[15 January 2014]
High art often mines popular culture for a vernacular iconography: see Roy Lichtenstein’s appropriation of stock comic images or the entire oeuvre of the poet John Ashbery. But Art Spiegelman’s work monumentally reverses this. He mines the surrealist experiments of Duchamp and Picasso to break new ground in grafting pictures to words in a medium too often debased by the culture at large—comics in all its many variations.
The very first image that met me in Spiegelman’s retrospective of his ephemera, Co-Mix: Art Spiegelman Comics, Graphics and Scraps, is a scrappy one-page story he published in Artforum to protest the 1990 Museum of Modern Art’s “High & Low” show. Bright primary color dissects the page into fragments of mashup: a parody of Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein as a Preparation H advertisement on the subway, a frame of Ignatz Mouse whacking Krazy Kat with a brick through the negative space in a Miro canvas, and a long vertical roll-call along the right margin framing the popular artists Spiegelman felt were missing from the exhibit, such as MAD Magazine creator Harvey Kurtzman. In the upper left, a Lichtenstein blonde declaims “Oh Roy, your dead high art is built on dead low art… maybe that’s-sob-why you’re championed by museums!” It’s easy to see why this was instantly controversial. “High Art Lowdown” pointed out the museum’s decision to include actual popular culture like a page from Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy only as a reference point missed its significance as a piece of art in its own right. The museum made up for this error by mounting an exhibit titled Making Maus the next year, but Spiegelman had made his point—and in a way that showed how bone-familiar he was with the tactics and intellectual moorings of conceptual art.
Drawing on everything from pornographic eight-pagers known as “Tijuana Bibles” to Dali, Spiegelman’s own work shows a sublime consistency that gives me a little head rush of awe again and again as I page through years of his ephemera. There is no real dividing line between his artistic output and his commercial work. His underground comix share a deliciously subversive sensibility with the cultural detritus he created for Topps chewing gum, Playboy, trade magazines and a vast variety of other outlets. A parody cover of “Nooseweek” for Topps features a man, neck in noose, with a bulging blue tongue. One Wacky Pack faux-advertisement for “Grave Train” gives us a dog keeled over on a package of dog food—“Your dog will never eat anything else.” His early experiments in Viper also stretch the bounds of acceptable content, such as “The Sub-Teen Snatch Snatch” with its bucktooth tween led along by a Yiddish-speaking anti-hero. Strips penned for Women’s Wear Daily and underground publications are overtly psychedelic, dripping with late ‘60s politics. One strip for Cavalier magazine advocates an uptight everyman to ditch his anxieties, become a real man and drop out. An early proto-strip for Maus, “Prisoner from the Hell Planet,” seem to slip time between frames like an acid trip, mirroring his autobiographical nervous breakdown with a breakdown of the form.
Both the intensity of his content—which takes on new levels of confessional and historical narrative—and his formal innovation continue to deepen throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. The cover reprinted here of his 1977 Breakdowns splits apart layers of color in the printing process in a repeated sequence of Spiegelman swallowing a bottle of ink, an experiment in self-portraiture that can’t help but remind me of Warhol. His sense of the surreal also grew a little more refined, though still deeply rooted in the popular. A dream hand with little people on the end of each finger provides the narrative thrust in “Real Dream,” and stock noir characters reconfigure over and over again in the collage-driven “Nervous Rex, the Malpractice Suite”, both pieces he contributed to Arcade magazine, which he co-edited with R. Crumb.
Arcade was a publication that coalesced the nascent San Francisco underground comix movement—though Crumb and Spiegelman ultimately parted ways, and the pieces are visibly weirder than what Spiegelman later did with RAW, co-edited with his wife Francoise Mouly. RAW showcased as many European as American artists, all NYC-based, including emerging comic artists like Chris Ware. Book covers for a German publisher of Boris Vian’s work during this period arrange a slick fragmentation of cartoon and photo-realistic images, delivering Spiegelman with an opportunity to experiment with design that RAW later benefited from—RAW broke away from what Spiegelman had done with Arcade towards a “more elegant presentation…people who were conscious of themselves as artists.” The first issue of RAW featured a tipped-in booklet titled “The Two-Fisted Painter” that led the way for early chapters of Maus to be serialized in this manner, breaking past boundaries of representation in this format. When asked by a reporter whether it was in poor taste for Maus to portray the Holocaust in a comic book, he answered, “No, it was the Holocaust that was in poor taste.”
Pushing the limitations of what was possible for the medium in this way also got him and Mouly gigs at the New Yorker in 1992—Mouly as an art editor and Spiegelman as a cover artist. Several are reprinted in lush subtle colors. A Hasidic man French-kissing an African-American woman for Valentine’s Day, a comment on tensions in Crown Heights. A rabbit in a suit stands in crucifixion pose in front of a 1040A form. Chillingly, the black on black of a ghostly Twin Towers against a darkened sky after 9/11. True to form, some were rejected as too over the line, such as Santa pissing a Christmas tree shape against a wall.
Spiegelman is a bit of a comics scholar, something that shows up in the occasional New Yorker profile of a well-loved elder cartoonist. Charles Schulz and MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman are a couple reprinted here. Schulz seems like he could be inhabiting a Peanuts strip, all WASPy non-sequiturs. Kurtzman is a friendly madman in charge of a classroom at the School of Visual Arts who grows visibly moved by Spiegelman’s surprise lecture to his class on Kurtzman’s contributions to comics. Perhaps the most telling piece in the collection is Spiegelman’s interview of Maurice Sendak, to whom Spiegelman confesses that he drafts each finished page at least 20 times out of fear that people will “find out my dirty secret: I can’t draw.”
This self-effacing insight is not something that will be lost on someone who has just looked through pages of his studies for a single panel. Spiegelman can of course draw, but it’s not actually his strong suit. As J. Hobelman points out in his foreward to the volume that Spiegelman may lack the virtuoso fluency of R. Crumb, but: “His genius is manifest in his profound understanding of his medium (and his particular condition) and—at all times evident—his intellectual concepts.” It is what Spiegelman contributed to the formal innovation and subject matter of comics that truly pushed the medium forward.
Like Spiegelman did for comics as a whole, even the most peripatetic skim through his scraps demonstrates how indelibly he took what was disposable and made it something no one wanted to throw away. Wacky Packs rose above their disposable status to the point that it became an international sensation, inspiring both collectors and schoolyard bans in many parts of the country. His New Yorker cover for 9/11 became the full-length book project, Under the Shadow of No Towers. Most of his work transcended its original role in society to become valuable and influential. A subversive and deeply elegant collection of ephemera from both Spiegelman’s artistic and commercial output, Co-Mix: Art Spiegelman Comics, Graphics and Scraps traces the scattershot of a monumental career that upended comics as we know it.