The Byham Theater, mere spitting distance from the North Shore in the Cultural District downtown, just played host to [ITAL]Comix 101[ITAL], a lecture by the Pulitzer-prize-winning independent comic artist Art Spiegelman. Thanks to the generosity of the Humanities Scholars program, about ten students and I had good seats for the show.
Promptly at 8 pm, Art emerged onstage and lit himself a cigarette. "That's why we're billing this as a performance and not a lecture," he kidded, "because in performances they let you smoke." He continued to charm everyone by assuring us that his words would be projected onto the puff of smoke, like a word-bubble. Everyone had a good chuckle.
Art Spiegelman participated in the underground comics movement of the ?60s and ?70s, and became famous amongst eclectic circles in 1980 for his underground comic magazine, [ITAL]Raw[ITAL]. At this time he began drawing the graphic novel [ITAL]Maus[ITAL]: a powerful book about his father's experience in the Holocaust in which the Nazis were represented by cats and the Jews by mice. The first volume, [ITAL]My Father Bleeds History[ITAL], came out in 1986, and the second volume, [ITAL]And Here My Troubles Began[ITAL], was released five years later in 1991. [ITAL]Maus[ITAL] earned him the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. He worked for several years as a writer and artist for the [ITAL]New Yorker[ITAL], and is known for several controversial covers and his dramatic black-on-black cover following the September 11 attacks. Shortly after the attacks, though, he resigned from the magazine and worked on a series of full-page newspaper comics about the attacks that have been compiled into one anthology, [ITAL]In the Shadow of No Towers[ITAL].
"I learned everything I know from comics," he said. "I learned how to read because I wanted to know if [ITAL]Batman[ITAL] was a good guy or a bad guy, and I thought I could figure it out if I could just decode the scribbles. Apparently the guys drawing it today still haven't figured that question out. I learned about sex too, from [ITAL]Betty and Veronica[ITAL]...."
Art began his proper lecture with a dictionary definition of comics, literally. On the lazy afternoon that he actually looked it up, he told us, he was amused to find that the dictionary actually had a picture of a [ITAL]Nancy[ITAL] strip. Projecting the strip on a large stage screen, he formally deconstructed the cartoon elements in a light-hearted and slightly pejorative way. His point was that comics have a [ITAL]language[ITAL], [ITAL]structure[ITAL], and [ITAL]architecture[ITAL] that beelines into our brains. Incidentally, the definition of comic according to Art is a "narrative sequence of images." [ITAL]Narrative[ITAL], as it turns out, simply means "story"; and story, he told us, has roots in the Greek word "history," referring to the sequential pictorial reliefs on buildings depicting the life of Christ ("the world's first superhero"). This is why we refer to floors in buildings as "stories."
Next, he took a break from the meta-discussion of comics to talk about his own experience at the New Yorker: the covers he made, the controversy they generated, and ultimately his dissatisfaction with making nonsequential, upper-middle-class fluff pieces. September 11 shocked him terribly. "I didn't work near there, but just a week before, my daughter had begun going to school at the foot of the towers." As the rest of New York sheepishly found a "new normal," he remained unable to come to grips. "I knew I had to start making comics again ... I guess disaster is my muse."
What followed in his lecture was a [ITAL]tour de force[ITAL] of comic history, beginning with Hogarth's image series about moral lessons in the 18th century. More importantly, though, was a Swedish schoolteacher in the early 19th century who drew several actual graphic novels for his class on various topics. These novels demonstrated caricature, timing, blurring between typographic and visual elements, and story editing that filmmakers wouldn't discover for another century. These proto-comics would have been lost to the sands of time, except that Goethe ("the Oprah Winfrey of his time") called them the birth of a new medium and popularized them across Europe. The long-standing taboo that "poetry" and "painting and sculpture" could not mix according to the European academies was challenged and fell. This began a rich cartoon tradition in Europe that wouldn't reach America until the turn of the century.
What did bring the idea of cartoons to America was the competition between New York's two biggest newspapers: Joseph Pulitzer's [ITAL]New York World[ITAL] and William Randolph Hearst's [ITAL]New York Journal[ITAL]. "Pulitzer decided to edify the [ITAL]New York World[ITAL]'s often uneducated immigrant readership with full-color reproductions of great masterpieces of world art. The garish and off-register results weren't up to the task, but were fine for outlining drawings with flat colors. So, in 1893, the first Sunday color cartoon supplement entered the world and elbowed out the High Art planned for the masses." Art covered all the imaginative, original cartoonists from this period, from Richard Outcault's [ITAL]Hogan's Alley[ITAL] to George Herriman's [ITAL]Krazy Kat[ITAL] to Winsor McKay's [ITAL]Little Nemo in Slumberland[ITAL].
Throughout his delivery, Art remained spirited and jovial, but every so often struck a note of sad or cynical humor. This was especially apparent when he began to talk about comics in the postwar period, particularly after Dr. Fredric Wertham's pivotal book [ITAL]Seduction of the Innocent[ITAL] turned the ornery conservative moral police against comics like [ITAL]Horror Stories[ITAL], [ITAL]Tales from the Crypt[ITAL], and [ITAL]Mad[ITAL]. It nearly destroyed comics as a medium in America forever, reducing them instead to "a bunch of pre-adolescent male power fantasies."
The torch was picked up by the underground comics scene ten years later when R. Crumb's magazine [ITAL]Zap[ITAL] and Art's own [ITAL]Raw[ITAL] entered the scene, revitalizing the styles of [ITAL]Mad[ITAL] magazine. The most important breakthrough of the underground scene, however, was "breaking the rule that comics had to be drawn well. Suddenly, anyone could draw comics." Women were also introduced to comics, and the whole comics language for describing something other than superheroes had a rebirth.
Running short of time, he just flew through the rest of his slides: "Chris Ware is important.... Daniel Clowes is very good." Finally he came to the last slide in his lecture: a cartoon of a distressed Art Spiegelman with a rain cloud over his head standing uncomfortably next to an aggressive, religious Uncle Sam inside the "O" of an enormous "Oy!"