Medalist Art Spiegelman: Comics as narrative art

“The true cognoscenti know graphic novels are – at their best – an amazing blend of art literature and the theatre of the mind.” – John Ridley

MacDowell Colony Medal Day is nearly here – the one day in the year when the public is invited into the inner sanctum of the artist’s world, to tour open studios and to listen to the keynote speaker – the recipient of the MacDowell Medal. This year on Sunday, August 12, the 2018 MacDowell Medalist is Pulitzer-Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman.

A Swedish-born American author and illustrator, Spiegelman wrote two Holocaust narratives Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History (1986) and Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began (1991) that helped to push comic journalism into the mainstream media as a sophisticated adult literary medium.

In one way, the MacDowell Colony itself, located on 450 acres of woodlands and fields outside Peterborough – the first artist colony in the nation – is all about the theatre of the mind and the anatomy of the creative process. Envisioned in 1906 by composer Edward MacDowell to resemble the American Academy in Rome, the Colony was officially founded and the plan executed by MacDowell’s wife Marian upon the death her husband in 1907. Artists from all over the world apply for fellowships to stay 3-weeks to 3 months in any of MacDowell’s thirty-one cabins year-round.

The mission of MacDowell is to secure and protect private, uninterrupted time for artists in all media, so much so that an age-old tradition is the provision of basket lunches placed on the doorstep of each cabin so as not to interfere with daytime creativity. Another aspect of life at MacDowell is the community evening meal that invites cross-disciplinary discussions between literary, visual and performance artists. As a cartoonist, this year’s Medalist straddles the literary and visual arts worlds.

Spiegelman immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1951. Inspired by the clever artwork and subversive humor of MAD Magazine, Spiegelman began studying cartooning, attending Manhattan’s High School of Art and Design, soon embarking on a career as a professional artist, selling illustrations to the Long Island Post. He was a student at the State University of New York at Binghamton from 1965 to 1968, the year his mother committed suicide. Spiegelman dropped out of college and kept drawing. He eventually published two strips that changed his direction. Maus, originally a three-page story that appeared in cartoonist Justin Green’s Funny Animals anthology, was Spiegelman’s first attempt to create a narrative about the wartime experiences of his parents, Vladek and Anja, both survivors of the Auschwitz death camp. His second strip was Prisoner on the Hell Planet, his attempt to understand his mother’s suicide stylistically crafted to resemble German expressionist woodcuts.

In 1980, Spiegelman and his wife Francoise Mouly cofounded RAW, an underground comic and graphics anthology. In 1992, Spiegelman’s Maus became the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize.

By tackling such difficult and deeply personal narratives, combined with the literary quality of RAW and Maus, Spiegelman shifted the paradigm of expectations about the medium of comic narrative and secured his position as a New York Times illustrator, a Playboy cartoonist and a staff artist/writer for the New Yorker.

Comic non-fiction narrative and journalism is not a new medium. In 2010, Sarah Glidden travelled the Middle East to report on the refugee crisis with the Seattle Globalist. She told her story through one character Sam using Sam’s own words – appearing in speech bubbles – accompanied by watercolor drawings that personalize the story, moving it from an “issue” to storytelling, depicting the very personal struggle of refugees.

The Nib, founded in 2013, consists entirely of comics, many of which depict journalistic and non-fiction stories. To date it has published more than 2,000 works and released a 300-page book of its best entries.

While comic journalism is fast becoming part of mainstream “serious” art, there still seems to be a disconnect between our expectation of humor and innocence in “comics” and the “comic” narrative of something that is not funny. In response to what Glidden calls this the “naming problem,” some within the field distinguish between “comics” and “comix” in order to suggest that the straightforward narrative is about something “real” rather than imaginary. The word also conveys the idea of a co-mixture, combing two things that seem not to fit together.

Maus is doubly disturbing – first, because there is nothing funny about the topic – and second, because Spiegelman chose ironic anthropomorphic animal depictions – the Jews drawn as mice, the Nazis drawn as cats. But as I study my own reaction, I must admit that the genre is compelling in its historical truth, made deeply personal, a story made more complex because it sits in the contemporary framework of a comic. In the Shadow of No Towers (2004) – Spiegelman’s response to 911 – is even more disturbing but very powerful – visually confrontational.

On the positive side, from the standpoint of a (humorous) comics lover, Spiegelman also edited an archival prize – The TOON Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics which anthologizes hundreds of classics – Clifford; Dennis the Menace, Little Archie, Uncle Wiggily, Pogo, Fox and the Crow, Little Lulu, Captain Marvel and Donald Duck.

In it, John Scieszka, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, introduces Spiegelman’s anthology. “I always loved that about comics, that they could, and usually did, take a turn for the weird that wasn’t anywhere to be found in school textbooks. Why is there a guy in an old-fashioned, long-legged striped bathing suit who can take his head off his shoulders? Why not? …two talking frogs in straw boaters. Sure … Frankenstein playing a tuba?…Captain Marvel enters a world where surrealism is the norm? Heck, yeah, that’s what comics can do.”

Perhaps it is the surrealism that makes the contemporary “comic” look out of place in telling a serious narrative – perhaps that whiplash double-take with which I read Maus – is the point. The real-life experiences of Vladek and Anja reflect the surrealism of bleeding history – all the more powerful perhaps because the story does not seem to “belong” there – or anywhere, for that matter, because the truth is so horrific. Maybe that is the most poignant aspect of life stories that are beyond belief. You need them NOT to fit – so we are jolted awake by them.

Part of the power of comics journalism is that it is still novel and unfamiliar to many people. When the mind faces the unfamiliar, it sparks attention and garners extra energy in order to focus on the strange. Robert Mankoff wrote: “Each cartoon needs the right amount of wrong.” If there was not something “wrong” with the picture, or the scenario, then the cartoon would somehow not “speak.” The cartoon literally emerges from some other place that is not logical or linear, like the disjointed non-verbal filmstrip that is the room of the right hemisphere of the brain.

Quincy Whitney is a career journalist, author, historian, biographer, and poet and a lifelong New Hampshire resident. Contact her at quincysquill@nashuatelegraph.com or quincy@quincywhitney.com.