he said. For Spiegelman, a good comic makes use of self-expression and communication. Using these techniques in his comics has served to canonize his art.
“Everything I know, I learned from comic books,” Spiegelman said. “I learned to read from looking at Batman when I was really young and trying to figure out if he was a good guy or a bad guy … Everything I know about sex I learned contemplating Betty and Veronica. On the other hand, everything I learned about feminism, that’s from Little Lulu. Economics, I learned from Uncle Scrooge … Philosophy from Peanuts. Politics from Pogo… Aesthetics, ethics and everything else from MAD Magazine.”
These influences substantiate Spiegelman’s argument that past comics affect future works in the genre and inform his resistance to accept full credit for any changes that the comic form has undergone.
“I’ve been called the father of the graphic novel,” Spiegelman said, “and I definitely want a blood test.”